Reservist Should be Tossed for Racist Ties, Navy Agrees

Dec. 15, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Royal Canadian Navy commanders are recommending a reservist with a history of ties to a racist organization be discharged from the military.

Navy leaders have told Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center the decision to recommend tossing Calgary-based Leading Seaman Boris Mihajlovic from the Navy was made following a command-level review of his case, including a previous decision to reinstate the sailor.

“We strongly commend the Canadian Navy for its renewed efforts to combat hate and extremism in their ranks and for the decision by Naval chain of command to pursue a release of an individual with deep and longstanding ties to neo-Nazi groups and activities,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, Director of Policy at FSWC, in a news release.

As a supporter of the neo-Nazi terrorist organization Blood and Honour, Mihajlovic was found to have used the neo-Nazi website Iron March to call for a “race war” and offer to sell weapons to white supremacists.

He was suspended from the reserves earlier this year but was reinstated in July after telling commanders he had been rehabilitated by his time in the forces and no longer held racist views.

A senior Navy official told FSWC that Mihajlovic has been informed of the chain of command’s recommendation and will have the opportunity to make representations during an administrative review. That review, which will be independent of his chain of command, will be considered by the Director of Military Careers and Administration, after which a final decision will be made.

At the same time, the commander of the Army has promised to remove a soldier from the famed Canadian Rangers who, according to the CBC, has a history of involvement with the white supremacist group Soldiers of Odin.

Army commander Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre has promised that Master Corporal Erik Myggland will be out of the Armed Forces “within weeks.”

A Forces spokesperson told the CJR on Dec. 10 that it’s estimated Myggland’s release will be finalized next month.

Meantime, “we simply must ensure he is afforded the same treatment as any other member whom we intend to release. The details of this process related to any particular case are protected under the Privacy Act, so we cannot comment further,” stated spokesperson Major Karina Holder.

The Forces remain committed “to the elimination of hateful conduct and has taken strong measures to equip our leaders with the ability to do so,” Holder said.

The Canadian Army Order on Hateful Conduct “makes everyone’s obligations clear at all levels and we have distributed this policy widely across the [Forces], including sharing it with stakeholder groups, posting it to the [internet] and promoting it on our social media channels.”

The decision on Myggland was also welcomed by FSWC.

“We support and appreciate this decision by the Canadian Army to finally remove an individual involved in far-right activity and hateful conduct from its ranks, a decision that sends a message that those who are involved in hate groups and activity are not welcome in the military,” stated FSWC president and CEO Michael Levitt.

In a later statement to the CJR, Sajjan said, “Canadians expect every member who wears the maple leaf on their shoulder to uphold our values, both at home and abroad. If an individual does not believe in values of Canadians and instead promotes hate and intolerance, there is no place for that person in the Canadian Armed Forces.”

FSWC has urged the government to adopt a zero-tolerance policy that includes quick dismissal of any members found to be involved in extremist activity.

CJAD’s 75th Anniversary: A Jewish Broadcaster Looks Back

Dec. 15, 2020

By SIDNEY MARGLES

As CJAD Radio in Montreal marks 75 years in operation, I’ve had the opportunity to look back some 60-plus years to when I broke into the broadcasting scene.

I began on a part-time basis while at university in 1957 and never looked back. I became a newswriter, and was promoted to the first fulltime on-the-scene reporter, with a radio-equipped car I used to cover any and all events, from fires to floods to disasters and politicians.

I was not the first Jew to sign on with CJAD. In fact, Lee Fortune from Ottawa had been a mid-afternoon fixture before leaving for the CBC, but he was not as identifiable as I, for I did not change my name as many broadcasters, even Gentiles, did in those days.

But did being Jewish carry any advantage or disadvantage?

Truthfully, I never did notice if ethnicity or religion was a disadvantage, but it did prove beneficial in dealing with leaders of the Jewish community, who sometimes saw me as someone with an entrée to government.

And while, over more than 25 years, I did interview two Israeli prime ministers – Golda Meir and Menachem Begin – as well as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, among hundreds of leading personalities, I think what stood out the most was my ability to bring together Montreal’s Jewish leadership and Montreal’s civic leaders for an important community undertaking. And it gave me great satisfaction.

It dates back to the 1960’s, when there was a pressing need for seniors’ housing in the Jewish community. One day, I received a telephone call from Gordon Brown, who asked me to a meeting with other ranking officers of Allied Jewish Community Services, the predecessor to Federation CJA.

There was a piece of land owned by the community in the Cote-des-Neiges/Snowdon area which was suitable for the project, but the civil servants did not like the project. It would be to the rear of housing along Cote Ste. Catherine Road, and the proposed height adjacent to those two-storey homes was an obstacle.

So I spoke to the then Chairman of the Montreal Executive Committee, Lucien Saulnier, and arranged for him to receive Brown to discuss the issue. The meeting was obviously fruitful. Today, the two Bronfman buildings for seniors north of Cote Ste. Catherine Road between Westbury and Lemieux are visible testimonials to that effort, not as high as originally proposed, but still most satisfactory at the time to meet community needs.

By the mid-1960s, my workload had evolved. As a reporter with a regular weekly program featuring Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, I added a supervisory position in news. So, CJAD management agreed to hire, first Rick Leckner, and later, Peter Shurman, also as reporters. We became known as the J.M.S., or Jewish Mobile Squad.

I can safely say that the CJAD reputation for news coverage was second to none in Montreal in those years due to the three of us, and especially during difficult times, culminating in the October Crisis in 1970.

I eventually moved to Ottawa for 10 years, heading our news network, building a new radio station, and coming back to Montreal to be President of Standard Sound Systems; Leckner took over CJAD helicopter traffic duties; while Shurman moved into management, ending up for a time as head of the radio division for the parent company, Standard Broadcasting in Toronto.

I was considered a pioneer, and as a result, was named to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Other Jewish voices have come and gone over the years at CJAD, but we had laid the foundation


Sidney Margles
Sidney Margles

Sidney Margles is a retired award-winning broadcaster whose career dates back to the 1950s. He was based primarily in Montreal but spent 10 years in Ottawa and could be heard over the years on many Canadian radio stations through Standard Broadcast News, a service that no longer exists. He has written the history of Canadian news broadcasting between 1960 and 2000 for the Canadian Communications Foundation and is a member of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Charles Bronfman Launches Israeli-Diaspora Project to Counter ‘Growing Rift’

Dec. 14, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— Over the past few years, Charles Bronfman has warned of a growing rift between the Diaspora and Israel that threatens to undermine the interdependence on which the Jewish state was founded and that enabled Jews around the world to hold their heads high.

In a videoconference hosted by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Dec. 8, the billionaire philanthropist spoke about his newest project, “Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance,” which aims to forge a new relationship based on mutual respect between Israelis and Jews around the world.

The emphasis is on educating the young, starting with Israeli teenagers, in the hope of bringing about attitudinal change that will find practical expression in the next generation of the country’s leaders.

Bronfman was in conversation with American journalist and Middle East scholar David Makovsky, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Based in Israel and supported by private foundations, the Alliance launches its first program in Israeli high schools in January when up to 500 students will be paired virtually with their Jewish peers in the United States, Canada and England. Ostensibly, the purpose is to practise their English, a compulsory subject in Israel.

The more subtle goal is to give the youths an opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level and realize that they have much in common, not the least, Jewish “peoplehood.”

The Alliance’s chief executive is Alon Friedman, previously director of Hillel Israel. The co-chairs of its advisory committee are Dan Shapiro, a U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration and now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, and Dan Meridor, a former senior Likud cabinet minister.

Bronfman, 89, is the co-founder of Birthright Israel, which has given over 750,000 young Jewish adults a free 10-day trip to Israel since the program began in 1999.

He feels Birthright’s most effective aspect has been the mifgashim (encounters) between the participants from abroad and their Israeli counterparts, who join them on the tour.

“The myths are dispelled. They find the Israelis don’t have horns and those from the Diaspora aren’t (made of) gold,” Bronfman said. “They come from different political and social systems, but they have the same values; they are all Jews and they love each other.”

The Alliance is diverging from the traditional role of Israel as “host” of these experiences and putting exchanges on a more equal footing. Diaspora Jews’ awareness of Israel has evolved, but Israelis remain largely stuck in the past in how they see their brethren abroad, Bronfman thinks.

“Israelis and Diaspora Jews do not know each other as human beings. The relationship was built on myths and falsehoods from the beginning. They were the poor cousins and we the rich cousins. They said, ‘Give us the money and bugger off, we’ll do our own thing…’

“Then Israel became this unbelievable start-up nation and now has a GDP almost equal to Canada. We need a new relationship as equals; we have to get together empathetically and try to find out what we can do together…We must be interdependent, or the dreams of our forebears will be shattered.”

Part of the Alliance’s mission statement is to “ensure the Jewish people remain a dynamic, diverse global community that is united, secure and inclusive.”

Whatever their religious, ideological or national identities, Bronfman believes all Jews share a bond. The Alliance is working with the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv to develop cultural programs that foster ties across the spectrum.

