JSpace Canada’s Joe Roberts discusses moving from ‘far-left’ to firmly in the Zionist majority, without changing his opinions

The chair of two Canadian progressive groups says there is ‘no daylight’ between his organizations and more mainstream Jewish institutions

The Oct. 7 massacres in southern Israel and the subsequent war between Israel and Hamas has revealed, reinforced and clarified dividing lines within the North American Jewish community, separating a Zionist majority from a far smaller anti-Israel minority.

Organizations that once clashed regularly on Israel-related issues — the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the role of religion in Israeli society and government — are suddenly aligned in support of the war against Hamas and opposed to calls for an immediate cease-fire. That is not to say that they all suddenly agree on everything, and as time and the war in Gaza goes on those differences will likely increasingly emerge, but for now most Jewish organizations have found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder, sometimes literally, as was the case in Tuesday’s March for Israel in Washington, D.C.

This sudden realignment can be seen starkly on the X account of Joe Roberts, the chair of JSpaceCanada and Meretz Canada. Until Oct. 7, Roberts’ page was largely filled with criticism of the Israeli government and support for the protest movement against its judicial legislation.

But since the Oct. 7 attacks, Roberts has emerged as a strident supporter of the Israeli military’s aim of toppling Hamas in Gaza and a fierce critic of anti-Zionist groups and rhetoric, particularly from the left, while still maintaining firm opposition to the current Israeli government and calling for a two-state solution.

Earlier this month, eJewishPhilanthropy spoke with Roberts about this current moment, how it feels to be allied with people and organizations that were once ideological rivals and how his group is now using the liberal political capital it’s earned to go to bat for Israel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: We appear to be in a moment where groups and individuals who in the past were considered far-left and beyond the pale as it relates to Israel issues are suddenly finding themselves on the same page and working in tandem with mainstream organizations. Maybe before, people would have lumped an organization like J Street together with IfNotNow, but now J Street has supported Israel’s war against Hamas and rejected calls for a cease-fire, while IfNotNow has accused Israel of genocide. Is that a fair assessment?

Joe Roberts: I think in some ways the thesis of the liberal Zionist movement or progressive Zionist movement, whichever you want to call it, has been proven to be true. 

I lived through the birth of J Street in the United States and then the launching of J Space here in Canada, and there’s been a lot of rhetoric of “Oh, they’re anti-Israel, they don’t love Israel, they’re not Zionists.” And it’s not true. I think that this proves that it couldn’t have been farther from the truth, that criticism of the policies of the government of Israel have been with the best intentions. Because when push comes to shove, here we are, right? We’re fighting for the Jewish future of Israel. 

I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves, at least not at J Space Canada — I can’t speak for other organizations — but I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves in league with or in some kind of allyship with those farther left.

JAG: What is that in Canada? IfNotNow?

JR: There is IfNotNow, but the larger organization is Independent Jewish Voices. 

We’ve always seen very clear distinctions between ourselves and those organizations. I think that there would be folks in the community who may have tried to lump us together with them in an argument? But we never saw ourselves that way. And I think that that has also become quite clear. The demands that we have in this moment are quite different. I mean, I wrote a piece for the National Post saying that a cease-fire is a mistake in this moment, whereas those organizations called for it on Oct. 8. And so we’re in a very different place, ideologically than where they are.

JAG: Have you been working with other Jewish groups or Israel-related groups that until October 7th, you haven’t really been working with us. Has anything come out of this in terms of new partnerships or, if not formal partnerships, cooperation?

JR: Yes. Because of our size, we’re quite nimble. And so we started working on the hostage situation pretty much immediately. And we started talking to the Canadian government about it, started working with Irwin Kotler and his organization about how we could coordinate to make sure that those messages were, were the same going to the government, the same asks, what would be most effective? 

We’re not experts in hostage negotiation. [Kotler] is. So we, of course, are going to defer to him. It’s not someone we’ve worked with in the past. I’d say his organization is far more aligned with the ‘institutional community’ than we have been. 

