Election Day is Oct 21. This year, the date coincides with Shemini Atzeret, one of several “High Holidays” festival dates in the annual Jewish calendar, at the tail end of the harvest festival called Sukkot, but which is largely honoured in the breach of its halachic (Jewishly legal) detail by all but Orthodox Jews (about 75,000 in Canada).
By an unusual coincidence, the Conservative nominee for Toronto’s Eglinton-Lawrence riding (a densely Jewish riding) happens to be an Orthodox Jewish woman, Chani Aryeh-Bain. Which means that neither she nor a significant number of her constituents will be able to cast their vote on that day.
Aryeh-Bain said that the religious constraint caused her disadvantage. She won’t be able to “get the vote out” with calls, texts or home visits. Nor can she keep her office open on election day. Aryeh-Bain and Ira Walfish, a Jewish voter, called upon the Federal Court of Canada to order the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) to move the election day back a week. B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, was granted intervenor status in the case. Colin Feasby, their representative, pitched Aryeh-Bain’s claims against a dramatic backdrop of historical anti-Semitism: “[I]n the context of historical oppression of Jews, it sends a message to the broader Canadian society that this minority community and their beliefs do not count and their democratic rights are not worthy of protection.”
It says nothing of the kind, and nobody should be alleging anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Canada’s fixed election dates are set by an algorithm. Algorithms do not “send messages” of any kind. We have before us an election date, innocently arrived at after all major holidays of all major religions have been accounted for, that places a certain burden of inconvenience on one candidate and many of her supporters.
A federal election called on Yom Kippur, of primordial importance to the vast majority of Canadian Jews, would be insulting to all Jews. A federal election called on Shemini Atzeret is something else entirely. An extremely tiny segment of the general Jewish population will be slightly inconvenienced, but will not be impeded from participating fully in the election. Going nuclear—interpreting this coincidence as a strongly implied sign of anti-Semitism—is irresponsible. There is enough real anti-Semitism available in non-governmental quarters to condemn without looking for it in government, where it does not exist.
The federal court was sympathetic to Aryeh-Bain and ordered the CEO to review his decision not to alter the date of the election. The Federal Court ruled “… This judicial review is granted as the overall decision of the CEO does not demonstrate the hallmarks of transparency, intelligibility and justification, as it is not possible to determine if he undertook the necessary proportionate balancing between the applicant’s charter rights and the exercise of his statutory duty.”
The task before them was to evaluate the probably impact of the burden in the light of Aryeh-Bain’s Charter rights. In terms of voting, there is no real burden at all. Anyone can vote in an advance poll, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians do this routinely in order to accommodate vacations, medical treatments, out-of-town business engagements and a hundred other reasons. So the real question is whether texts, emails, home visits and the like on voting day are so crucial to one’s person’s election prospects that an election date for millions of Canadians should be changed, doubtless at considerable expense, to accommodate her. Are there no gentiles helping on her campaign that could keep the office open and do some texting and emailing? Is this inconvenience existential to her chances for election?
If Shemini Atzeret can trigger a reset of an election date, what else could? When the federal government adopted fixed dates for elections, they anticipated possible collisions of a sensitive kind by stipulating that if a scheduled date is “in conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance,” a decision may be taken to move the date forward. How typically vague, and what a slippery slope this could result in.
Can anyone define what “cultural significance” means? How about Ramadan, whose yearly occurrence shifts around on our calendar, with its month-long obligation to fast during daylight hours? Is it fair to ask a candidate to campaign when she is hungry and tired? Is it fair to burden Muslims who need to conserve their strength during the day by having them trek to the poll? Or, for another example, there are 634 First Nations. Each of them has its own cultural customs and significant dates. What if an election coincides with one of them?
Most surprising to me is that Aryeh-Bain and her followers do not appreciate the irony of their situation. There is not a single injunction against activity on Shemini Atzeret that is not also applicable to every single Shabbat in the year. Which means that Aryeh-Bain—if elected—would never be available for travel or party duty of any kind from every sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night. Naturally normal meetings are not scheduled on weekends. But often rallies and other special events are. There might be many occasions when a political crisis demanded a telephone call or meeting on a Saturday, but she wouldn’t be able to talk, let alone meet. These constraints won’t matter to the Orthodox Jews who are her political base, but she would be serving a wider constituency. Perhaps they might feel short-changed, just as she feels short-changed now.
You can’t please all the people all the time, nor should governments assume they can. A spirit of reason and compromise should always be the order of the day. As a Jew who is wholly committed to fighting anti-Semitism wherever I see a real threat to my community, I am a bit embarrassed when professional advocates, who should know the difference, make a mountain out of a molehill. The election date should stand, and Ms. Aryeh-Bain should work around it, just as she works around so many other claims on her attention 52 Shabbats a year.