“I’m more of a secular Jew, but I love being Jewish, I love the traditions and values,” said Bronfman. “Most of my friends are Jewish. I can kibbitz with Jews in a way I can’t with Gentiles. It’s just so nice.”

Bronfman said he remains a Canadian nationalist, even though he has made his principal residence New York for a quarter-century. But that does not diminish his sense of Jewish belonging.

Defining who is Jewish is difficult, he said, hinting that the community could benefit from a big tent. “Intermarriage in the U.S. is over 50 percent, but I think 70 percent [of those] are bringing up their families Jewish. It’s not so terrible.”

Bronfman, long associated with the Labour Party leadership, has been critical of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, especially policies affecting the non-Orthodox. He alluded to the claim that this is making it increasingly tougher to find rapprochement between Israel and the Diaspora.

“I hope, out of the chaos that is the Israeli government, that one of these days there will be a government we can all be proud of,” he said.

Seasonal Song Covers Religious, Cultural Bases

Dec. 14, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Just in time for the festive season: The Toronto-based comedy duo of Roula Said and Maryem Tollar has released a hilarious new, all-purpose holiday tune, Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews.

In part, the song is the ladies’ response to COVID, with its prohibitions against gathering and the lockdowns, Tollar said. “We just wanted to put out something funny and fun to put a smile on people’s faces,” she said.

What they and many others have noticed is that the children of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century wrote many of the Christmas classics.

Jewish songwriters wrote secular holiday songs for Jews and Christians. Johnny Marks’ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer could be seen an expression of the desire to be accepted by the mainstream.

Famously, Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) wrote White Christmas. Recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, it became, at least according to the Guinness Book of Records, the best-selling single of all time.

Jewish songwriters tended to celebrate the holiday season rather than the birth of Jesus, with subjects like snow (Let It Snow!, written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne), or an evening spent in front of the fireplace (The Christmas Song) by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé – both Jewish.

Both Canadians of Arab descent, Said and Tollar said they could relate to the feeling of being an outsider. Said grew up in a predominately white suburb of Toronto in the 1970s and ‘80s during the “Paki bashing” era. When Tollar’s family immigrated to Canada in 1969, they were only the second Egyptian family to settle in Halifax.

Said and Tollar – the duo is known as FAOC, or the Friggin’ Arab Orchestra Company – have added a new dimension to the tradition of the holiday song by being who they are. Said is from a Palestinian Christian family and Tollar has a Muslim background.

Said related that ever since she learned many Christmas songs were written by Jews, she’d wanted to record some of them. Instead of recording Christmas standards for this year’s holiday season, though, the duo decided to write a new tune.

“This year, with COVID, and Maryem and I living in a shared house, we developed this comedy schtick that came out of our friendship,” Said noted. “It seemed like the right time to do this little brainchild of mine, and it occurred to me that it would be fun to actually write our own song.”

The music of Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews could have come out of the Great American Songbook. The ladies’ song references past Christmas tunes and they sample riffs from several of them. But their lyrics are contemporary – COVID and cannabis are mentioned – and the song is inclusive, reflecting Toronto’s diversity.

Tollar learned Christmas songs while singing in her school choir. “I totally love them and know them very well,” she said.

People who grew up without Christmas celebrations may relate to Tollar’s account of how, as a child, she felt left out of the seasonal excitement and tried to recreate the holiday for herself.

“One year, my parents had a Christmas tree in their house and the next year they thought it’s not a good idea because that’s not our religion. I was so sad. I remember praying to Santa Claus, telling him I believed in him and I knew he would make Christmas happen for me,” she said.

“And of course that didn’t happen. And my cousin who lived with us, she felt sorry for me. So she bought me a little plastic Christmas tree and I would wrap my own toys and then unwrap them at Christmas.”

The unofficial tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas merits a mention in the song, as is Honest Ed’s, the now-demolished bargain store at Bathurst and Bloor. The song concludes with Said and Tollar bantering about the store, where Said and her husband, David Buchbinder, purchased their wedding rings.

Recording the effort was a family affair: It was arranged by Buchbinder, who plays trumpet, and Maryem’s husband, Ernie Tollar, plays additional piano. The couples’ children contributed, too, with Joska Tollar on bass and Laila Buchbinder on guitar.

Said, a singer, dancer, actor and poet, co-leads the funked up Arabic-Roma band, Nomadica, whose first recording, Dance of the Infidels, was nominated for a Juno Award. She creates music for dance performances and theatre, and runs the Om Laila Studio, where she teaches Arabic dance.

Tollar is a renowned vocalist whose voice has been heard on the theme of CBC’s television series Little Mosque on the Prairie and A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood hit, Mayya Mayya. She performs with several Toronto musical groups, including Al Qahwa and Turkwaz. Tollar won the inaugural 2019 Johanna Metcalf Prize for Performing Arts.

Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews  will premiere on Facebook Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2853347698280607?active_tab=about

It is also on YouTube at:

The song may be purchased on Bandcamp at:

https://faoc.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR3scixqK0ukHC7EAjIuv2h_R1zcsJtFaK_XagS2Mr1v-OpnFVkCwWrihBA

Gratz College, Carleton University to Partner on Holocaust Studies

Dec. 14, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

North America’s oldest Jewish studies college and a major Canadian university are teaming up to advance Holocaust studies.

The presidents of both schools signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Dec. 6 that opens the Holocaust archive at Gratz College in Melrose Park, just outside Philadelphia, to Carleton University in Ottawa, just as the Canadian school launches a strategic plan to seek out partnerships that provide diverse experiences for staff and students.

Possible ventures under the five year agreement include exchanges of faculty, staff and students and joint research projects.

“We are honored and excited to develop a partnership with one of the great universities in Canada,” Gratz College president Paul Finkelman said in a news release. “The collaboration will make Gratz and Carleton stronger institutions by complimenting each other’s programs and strengthening international cooperation in higher education.”

Paul Finkelman

Carleton President Benoit-Antoine Bacon said the new deal will boost his institution’s international plans and its brand-new equity, diversity and inclusion action plan.

Benoit-Antoine Bacon

“This international partnership focused on Holocaust Studies will greatly benefit students and researchers at both Carleton University and Gratz College,” Bacon said. “As the world awaits the return of international travel and cross-border co-operation, we look forward to further engaging with the remarkable team at Gratz College.”

Under the deal, Gratz will work directly with Carleton’s Max and Tessie Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies. Gratz faculty and students will have access to Carleton’s libraries and archives, as well as opportunities to join the Zelikovitz Centre as research affiliates.

In exchange, Carleton faculty and students will have access to Gratz’s Holocaust Oral History Archive. It houses one of the largest collections of audiotaped testimony in the U.S. and is a contributing organization to both the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Israel.

“As a small institution, Gratz values academic partnerships that can enrich our students’ learning opportunities in significant ways,” said Ruth Sandberg, director of Gratz’s Jewish-Christian Studies Program.

“We are eager to take advantage of what Carleton has to offer us, including ways in which our students can interact with each other, ways in which our faculty members could partner with each other, and ways in which Gratz can become regular participants in the many notable lectures and discussions offered through the Zelikovitz Centre.”

The virtual signing ceremony set the tone for the partnership, said Karen Schwartz, associate vice president of research at Carleton and the university’s international liaison officer.

Ahead of the ceremony, faculty members and administrators from both institutions began collaborating by joining each other’s online lectures and discussions.

“Due to the COVID pandemic, it has become even more important – regardless of how challenging – to not only keep in touch with our pre-existing international partners, but to continue establishing new ones as well,” Schwartz said. “Holding a virtual MOU signing is certainly not the same as an in-person event on campus, but it is the next best thing. And so, in this spirit, we are excited to make official our partnership with Gratz College. It will allow students and faculty from both institutions to share academic resources and conduct joint research to advance Holocaust education.”

Gratz College, a private, non-profit institution, was founded in 1895. It’s the oldest independent college for Jewish studies in North America.

It offers blended and fully online degrees, including the world’s only online Doctorate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a Doctorate in Education Leadership.

The matriarch of the family, Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869), created the Hebrew Sunday School Society in Philadelphia in 1838, which launched all Jewish congregational education in North America.

She was also instrumental in the creation of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, a Jewish foster home; the Sewing Society; and more.

According to the school, she was also rumored to have been the model for Rebecca, the heroine in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Gratz College was founded by Rebecca’s brother Hyman, who joined with the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia to fund a teachers’ college of Jewish education in 1856 that eventually grew into the college.

Carleton University educates more than 30,000 students from every province and more than 100 countries around the world in programs including public affairs, journalism, engineering, high technology and international studies.

Canadian Jewish News Returns Next Month

Dec. 14, 2020

The Canadian Jewish News is returning, again, starting in January.

The CJN plans a comeback beginning next month, but with no weekly print edition in the works. A new direction is planned.

“It’s going to be a lot more multifaceted,” promised Bryan Borzykowski, the new president of the board of directors.

Bryan Borzykowski
Bryan Borzykowski

The flagship weekly newspaper and its website folded in April amid declining advertising revenues, with the COVID pandemic’s economic fallout providing the final nail in the coffin.