On other aspects, we haven’t directly worked with some of these larger organizations, but I find our messaging is not that different from the institutional community here. 

And I think it’s not surprising. This is a time of crisis. There shouldn’t be daylight between us.

JAG: What do you mean there shouldn’t be daylight between you?

JR: There will be diverging opinions about what happens the day after [the war ends] and what the future of a two-state solution looks like and how that should unfold. Of course there will be. 

But in this moment, I don’t think there is much divergence among the communal organizations that have a deep vested interest in the future of Israel. And I think that this is where we should be in a time of crisis, working together towards these goals, whether that’s coordinated or not.

But we’re finding some strange allies right now. I mean, you know, I was retweeted by [conservative media commentator] Ezra Levant of Rebel News, right? Probably as divergent politically for me as you could possibly get. 

But I think there’s a recognition between most in our camp that this is an existential crisis in a lot of ways. I don’t mean that the external enemies of Israel will defeat it overnight. That’s not where we are. But I think we are in a very existential position about the future of Israel and how this, how this war plays out and what the outcomes will be. It will be significant for Jews all over the world, whether they’re in Israel or here.

JAG: And how is that different from the fighting in May 2021 or during the “Great March of Return” in 2018?

JR: So in 2021, I wrote a very critical piece about [Israel’s] response in Gaza. I think this is fundamentally different. October 7th showed that the status quo is completely untenable. There is no path forward toward a two-state solution, toward peace with Hamas at the helm of Gaza. It’s just not possible. And there’s no way, you know, Israeli citizens should not be expected to live like that. It’s not possible. So this is a fundamentally different paradigm that we’re living in. 

I think there’s a clear understanding that things aren’t going to come out the same way they went in.

JAG: On that front, is that where you expect to see more daylight between you and some of the other organizations?

JR: It sounds like, at least policy-wise, the White House is pushing [the two-state solution], and we’re going to see which organizations and which portions of the community support the two-state solution in deeds and not just in words. And I expect there to be a significant shift in some of the organizational viewpoints because ‘two states’ is no longer going to be a slogan. It’s going to be a reality that we’re going to have to face, and that will put pressure on some constituencies. 

But I don’t know yet. There are so many unknowns at this point and so much uncertainty.

JAG: But in terms of the prosecution of the war, that’s where you see sort of everyone mostly being in line with one another?

JR: I think there is near unanimity on the outcome that we need to see, right? Which is that Hamas has to be removed from leadership of Gaza. Everything else is a question. 

I see a shift in Canada in the broader community, in the non-Jewish community and what their messaging is. I’m worried about it, frankly. 

I think it creates a bigger job for organizations like ours, rather than the mainstream, traditional organizations, because we have relationships on the progressive side of the aisle or in the progressive movements that are much deeper than those organizations. And it gives us a lot more authenticity and credibility in those conversations to say, ‘Hey, Israel has to do what it has to do here to defend its citizens.’ 

So it also creates a lot more pressure on us. We’re burning a lot of political capital in those conversations that I think institutional organizations don’t have to do because that position is assumed for them and maybe wasn’t assumed for us. And so it’s putting additional stress on those relationships. 

But what are we building the political capital for, for what purpose? This is the purpose, this is the time.

JAG: On the personal side, how does it feel to get retweeted by people who are on the opposite sides of the political map?

JR: OK, it’s funny. If it were something about politics in general, it would feel uncomfortable. But in this moment, it doesn’t. We’re Klal Yisrael, right? We’re all one people here. 

I think in moments of crisis like this, it really shows up. And in some ways, it’s gratifying to know that the community exists, that for all of the political differences we have, even though the outcomes we would want to see that are quite different, for all the times that maybe we haven’t agreed on many things — and sometimes it gets heated — right now, we’re all the Jewish people. That’s what matters.