The CJN’s demise left Canada’s estimated 390,000 Jews – the fourth, possibly third largest Jewish community in the world – without a national voice.

The Canadian Jewish Record went online in May to serve as a national outlet for Jewish news and commentary during The CJN’s absence.

It was the second time The CJN went under. The paper folded in 2013 but revived after a groundswell of community support. Yoni Goldstein became editor in early 2014. He will continue in that role.

Yoni Goldstein
Yoni Goldstein

“Before the closure, we had been talking about revamping the website and e-newsletter, and Yoni was already doing some interesting things with podcasts,” said Borzykowski, a Winnipeg-based business journalist and consultant who wrote a campus column for The CJN when he was 19.

“But the fact that it went on hiatus allows us to speed a lot of the previous plans up. Now we can start with a clean slate.”

With the traditional media model increasingly a relic, content these days “is wide-ranging and you have to meet people where they are,” Borzykowski said.

That will translate into podcasts, electronic newsletters, a website, video, events, and even print – not a newspaper, but more in-depth, twice annual magazines at Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

There may even be forays into books. The CJN, working with the Lola Stein Institute, put out a coffee table book, Northern Lights, around the time the paper shut down.

Plans call for a new website in the next few months, though the old one may be used for content in the meantime, Borzykowski said.

It will be a slower, careful re-launch.

“While we have big plans, we’re also not busting out of the gate in the first week of January,” Borzykowski said. “We’re thinking of ourselves as a startup in a way, with a more nimble and entrepreneurial staff.”

There is a fresh board of directors and new donors; Borzykowski won’t say how much money is on the table. The publication is speaking to foundations for support, and a major breakthrough came when The CJN was granted charitable status, meaning donations will be tax-deductible.

Fundraising will be a bigger part of The CJN’s culture, Borzykowski said.

Another revenue generator will be advertising.

“We are looking forward to developing relationships with advertisers that grow as we do,” Goldstein told the CJR, “and to making the case for why advertising in The CJN is a sound business and community investment.”

The CJN will also explore creating sponsored content for various parts of the network, such as branded podcasts, video, and articles.

Apart from surviving financially, a vexing issue for any Jewish publication has been finding the balance between catering to loyal, often older readers, and appealing to younger ones and to those outside major urban centres.

The re-launched CJN will “definitely” want to reach a younger as well as more national audience, said Borzykowski, with focus beyond the Toronto-Montreal corridor.

“We want to talk to people in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and smaller towns where Jews may not have an opportunity to be as connected to Jewish culture as they would like to be, and may not even know they want to be,” he said. “We will reach younger readers through the content we create. This iteration will still report on serious issues, but we’ll be more fun, too.”

The founders of the CJR, publisher Bernie Farber and editor Ron Csillag, a former CJN reporter, never intended it to become permanent. The website was meant as a bridge to The CJN’s eventual return, and the two publications will likely work together in the future.

The CJR did not accept advertising, was free, and completely volunteer-driven.

“The CJR was a Canadian Jewish communal tzedakah experiment that demonstrated the love and longing that Jews have one another,” stated Farber. “All of us worked on behalf of community to keep us together during a very difficult time, and it was done from the heart and soul. We welcome back The CJN and look forward to a cooperation that will be a credit to the entire Jewish community.”

The eight months since The CJN’s shuttering “have shown just how much Canadian Jews miss The CJN,” Goldstein said. “I’m looking forward to reviving that connection, and building lots of new ones. And I’m determined to do so in a way that will be sustainable for the long run.”

The CJN “will once again be the go-to source for Canadian Jews when it comes to community news, diverse, insightful commentary from across the Jewish spectrum, arts, religion, food and culture. I expect there will be plenty of surprises along the way, too. That’s the fun part.”

Japan Diplomat Sugihara Honoured for Wartime Heroism

Dec. 11, 2020

By LILA SARICK

George Bluman doesn’t hesitate when he considers the legacy of Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who provided Jews with life-saving travel visas during the Second World War.

“In my own family, there are 21 people living…. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Bluman, a retired math professor who lives in Vancouver, said in an interview with the CJR.

In the summer of 1940, Sugihara served as Japan’s vice-consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, and issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees, permitting them transit through Japan. Some were issued to Jews who had managed to secure visas allowing them to enter Dutch-controlled Curacao, but Sugihara also issued them to other refugees who did not have proper documentation.

Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara

Bluman’s parents were Polish Jews who had fled to Lithuania at the outbreak of the war. In 1940, they received visas from Sugihara, even though their paperwork was incomplete. They travelled through Russia, boarding a ship in Vladivostok, and sailed to Japan.

After spending six months there, Bluman’s father, who had a degree in bio-engineering, received one of 25 Canadian visas available to immigrants with specialized skills. The couple arrived in Vancouver in 1941.

Bluman, who was born not long after his parents arrived in Canada, has done extensive research into Sugihara’s life and what happened to those who received those precious visas. One of Bluman’s grandchildren carries Sugihara’s name, and the family is in frequent contact with the diplomat’s descendants.

“From my perspective, he (Sugihara) wasn’t just a passerby. He cared and put his family at some risk,” Bluman said. “He wrote to his superiors three times and they certainly didn’t encourage these visas.”

While there is some dispute about the number of visas Sugihara issued to Jewish refugees in that summer of 1940 in Kaunas – Yad Vashem in Israel says it was between 2,100 and 3,500, while other sources say it was as many as 6,000 – Bluman says the number is not important. “What was amazing is what he did over a short period of time.”

After arriving in Japan, many refugees then travelled to Shanghai, China, where there was an established Jewish community. After the war, about half of those left for the United States and about 15 percent came to Canada, Bluman said. About one-quarter of those who received visas were yeshiva students, he said.

Today, an estimated 40,000 people are descendants of those who received the visas.

Sugihara’s legacy will be commemorated by the Japanese Embassy in Canada this week to mark the 120th anniversary of his birth, the 80th anniversary of his issuing the visas, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It all makes for an auspicious time to remember the diplomat’s achievements, said Atsushi Murata, director of information and culture for the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa.

The online memorial was recorded Dec. 8 and was organized by the Embassy of Japan in cooperation with the embassies of Israel and Lithuania, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem. Among the speakers were a Holocaust survivor who received a visa, and two descendants of those who were saved by Sugihara, including Bluman.

Sugihara was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1984, the only Japanese national to be honoured. He died in 1986.

Bluman credits the Japanese ambassador to Canada for initiating the event. While based in New York, Ambassador Yasuhisa Kawamura became friends with a number of Jews and began to hear about Sugihara and the people he had helped. “He is passionate about the story,” Bluman said.

In Japan, Sugihara’s story is well known, and he is considered one of the country’s 100 most important people, Bluman said. Last year, Lithuania announced that 2020 would be dedicated to the memory of Sugihara, and conferences, museum exhibits, and a commemorative stamp were planned for the year.

Sugihara’s deeds are comparable to those of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who sheltered Jews during the war, but his story is much less well known in North America simply because there hasn’t been a popular Hollywood film about his life, Bluman said.

“The most important thing is to make people in Canada aware of Sugihara.”

To watch the ceremony honouring Sugihara, as well as documentaries about his life and the survivors, visit www.visasforlife.info.

Addendum: In 1993, Canadian Jewish Congress and the National Association of Japanese Canadians were one of the first organizations to honour Sugihara. Present for that dinner were members of the Sugihara family and numerous elected officials, including then Ontario Premier Bob Rae.

Breaking News: Community Mobilizes Following Tragic Fire

Dec. 11, 2020

A serious fire broke out last night at a Toronto Community Housing building at 6250 Bathurst. Seniors and firefighters were injured, with at least one senior in life-threatening condition.

The building’s residents include a large number of clients of UJA-funded partner agencies, said a statement from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

Global News reported that a woman believed to be in her 70s is in life-threatening condition and three others were injured in the five-alarm fire.

Emergency crews were called to the 14-storey, 389-unit apartment building on Bathurst Street, south of Steeles Avenue West, just before 8:25 p.m., Global reported.

A Toronto Fire Services captain was treated for smoke inhalation and a firefighter was taken to hospital. 

“This is a significant fire,” Acting Fire Chief Jim Jessop told reporters Thursday night.

Photo credit: CTV news

“Throughout the night, the Bernard Betel Centre and Circle of Care were working hard to assess and support the needs of the building’s residents, many of whom are isolated Jewish seniors living on very modest incomes,” the UJA statement said.

Other UJA-funded agencies, including Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Toronto and Jewish Family and Child Service, have also been mobilized, it added.

“We’re heartbroken by this terrible tragedy,” said Adam Minsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation. “We pray for a rapid and full recovery for the injured, and we are deeply grateful for the bravery of Toronto Fire Services.”

Said Linda Frum, Chair of UJA Federation: “A few years ago, I delivered Kosher Meals on Wheels to residents of this building. I saw firsthand just how vulnerable they are – and they are in even greater need in the wake of this devastating incident.

“Today, we say unequivocally: UJA Federation will do whatever it takes to help them get through this crisis safely. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our incredible network of Jewish social service agencies working hard to address this challenge. As they assess the new needs of these at-risk community members, we are ready to provide any resources necessary – be it emergency funds, volunteers, or other support.”

While the cause of the fire continues to be investigated by authorities, UJA urged community members to be vigilant about fire safety when it comes to candle-lighting during Hanukkah.

Most residents of the building were encouraged to shelter in place except for approximately 30 people on the fifth floor who had to be evacuated, Global’s report stated.

Hannukah: The Many Blessings of its Blessings

Dec. 11, 2020

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Hanukkah is here, and not a moment too soon: Bringing light into the darkness right now is most welcome. While we look up how to play dreidel, exchange low-fat latke recipes (just kidding, it’s a pandemic – fry the damn things) and schedule online get-togethers, we tend to gloss over a significant aspect of the holiday: the Hanukkah blessings. We recite the blessings every night for eight nights, but are rarely mindful of what we are saying.

The first blessing is so familiar, we don’t really hear it anymore: “Blessed are You, Adoshem our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Your Commandments spark holiness in us as You command us to light Hanukkah candles.”

This blessing is interesting both because it recognizes our innate glimmers of holiness and because it references an old controversy. Historically, Hanukkah celebrates a military victory followed by the rededication of the Second Temple. But less than 200 years later, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and Jews were exiled and scattered into the Diaspora. When the dust settled, Jews were faced with the obligation to celebrate a defunct victory – a bitter reminder of permanent loss. A heated debate ensued about whether to scrap Hanukkah completely.

Ultimately, our sages came to a compromise. Yes, Hanukkah would continue, but the miracle story would transform from a military victory into a gentle legend about a single day’s carafe of kosher oil lasting eight days. Our blessing mentions no military triumph; peaceful lighting of the darkness becomes the true legacy of this festival.

Next comes our second blessing: “G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Who is blessed and Who blesses us, in this season in ancient days, You performed miracles for our ancestors.”

We chant this blessing to celebrate the miracle of the oil. But wait: The miracle of the oil lasting eight days didn’t really start until the second day. The Maccabees knew the oil would burn for at least one day, so why do we bless the miracle of the first day?

It is true the Maccabees didn’t know the oil would last longer than a day, but they lit it anyway. They chose to take a chance, to have faith. The miracle of the first day isn’t the oil lasting, but the miracle of faith itself.

And lastly, on the first night only, we chant the Shehechyanu. This is the blessing we say when we arrive at a new occasion: “Blessed are You, G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment in time.”

These days, being sustained to this moment is no small feat; the pandemic has made us all too aware of our mortality.

Rabbi Shefa Gold speaks of Shehechyanu moments – moments when something new and wonderful happens. Shehechyanu moments occur when our hearts are full and we feel the need to mark the occasion somehow; to acknowledge it and make it memorable.

Festive holidays are Shehechyanu moments, but so can be reuniting with a loved one, or a child’s first day of school, or noticing that we are genuinely laughing for the first time after grieving a heartbreaking loss. Our Shehechyanu moments may feel rare lately, but they do happen if we can be still enough to notice.

As Rabbi Gold wrote, the Shehechyanu blessing is said whenever we realize the miracle of the present moment.

May this Hanukkah bring us the miracle of the present moment. May the warmth of the kindling lights usher in a season of good health, abundance, and joy. And may the Hanukkah blessings bring a spark to our hearts and light to the darkness.

Chag Hanukkah Sameach.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller in Calgary. She is currently attending the online Rabbinic School, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI) in New York, and will be ordained at the end of December 2020.

Celebrate Hanukkah With New And Traditional Recipes

Dec. 11, 2020

By BARBARA SILVERSTEIN

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Samayach. Welcome to “Kitchen Talk,” the weekly food blog of the CJR. Yesterday evening, we lit the first Hanukkah candle, but at our house, we won’t be eating latkes until this weekend.

My husband, the family’s latke-maker-in-chief, swears by Norene Gilletz’s recipe for Easy Potato Latkes from the Food Processor Bible

For people buying prepared latkes, there are several great places in the GTA to order from. One is Free Times Café, the College-Street eatery known in the community for “Bella! Did Ya Eat?,” its sumptuous Jewish-themed Sunday brunch.

In “Community Spotlight,” Free Times owner Judy Perly talks openly about the impact of COVID on her business. She’s definitely a survivor: her restaurant marks its 40th anniversary this month.

On Dec. 8, I attended the virtual Latkes and Vodka Workshop led by national food columnist and cookbook author Bonnie Stern and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, spiritual leader of City Shul.

Stern prepared guacamole, sweet-potato latkes, and jelly-filled, donut-holes, her version of home-made sufganiot.

Rabbi Goldstein explained that the Hanukkah tradition of eating sufganiot originated in Israel during the 1920s. To help bakers increase business, the government encouraged them to make large, filled donuts for Hanukkah, a greasy treat that has grown in popularity over the years.

It turns out Rabbi Goldstein was a bartender in her college days. She invented and demonstrated some vodka martinis specifically geared to Hanukkah: “Menoratini,” “Chocolate Geltini,” and “Sufganitini” (a jelly donut martini!).

This week’s recipes include Gilletz’s Easy Potato Latkes as well as her Smashed Potato “Latkes,” a “no-grate alternative to potato latkes,” as she put it. It’s from The Brain Boosting Diet: Feed Your Memory. This may be heresy, but I actually prefer these “latkes” to traditional ones.

As well, there are two recipes from the Latkes and Vodka Workshop: Stern’s Jelly Filled Donut Holes and Rabbi Goldstein’s Menoratini.

COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT:

Restaurateur Judy Perly is undaunted by COVID 

This month Free Times Café, a restaurant/bar at 320 College St., will mark its 40th anniversary. Owner Judy Perly said she will be celebrating the milestone despite the impact of the pandemic on her business.

Over the years, she has faced significant challenges that have made her resilient and able to deal with problems brought on by COVID, she said in a recent telephone interview.

“I’ve had my business destroyed four times and I had to reinvent myself each time.”

Judy Perley with Latkahs

With the pandemic, she has had to pivot from serving to catering restaurant fare. There is a big demand for the traditional Jewish foods she’s been serving at the restaurant. They’ll be delivering latkes to homes across Toronto.

Free Times’ Jewish themed Sunday brunch, “Bella! Did Ya Eat?” has become an institution in the Jewish community. For 25 years, people across the GTA have been enjoying the buffet laden with traditional foods like blintzes, bagels, lox, gefilte fish, salmon patties and other Ashkenazi delicacies.

The meal has always been accompanied by live Jewish or klezmer music.

Perly lamented that due to COVID, she could not celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Bella! Did Ya Eat?”

After a fire at Free Times in 1990, Perly decided to create the Jewish buffet – one of the times she had to reinvent herself.

“I wanted to get back to my roots and I wanted to reconnect to the Jewish community,” she recalled. “It was a success from day one.”

The first COVID lockdown last spring coincided with Passover. Perly let people on her mailing list know that she would be catering for the holiday. She had a huge response. The catering expanded to Sunday brunches, Friday night dinners, Shavuot and other holiday meals.

During the summer Perly was able to open her patio and have some live entertainment. Last month’s lockdown has created additional financial challenges.

On the eve of Hanukkah, the pace at Free Times was hectic. Perly and her staff were preparing orders for 400 latkes and other traditional dishes. “I am very grateful for the support I am getting from the Jewish community,” she mused. “They have kept the restaurant afloat for the last 25 years.”

EASY POTATO LATKES Norene Gilletz

4 medium potatoes, peeled or scrubbed
1 medium onion, cut in half 
2 eggs
1/3 cup (100 ml) of flour or matzah meal
1 tsp (5 ml) baking powder
3/4 tsp (4 ml) salt 
Freshly ground black pepper to taste 
2 tbsp (30 ml) oil plus extra as needed

Cut the potatoes in chunks and place them in the food processor bowl fitted with the steel blade. Add the onion and eggs. Process until pureed, about 20–30 seconds. Add the remaining ingredients except the oil. Process a few minutes longer for a smooth consistency.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Drop the potato mixture into the hot oil by large spoonfuls to form pancakes. Brown them well on both sides. Drain them well on paper towels and add 

more oil as needed. 

Stir the batter before cooking each new batch of latkes. They can be placed on a baking sheet and kept warm in a 250°F (130°C) oven. Makes 24 latkes

SMASHED POTATO “LATKES” Norene Gilletz

12 baby red-skinned potatoes (2 inches/5 cm in diameter)
Lightly salted water
1–2 tbsp (15–30 ml) olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Additional seasonings (to taste): dried basil, rosemary, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika

Boil the potatoes in enough lightly salted water to cover them for 15–20 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain them well. 

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or sprayed foil. Place the potatoes in a single layer, about 3 inches (8 cm) apart, on the prepared baking sheet. Cover them with a piece of parchment paper. Smash each potato once or twice with the flat part of your palm, to make a flat disc. Round off any ragged edges by pushing them together with your fingers.

Brush the tops lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with seasonings.

Bake, uncovered, for 20–25 minutes, until the potatoes are golden and crispy. If desired, turn the potatoes over halfway through baking. (Optional add more oil for brushing). Makes 2–3 servings

Norene’s Notes:

Easy hack: In Step 1, instead of boiling potatoes, roast them on a rimmed baking sheet for about 1 hour at 350°F (175°C), until they are fork tender. Continue as directed in Steps 2–5.

• In Step 3, use the flat side of a meat tenderizer to smash the potatoes. 

BONNIE’S BAKED JELLY DONUT HOLES

1 cup (250 ml) all-purpose flour 
½ cup (125 ml) sugar
½ tsp (2 ml) baking powder
¼ tsp (1 ml) baking soda
¼ tsp (1 ml) kosher salt
¼ tsp (1 ml) nutmeg
1 egg
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil
½ cup (125 ml) buttermilk*
1 tsp (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
¼ cup (60 ml) strawberry jam (remove any large pieces) topping
½ cup (125 ml) butter, melted
3/4 cup (375 ml) sugar
3/4 tsp (4 ml) cinnamon 
* yogurt can be substituted for buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 375°F (180°C). Butter or spray with non-stick cooking spray a 24-cup mini muffin pan.

In a small mixing bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. In a medium sized bowl whisk the egg with oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Stir the wet ingredients together with the dry ingredients just until blended. 

Individual ½ tsp (2–3 ml) portions of jam can be frozen a head of time or fill a zip-lock bag with jam, close and cut a small opening in one corner. 

Place about 1 tsp (5 ml) of the batter in the bottom of each prepared muffin cup. Place a frozen jam portion or squeeze a small amount of the jam in the zip-lock bag in the centre of the batter that is in the pans and top the jam with another tsp (5 ml) of batter. 

Bake 12–14 minutes until the cakes are puffed and lightly browned. Cool on wire racks.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and place in a shallow dish. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in another shallow dish. When the cakes are still warm roll them all over in the butter and then all over in cinnamon sugar. Makes 24 baked donut holes.

MENORATINI Rabbi Elise Goldstein

3 oz (90 ml) vodka
½ oz (15 ml) sweet vermouth.
Splash of blue curacao

Fill a cocktail shaker (or a 500 ml preserving jar with lid) with ice. Pour in the vodka and sweet vermouth and shake. Strain into 2 martini glasses, then splash in some blue Curacao and add a few fresh blueberries. Or put a “surprise” small drop of blueberry jam on the bottom of the martini glass! 

You can also “rim” the martini glass. Before pouring the cocktail into the glass, dip it into 1 tbsp (15 ml) lemon juice mixed with ½ tsp (2 ml) vanilla. Dip the wet rim into blue or white coarse sugar, available at some bulk food stores. 

Reflections of Hanukkah

Dec. 10, 2020

By ERIC VERNON

Like most holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is never on time. This year, for instance, it is “early,” but even coming in the second week of December, we can still use the light. This may be especially true in the dark year of 2020, when, ironically, our vision was supposed to be perfect.

Light and flame are prominent images in Jewish scripture and texts, and the symbol of the menorah resonates throughout our collective history. Candles, of course, feature prominently in Jewish festive celebrations. We welcome Shabbat with candles every Friday night, and bid it goodbye with the braided candle of Havdalah. We bid goodbye to our loved ones with candles at shiva and yahrzeit.

The Chassidic masters taught: “You cannot dispel darkness with a stick, you must light a candle.” It’s also been aptly noted that the benefit of the candle is twofold: It brings light to the person who lit it, while helping someone nearby, without diminishing its light. A candle loses nothing even by lighting another candle.

Lighting candles at Hanukkah has a special appeal, likely vying with conducting a Passover Seder as the most popular holiday activity of the Jewish annual cycle.

The Talmud tells of competing schools of thought regarding the lighting of candles at Hanukkah. One school, seeking to mirror the diminishing light of the legendary oil cruse after a week and a day, suggested starting with eight candles and removing one each day. The other school countered that the true miracle of Hanukkah lay in adding light to the world and advocated beginning with one candle and ending with eight.

We know how this debate concluded. We are imbued with the wonderful symbolism of the lighting of successive candles on this joyous festival, and our thoughts often turn at this time to how we, in our own lives, can add light to the world.

You often hear people speak of “light at the end of the tunnel” as the optimistic metaphoric end of a long process or a difficult time they are experiencing. Sadly, we need not strain ourselves to come up with a perfect example these past few months. At these times of uncertainty or frustration, especially when we’re not sure that the light in the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train, we can be buoyed by the hopeful message of the following passage:

“Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The concept of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice actually derives from a sermon titled, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in 1857 by a transcendentalist and Unitarian minister in the United States named Theodore Parker. But you will likely not be surprised to learn that the quote above is from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., in August 1967.

King loved the image of the bending arc of morality seeking justice. In fact, he used it in several speeches from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s as the civil rights movement in the U.S. moved through its tumultuous and, despite King’s signature approach, often violent, bloody and lethal early period. In August 1967, the movement that had witnessed the marches in Selma and Montgomery; the murders of Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers had just come through the “long, hot summer” of widespread rioting in cities across America.

And not knowing that in just a matter of mere months, his own name would be added to the list of those cut down for the cause, King could have rightly looked around and considered the slow, sometimes infinitesimal gains made for racial equality and wondered if there would ever come a time when American society would judge people, as he famously said, not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

And yet, in spite of the glacial pace of the civil rights movement, King remained optimistic, sustained in his firm belief that morality and justice would one day intersect and American society would finally experience the necessary transformative social change for true racial equality. Sadly, the events of this past summer demonstrated just how much that noble goal remains aspirational and not fully realized.

And yet, as Jews, we understand King’s optimism intuitively. That we have survived and flourished over millennia is all the more remarkable given the litany of hate, persecution and attempted annihilation we have faced throughout time, all because of who we are.

We think about this especially at Hanukkah. As discouraging as the manifestations of both historical and contemporary antisemitism may be, the candles’ light in this season braces and inspires us to resist oppression, fight for human rights for all and proudly assert our identity.

So as you load up your hanukkiyah and set flame to wick, you will of course be celebrating the stunning victory of the Maccabees for religious freedom and our right to live as Jews.

You will of course be commemorating the redemption of the Temple and the astounding miracle of the burning oil.

But more than that, as you light the bright festive candles of Hanukkah, you will be illuminating the arc of the moral universe and guiding it as it bends its way toward justice.


Eric Vernon
Eric Vernon

Eric Vernon is the former Director of Government Relations and International Affairs of Canadian Jewish Congress.

U of T Launches Working Group to Combat Antisemitism on Campus

Dec. 10, 2020

By RAHUL KALVAPALLE

The University of Toronto has launched an Anti-Semitism Working Group to examine and address anti-Semitism on campus, and to ensure the university is an inclusive and welcoming place for Jewish members of its community.

The working group, whose contributions will form an integral part of the university’s commitment to addressing systemic forms of racism across its three campuses, including Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, will make recommendations to U of T President Meric Gertler, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources and Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat.

Led by Arthur Ripstein, a University Professor in the Faculty of Law and in the department of philosophy, the working group will review the processes and practices in place to address antisemitism on U of T’s three campuses and develop a framework to support the university’s response to the issue.

It will recommend ways to improve education about antisemitism and responses to antisemitic incidents, as well as propose new programs and initiatives to eliminate antisemitism on-campus.

It will also examine best practices at other large, research-intensive universities and consult with students, faculty, librarians and staff about how to create an inclusive environment that welcomes and supports community members who are Jewish.

“Our aim is to see to it that the university not only responds when there are incidents or allegations of antisemitism, but is also proactive in creating a culture of inclusion within which various forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, are better understood and tackled through education,” Ripstein said.

“Antisemitism is like other forms of discrimination in some ways, and different from them in other ways. The point of having working groups that examine multiple types of injustice and discrimination in our university is to come up with strategies for dealing with not just the general problem, but also its particular manifestation.”

Antisemitism “is a source of discrimination, harassment and hatred that undermines our values,” Hannah-Moffat said. “U of T recognizes that we need to be more proactive and responsive to address it on our campuses.

“No form of discrimination is tolerated at the University of Toronto.”

Ripstein said consultations with the U of T community will be key to the working group’s efforts and that information provided by the community will help shape its recommendations.

“Our main work will be, in the first instance, listening to and seeking input from members of the university community. We want to hear about their concerns and instances of antisemitism of which they think we should be made aware,” he said.

“As a university, the way we deal with problems is to study them. And so, our first task is going to be to study the problem and think about ways to manage it within the context of the university’s broader commitment to being a place where difficult questions can be addressed and considered in a respectful and inclusive manner.”

Ripstein invited members of the U of T community to share their feedback by emailing the Anti-Semitism Working Group at anti.semitism.working.group@utoronto.ca.

In addition to Ripstein, the members of the working group are:

· Miriam Borden, PhD student, Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures in the Faculty of Arts & Science

· Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Institute for Management & Innovation, U of T Mississauga

· Ayelet Kuper, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Temerty Faculty of Medicine

· Faye Mishna, Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work

· Anna Shternshis, Al and Malka Green Professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies, Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures, Faculty of Arts & Science; and Director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies

· Nouman Ashraf, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Rotman School of Management

· Anita Balakrishna, Director, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Temerty Faculty of Medicine

· Karima Hashmani, Executive Director, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Division of HR & Equity

· Jodie Glean, Director, Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and Project Manager, Anti-Semitism Working Group.

– Reprinted with permission from UofT News.

Jewish Day Schools Call for Distribution of COVID Funds

Dec. 10, 2020

By LILA SARICK

A coalition of independent schools, including Jewish day schools, is calling on the Ontario government to distribute federal funds intended to cover COVID-associated costs to all schools, not just publicly funded ones.

In August, Ottawa announced the Safe Return to Class Fund and committed up to $2 billion to schools for pandemic-related expenses such as improved air ventilation, increased hygiene and purchases of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Funding was allocated “based on the number of children between four and 18,” according to a statement announcing the fund. Ontario was allocated $763 million, to be distributed in fall 2020 and early 2021.

In Ontario, the funds were distributed through public and Catholic school boards, shutting out Jewish day schools, as well as other independent and faith-based schools. The schools have now launched a campaign lobbying the province to change the way it distributes the money.

“What’s disheartening is that the federal government has given money to all the provinces in order to help children go safely back to schools and the money from the federal government’s announcement is for all children from four to 18, and there’s no distinctions,” said Ira Walfish, a founder of TeachON, a grassroots group that advocates for funding for Jewish day schools, and a member of the independent school coalition.

“What’s disheartening is that this is pure pandemic funds, it’s not for education,” Walfish told the CJR.

The independent schools that have formed the Supporting Students Coalition estimate that 125,00 students are enrolled in schools that did not receive federal COVID funding. Parents are encouraged to write their MPPs to express their dissatisfaction, Walfish said.

Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, another Ontario advocacy group, has also urged families to join the campaign.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has also argued that private schools should be eligible for the federal COVID funds.

“CIJA continues to advocate for the inclusion of Jewish community institutions – including our Jewish day schools – in a range of government support programs,” Noah Shack, CIJA’s vice president for the Greater Toronto Area, said in a statement to the CJR. “It is crucial that they continue to operate safely and meet the needs of families hit hard by the pandemic.”

CIJA was successful in having the federal government extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program to not-for-profit schools.

“This subsidy provides substantial relief, which the government has committed to extend through to June 2021,” Shack said.

Asked about the distribution of federal funds, a spokesperson for the provincial education ministry replied in an email: “In Ontario, private schools operate as businesses or non-profit organizations independently of the Ministry of Education and in accordance with the legal requirements established by the Education Act. They do not receive any funding or other financial support from the government.”

Ontario funds the public and Catholic school systems but not other faith-based or independent schools.

Not all provinces have handled the federal funds the same way as Ontario. In British Columbia, for example, some money has been distributed to private schools, Walfish said.

“It would be better for everybody, not just our children, if they’re all in a safe environment,” Walfish said. “Presumably, there are some children in independent schools who might play with other children in public or Catholic schools and if they’re not protected, we can do the math.”

Ontario parents are eligible for some relief, however. CIJA advocated for the inclusion of all Ontario families in the provincial government’s education grants provided directly to parents, Shack said. The grants, disbursed last spring and this winter, provide families with between $400 and $500 per child for COVID-related costs.

Hasidim Meet Education Standards, but Couple Was Harmed: Quebec Court

Dec. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—An ex-Hasidic couple has failed to get a court to declare that the Quebec government and the community in which they were raised violated their rights to a proper education.

Justice Martin Castonguay of Quebec Superior Court dismissed their motion for a declaratory judgment that the schools in their former Tosh community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal, broke the law in denying secular studies to them and other children in the community.

Furthermore, Yochonon Lowen, 43, and Clara Wasserstein, 42, alleged that the province failed in its obligations by tolerating the situation, which they say has changed little since they were in school.

In a 42-page decision issued on Dec. 3, Castonguay said the court could not issue a declaratory judgment because the evidence showed the Tosh community today, by and large, is seeing that its children, aged six to 16, follow the province’s mandatory curriculum, either in its schools or through homeschooling supervised by the local public school board.

Additionally, the judge did not declare illegal the religious schools many children continue to attend fulltime, as the motion had requested.

Castonguay, however, acknowledged that the couple had been harmed by having almost no secular education, particularly true in the case of Lowen. The couple, who left the Tosh community in 2007, testified that they could not find employment and were ill-equipped to live in broader society afterward.

The court “wishes to express its deepest empathy with regard to the plaintiffs for what they suffered before and after their departure from the Tosh community,” the judge wrote.

The couple was not seeking damages. They said they were pursuing the action primarily for the sake of Hasidic children today, both Tosh and those in other communities in Montreal, who they believe are still not getting the education prescribed by law.

The landmark case was heard in February over seven days during which numerous witnesses testified, although no one from the Tosh community took the stand.

It was the first legal challenge to Quebec’s efforts over the past 15 years to resolve the problem of Hasidic and other haredi communities that traditionally give their children an almost exclusively religious education, often in schools or by teachers who are unlicensed by the province.

Lowen, for example, testified he was taught only a little English and math; Wasserstein, as was typical for girls, received somewhat more but little past elementary school.

Both emerged from the community unable to read and write English and with no knowledge of French, let alone subjects like science or history.

The litigation was undertaken in the public interest by the firm Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, which has represented the couple since they filed the motion more than four years ago.

The legal team called the decision a moral victory.

“The judgment confirms that the plaintiffs, like all the children in their community at the time, did not receive the education to which they were entitled under the law,” it said in a statement.

While the judgment does point to progress since the proceedings were launched, the lawyers note it also “criticizes Tosh community leaders for resisting government efforts to educate the children of their community.” Established in Boisbriand in the 1960s, Tosh has over 3,000 followers today.

The progress has come about mainly with the passage of legislation in 2017 that more strictly enforces school attendance, and subsequent regulations on homeschooling standards. As the court heard in the case of Tosh, it also involved the intervention of the Youth Protection Department, in addition to repeated attempts by education department officials.

Today, more than 830 Tosh children are enrolled in homeschooling overseen by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, the court heard. “This is a victory for these children who receive more education than their parents did,” stated the couple’s law firm.

Their clients are considering an appeal, they said.

In addition to the Attorney-General of Quebec, the motion named as defendants La Grande Séminaire Rabbinique de Montréal, five Tosh schools, and the community’s leader, Rabbi Elimelech Lowy.

That Lowen and Wasserstein finally had their day in court was a victory in itself. Their motion was first filed in May 2016, alleging the named defendants were violating the Education Act, the Act Respecting Private Education, the Charter of the French Language, and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The defendants tried to have it dismissed, but a Superior Court judge ruled in May 2017 that the issue was of sufficient public interest to be heard.

Among the witnesses for the defence was Avraham Ekstein, a Satmar Hasid from Montreal and head of the Jewish Association for Homeschooling, who testified that Hasidic communities are conforming to the law while maintaining adherence to their religious beliefs.

He defended the traditional education as being a valuable preparation for secular life, pointing to the fact that he is a chartered accountant.

Prosecution witness Shulem Deen of Brooklyn, N.Y., a 46-year-old former Hasid, said these communities do not give children an adequate secular education today. He is the author of the 2015 memoir All Who Go Do Not Return.

A Reply to Michael Mostyn, and Canada’s UN Vote

Dec. 9, 2020

By DAVID KATTENBURG

Michael Mostyn’s commentary in the Dec. 3 edition of the CJR is both factually incorrect and disingenuous.

In response to 17 “anti-Israel” resolutions routinely presented at the United Nations this time of year, the B’nai Brith Canada CEO laments that Canada only voted against 16 of them.

Pretty solidly pro-Israel, were it not for that one “yes” vote affirming the Palestinian right to self-determination. That vote was “all the more galling,” writes Mostyn, given Canada’s traditional commitment to the “cause of peace.”

But Mostyn quickly dismisses the idea. Israel has long recognized the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, he said, and has pitched numerous “generous” offers.

Really? Nothing has been more central to Benjamin Netanyahu’s interminable political career than thwarting the creation of a Palestinian state. Among Netanyahu’s most recent pronouncements, at a Likud conclave last summer: “[In] no constellation will the government or the Knesset recognize the principle of establishing a Palestinian state.” Netanyahu has said this repeatedly over the years.

Mostyn twists it around: “Tragically,” he wrote, “the Palestinian leadership consistently rejected [Israel’s offers] because – bottom line – they refuse to accept the idea of a Jewish state.” 

This is false. The PLO accepted Israeli sovereignty on 78 percent of Palestinian lands back in 1988, in Algiers. It even acknowledged the Jewish people’s ancient narrative – a huge concession, reconfirmed in the Oslo Accords, that Israel has never matched.

Instead, under the guise of occupation, Israel has effectively annexed 60 percent of the remaining 22 percent slice, and colonized it, in breach of the UN Charter and Fourth Geneva Convention.

Of course, Mostyn and his lobby group’s lawyers fiercely deny that Israel occupies “Judea” and “Samaria.” Their theories have been debunked, and Israel’s settlements have been declared unlawful in a dozen UN Security Council resolutions.

Mostyn claims, falsely, that UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) call for “negotiations between the parties to determine the status of the territories.” 

In fact, UNSC 338 called for “negotiations” between the parties “aimed at establishing a just and durable peace.” UNSC 242 affirmed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” [what Israel had just done in the 1967 Six-Day War], and the duty of UN member states to abide by Charter Articles 1 and 2, namely, the principles of “justice and international law” and “equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

Neither resolution made reference to the “status of the territories,” now a matter of virtually universal consensus. Resolution 242 did call for Israel’s withdrawal from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” an inconvenient legal fact Mostyn ignores.

Canada’s policy on Palestine is clear: A) Israel is an occupying power in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Gaza; B) Israel’s settlements are illegal: and C) settlements impede the creation of a viable Palestinian state that Canada says is essential.

But forget about Canadian policy. The UN Charter and its binding covenants oblige Canada to “respect and ensure respect” for the law in “all circumstance.” The fact that it doesn’t – that it actually invests in Israel’s unlawful enterprise – is something Mostyn knows well but which doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

It is Israel’s annexationist ambitions, not “peace” policy, that Mostyn cherishes the most. According to Mostyn, Canada’s vote in support of Palestinian self-determination constituted a shameful denial of the same right to the Jewish people. Here he gets to the point. “Absurdly,” he writes, the lands within which Palestinians supposedly enjoy self-determination include “the holiest sites in Judaism: the Western Wall and Temple Mount, plus the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; and everything else, east to the Jordan River.”

In other words, Mostyn thinks all these lands belong to Israel, “the world’s only Jewish state.” He doesn’t say, though clearly believes, that Jews are indigenous to these lands, and that Palestinians are not. This is what Israel thinks, and B’nai Brith is Israel’s “staunch defender.”

Not a very righteous stance for someone claiming to represent Canada’s Jewish community, of which I am a part. He should declare himself more honestly.


David Kattenburg
David Kattenburg (photo credit: Clive Baugh)

David Kattenburg, who lives in Winnipeg, is Jewish but doesn’t consider himself indigenous to the Land of Israel. He belongs to a group called Scientists for Palestine. He is the plaintiff in a case, now under appeal by the Federal government, involving the labeling of wine products from West Bank Jewish settlements.

Vera Schiff, Holocaust Survivor, Named to Order of Canada

Dec. 9, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

A tattered diary no bigger than a credit card inspired Holocaust survivor Vera Schiff to spend a lifetime spreading her message of tolerance and gratitude across Canada.

Her efforts to educate students have not gone unnoticed. On Nov. 27, Schiff was named to the Order of Canada – among 114 new appointments.

Schiff (née Katz), 94, was honoured for her “illustrious career as an author, historian and public speaker who is nationally recognized for sharing her moving experiences of the Holocaust,” said a statement from Governor General Julie Payette.

It came as a surprise,” Schiff told the CJR. “I am very honoured and humbled. To be recognized gives me a great deal of satisfaction and gratitude to the government of Canada and those who recommended me.”

Vera Schiff

Schiff was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Elsie and Siegfried Schiff. Raised with her sister Eva, her childhood was a happy one. On March 15, 1939, the German army invaded and occupied the country and her life was forever changed. Schiff and her family were deported in 1942 to Terezin (Theresienstadt), where only Schiff survived from among about 50 members of her extended family.

She found the strength to move forward after discovering her mother’s small journal.

“I think she found comfort in entering these little day-by-day pains from Terezin,” said Schiff. “It’s my greatest treasure, the only thing I have from her.”

In the book, Elsie offered her daughter valuable life advice.

“She knew I would need medical attention and said after my recovery [that] I should go back to school to acquire skills and knowledge to make my way through life, and to become a contributing member to society,” Schiff recalled. “Every time I am at a crossroad, I turn to the diary. And although it’s always the same, I somehow know what she would have hoped me to do. The last page was a letter to me… a blueprint on how to live my life.”

Schiff met her future husband, Arthur Schiff, in the Theresienstadt ghetto (see B&W photo with story). After the war, they settled in Prague, and then moved to Israel in 1949. In 1961, they came to Toronto, where Schiff worked as a medical technologist at Toronto General Hospital and Arthur was a pharmacist. She and her husband have two sons, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Arthur died in 2001.

In recognition of her contributions to literature, Schiff was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick in 2012, and this summer, received an Honourary Doctor of Letters degree during a virtual convocation ceremony at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

Schiff has published seven books. Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews won the Elie Wiesel History of the Holocaust Award.

She was also a Czech language court interpreter during the trial of Toronto’s neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel in the 1980s. “He said the Holocaust did not exist – it was a Jewish invention,” Schiff recalled. “I couldn’t believe in my lifetime people would deny what I lived through.”

Schiff’s message never wavers. “Each and every one of us must do his share to make this world a better place. I tell students to remember: Freedom is not a gift, it is a privilege. We are very fortunate in Canada to live in a wonderful country with freedom and dignity. We must preserve it and pass it on. It is our duty.”

Schiff remains steadfast in her quest to educate Canadians. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she has adapted to new technology and continues to educate students by Zoom.

Editorial: Goldie Hershon – and Jewish Leadership

Dec. 8, 2020

The Canadian Jewish community has been blessed with many fine leaders. Leadership itself can be simple in complicated times and complicated in simple times. It takes a wise person to navigate these various roads. Those who successfully complete that journey are the leaders we remember (it’s hoped we forget the bad ones).

Goldie Hershon, who died last week at the age of 79, was a leader who successfully navigated complicated roads in complex times. Her port of service was Canadian Jewish Congress (of which CJR publisher Bernie Farber was CEO, and worked closely with Goldie).

She held many different lay leadership positions within the organization. Whether it was national vice-president of CJC, chair of the CJC National Plenary Assembly, vice-president of the North American section of World Jewish Congress, chair of CJC’s Soviet Jewry committee, or her three years (1995-1998) as national president of Congress, Goldie was unique.

She was no politician. She spoke her mind and heart and demonstrated truth to power. Whether meeting with heads of state, presidents, prime ministers, or premiers, Goldie was simply Goldie. She engaged with Holocaust survivors, Jewish poor, and CJC staff as though they were all part of her family. She took advice but knew her mind. People wanted to be in her company. She had a great laugh and warm smile that grabbed you from the moment you met her.

When Goldie became president of CJC in 1995 she fought for it. Unlike today, Canadian Jews then chose their leaders. Her opponent, Thomas O. Hecht, was a popular Montrealer, and the race was passionate and emotional. Goldie squeaked to a narrow victory and Canadian Jewry was the real winner.

She led us through the fractious Quebec referendum of 1995 and deftly took former Premier Jacques Parizeau to task when in a bitter concession speech, he blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for the loss. Canadian Jewry was staunchly nationalist and was part of a group of ethnic leaders who spoke out against separation. Goldie was very much its leader. She scolded Parizeau’s choice of words as “reprehensible,” and many feel that it was her public pronouncement, among those from other “ethnic” leaders, that hastened Parizeau’s retirement from politics shortly thereafter.

With Goldie’s death, we are able to look both back to the past and ahead to the future. We yearn for the days when leadership percolated up from the grassroots, enabling stalwarts like Goldie.

And yet, as we look to the future, we are concerned that leadership today does not see the worth or feel it necessary to emulate the Goldie Hershons of yesterday.

Perhaps in Goldie’s passing, we will all have an opportunity to embrace the importance of amcha and the need for us all to play a role in Canadian Jewish life.

May the memory of Goldie Hershon always be for a blessing.

Beyond ‘Ashkenormativity’: Sharing the Stories of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

Dec. 8, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

Nov. 29, known by some as Kaf-Tet b’November, is an important day to Jewish communities around the world. It was on that day in 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the plan to partition British Mandate Palestine between Arabs and Jews. David Ben-Gurion, leading the nascent nation, subsequently declared the State of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Perhaps less well known is that the following day, Nov. 30, serves as a solemn occasion of remembrance and tribute to Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. It is known as Yom Plitim (“the Day of Recognition for Jewish Refugees”).

The UN’s support for the establishment of a Jewish state is seen as a turning point in the history of minority Jewish populations across the Arab world, who had lived there for centuries. During the mid-20th century, these Jews, primarily belonging to Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, were persecuted, and subsequently expelled from the places that they had called home for generations. It is estimated that 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced from Arab and Muslim lands from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Many found haven in Israel, while others immigrated to countries around the world, including Canada. These communities have continued to preserve and pass down their heritage, while contributing to society as a whole. From flight to perseverance, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be treasured. More than that, they should be retold.

Yet, I’m struck by the seeming lack of awareness regarding this important history. Despite growing up in an Ashkenazi household, attending Jewish day school and summer camp, and taking several Jewish studies courses in university, I find myself undereducated on the history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This is a startling gap.

I think that Jewish continuity and identity are rooted in education. I hope that curricula for day schools, post-secondary Jewish studies courses, and experiential/informal Jewish education will better integrate the stories of these Jewish refugees.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning Ashkenazi-majority communities have often sought to further their own history while placing the stories of minorities within the Jewish community on the back burner. This problem has been worsened by external factors, such as “traditional” depictions of Jews and what it means to “look Jewish,” which often typify an Ashkenazi stereotype that many have come to internalize.

From my understanding, this has caused Jews from outside the Ashkenazi norm to feel distanced from “the community.” By breaking off into segments, our tent becomes smaller and weaker. Our institutions fail in their stated ideal of being inviting, instead leading to further isolation.

While recognizing these shortcomings, I want to applaud various community organizations that have made significant strides in the right direction. This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in the UJA Genesis Community Leadership Accelerator. This program made a concerted effort to include speakers from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds.

As a prime example, Erez Zobary, a young educator and musician, shared with us the stories of her Yemenite Jewish heritage. Her paternal grandparents’ determination and resilience to make a better life in Israel, while remaining connected to its roots, rang of a delicate, dynamic balance. It was particularly interesting to hear her experience, having been born in Canada, of fitting into a Jewish community school where most of her friends and teachers were of Ashkenazi heritage.

Additional efforts have been undertaken by Jewish organizations to raise awareness about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This past Nov. 29, the Consulate General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, in conjunction with Sephardi Voices, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and a handful of congregations, marked Yom Plitim. They held a virtual event that featured Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. The keynote speaker, Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, herself a Jewish refugee from Iraq, went on to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offering an invaluable perspective into Arab culture and geopolitics.

B’nai Brith Canada held a similar event the next day. The organization fittingly described its webinar, in part, as an opportunity “to virtually commemorate this tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history.” To honour this history, B’nai Brith encouraged participants to contact their MP and urge the government to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, based on a motion passed by the previous Parliament. I am glad to see a range of Jewish organizations marking this important epoch.

So what else can we do?

At a time of increasing polarization, we should reach out, challenge our assumptions, and learn something new. We should question why certain stories are retold, while others are overlooked. We should amplify the voices of minorities within our own community. We should harness this moment for inclusion and understanding. Most importantly, we should undertake considerable outreach and strive for all Jews to be reflected in our community at large.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.

Obituary: Goldie Hershon, Former CJC President, was 79

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Tributes are pouring in for Goldie Hershon, who was president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1995 to 1998, following her death on Dec. 4 at age 79.

Hershon, the daughter of Polish immigrants whose community activism was strongly motivated by a visit to Auschwitz in 1979, was one of only two women to hold the top national post with CJC, which was disbanded in 2011.

(The first female president of CJC was Dorothy Reitman of Montreal from 1986 to 1989.)

An activist for Soviet Jewish emigration, Hershon chaired CJC’s Soviet Jewry committee and moved up the ranks to become the organization’s Quebec Region chair in 1989 and later, a national vice-president.

But her ascent to the national presidency succeeding Toronto historian Irving Abella was far from assured. Thomas Hecht of Montreal, a longtime community leader and prominent businessman, challenged Hershon for the post.

What ensued was one of the most keenly contested campaigns in the history of CJC. In the weeks leading up to the triennial CJC Plenary Assembly in the spring of 1995 in Montreal, Hecht made an intense bid for office.

Hershon’s win was razor-thin, beating Hecht by just 16 votes. Her term began with the need to heal the polarization in the community, which she succeeded in doing.

Hershon’s three years as president were among the most consequential for the Canadian Jewish community since the Second World War. The country was in the midst of a national unity crisis triggered by the failure of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.

The Parti Québécois government was gearing up for a referendum on independence, to be held in November 1995 after months of tension. Although narrowly defeated, the province would be plunged into a long night of self-reflection. Anglophone and ethnic Quebecers felt especially uncertain over their future.

Other major issues Hershon had to deal with were the continuing effort to bring suspected Nazi war criminals living in Canada to justice and the need to better serve small Jewish communities across the country.

Internationally, CJC was engaged in aiding Jews in the former Soviet Union and pressing Swiss banks to release dormant accounts that were held by victims of Nazi persecution.

Hershon (née Libman) grew up in what was the Jewish immigrant district of Montreal. She attended United Talmud Torahs and Herzliah High School, and became a teacher.

She and Shelly, her husband of 61 years, were among the young Jewish couples who settled in the then remote West Island suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, where they raised their children, Cindy and David. The couple contributed significantly to the development of the Jewish community and, in particular, Congregation Beth Tikvah.

Among the plethora of condolences on the Paperman & Sons funeral home website are many from those who fondly remember the Hershons from those years.

Others are from her CJC days. “I have many happy memories of Goldie and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her at CJC. She was a determined and courageous community leader, and a lovely person,” wrote Jack Silverstone, who was Congress’s national executive director.

Former Quebec Region chair Dorothy Zalcman Howard commented, “She was vibrant, warm, generous and kind. She was a friend and a colleague you could always count on, and she had an innate ability to bring people together, to uplift those around her and lighten the burden of others…Goldie leaves a legacy of love and compassion for family, for friends, for communities at home and around the world.”

Cotler’s ‘Cameo Role’ in Bringing Sadat and Begin Together Finally Told

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Irwin Cotler may have been the matchmaker between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the unlikely couple who forged the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Forty-three years later, Cotler, who was named Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, is revealing for the first time his “accidental cameo role” in helping to bring together the two Middle East antagonists.

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler

In 1977, Cotler, then a McGill University law professor and leader of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, was doing work at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo, and travelling in Syria and Jordan – unusual at the time.

The centre’s president, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who would later become Secretary-General of the United Nations) was close to Sadat’s office and told Cotler that the Egyptian president was curious about Begin, the Likud leader who had become prime minister in June that year, ending the monopoly on power the Labour Party had had since Israel’s founding.

Sadat wanted to meet Cotler to discuss the new political landscape, knowing his close connections to Israel and understanding of the Arab world. 

Cotler would have a few meetings; by around the third, the Egyptian ruler got down to business.

“Sadat asked me two questions,” Cotler told the CJR in an interview soon after his federal appointment. “One, did I think this government [Israel] wanted to make peace with Egypt? I said yes. Two, did I think he could make peace with the new prime minister? I said, ‘I don’t know Begin personally, but I know him to be a committed democrat and parliamentarian and think he would want to make peace with the largest and strongest Arab country.’

“Sadat then asked me to deliver a message to Begin. He wanted to reach out to Begin through informal channels, through someone, he said, the Israelis trust and I trust.”

Sadat’s confidence was flattering, but in truth, Cotler had no channel to the Israeli prime minister. Back in Israel, Cotler attended a meeting of young Knesset members convened by Jewish Agency official Uri Gordon. Cotler spoke in Hebrew about his having been in Egypt and in Syria three times. In the audience was Ariela Zeevi, Begin’s parliamentary secretary, whom Cotler did not know – yet.

“She passed a note to a colleague that I must be a spy,” Cotler recalled. “Afterward, she asked me more about Syria, and I shared with her that the Jewish community there had toasted Begin’s election, hoping their liberation would soon come.

“She said to me, ‘you have to tell the prime minister that,’ and a few days later, she arranged a meeting with Begin. I gave him Sadat’s message that he was prepared to enter peace negotiations on two conditions: that Israel withdraw from the entire Sinai and that Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

‘’Begin right off said he could not agree to that, and I said that these were only conditions for starting talks. Then he asked me if I thought peace could be made with Sadat, and I said yes.”

Cotler said he knew that Boutros-Ghali, who was minister of state for foreign affairs by then, was keen on peace, as was Sadat’s chief of staff, Tahseen Bashir. He also pointed out that Sadat’s wife, Jihan, was urging him to come to terms with Israel.

So it was that on Nov. 19, 1977, Sadat stunned the world by becoming the first Arab leader to officially visit the Jewish State. The peace agreement was signed in March 1979 and came into force the following year. It has held for 40 years.

Despite characterizations to the contrary, Cotler said Sadat and Begin did hit it off personally, and that, he believes, was crucial to the eventual agreement.

In appreciation of Cotler’s little known part, Montreal Consuls General David Levy of Israel and Hossam Moharam of Egypt hosted a virtual tribute to him on the anniversary of the groundbreaking détente.

Another match was also made as a result of Cotler’s unplanned encounter with history: Ariela Zeevi’s initial suspicion about the bachelor Canadian professor melted away. They started seeing each other and were married on the very day the peace treaty was signed.

Ariela brought into the marriage a young daughter who is today a member of the Knesset for the Blue and White party, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, elected in March.

Cotler, of course, was a Canadian Liberal MP from 1999 to 2015, serving as justice minister and attorney general in Paul Martin’s government. Boutros-Ghali went on to lead the UN in the 1990s, and Tahseen Bashir became Egypt’s Ambassador to Canada in the 1980s.

In thanking Cotler, Levy said the Israeli-Egyptian agreement laid the foundation for the recent normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

When the pandemic is over, Cotler hopes he can facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, now that the latter has signaled he wants to reopen talks.