Complacency Leads to Complicity

Dec. 22, 2020

By ELLIE DEEGAN

My Zaida’s best friend Andy was born in Hungary. He grew up very comfortably but his idyllic childhood did not last long. In March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, and he came to know the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand.

Recently, I interviewed Andy. He told me that he, his mom, and his sister survived the Holocaust by chance because an axle on their railcar broke, and they were marched to another camp instead of to Auschwitz. He was quite ill, and his mother carried him on her back for many kilometers. Otherwise, he would have been shot.

For a 15-year-old like me, growing up in multicultural Toronto, something like the Holocaust is very difficult to grasp. The human mind cannot imagine what six million dead looks like. And this was not that long ago. Questions abound: How could Adolf Hitler, whose antisemitism was open, as he wrote about it in Mein Kampf in 1925, and his Nazi Party form a government? How could the Holocaust have been masterminded in one of the most cultured and sophisticated countries in the world?

Propaganda was used to make Jews less than human. As a young child in Germany, if this is what you were taught, not only by your family but by your government, how would you know any better?

However, adults in Germany did know better. One of the important reasons to study history is to ensure that terrible events do not repeat themselves. What I take from this is that we must be careful about how lies and propaganda can influence us. That is why a strong, free and fiercely independent press is so important to our democracy.

Crimes against the Jewish people in Germany started small and gradually but by the late 1930s, escalated dramatically even before the Second World War. Public book burnings began in 1933, and Kristallnacht, the night of widespread pogroms, was in 1938. Nazi mobs burned synagogues and beat Jews publicly. Some Germans were appalled by these events – but not enough were.

One of the most significant issues in Nazi Germany was the compliance of the general population. When Jews were forced into ghettos, their neighbours were not forced to move into their homes. Neither were they forced to steal their possessions. It was their choice. Doing so and knowing that your neighbours might be abused or murdered by gas, gun, or at the hand of another human being is absolutely twisted. There is no question that complacency leads to complicity.

One hundred years before the Holocaust, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” If complacency and complicity occurred in a high culture like Germany’s, it can happen anywhere. This is why it is important to be true to yourself and true to others.

Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism continues to exist, even thrive. Andy told me, “When my mother returned to Hungary after the war ended to retrieve her silver, her neighbours were not excited to see her. They told her they wished she would have disappeared in the Holocaust, so they could keep her things.”

As individuals and as a society, we have a responsibility to think about what is happening around us and to not always go with the mob. Being a bystander and being silent in the face of hate and intolerance is one of the most dangerous things for a free society.

Today, we continue to see terrible acts against Jewish, Black, and Indigenous people and many other victims of hate. I am still too young to vote, but I discovered that voting is key to combating hate, which can rise up during tough economic times, like we are experiencing today. Tapping into fear and scapegoating minorities is wrong and dangerous. We always need to think of our own welfare, but we also have to ensure that we look out for the marginalized in our society and protect the rights of minorities.

Standing up for others is the best way to erase hatred and to build a stronger democracy.


Ellie Deegan
Ellie Deegan

Ellie Deegan is a grade 10 student at Greenwood College School in Toronto

Unelected, Unaccountable, Untroubled: CIJA Says What it Wants, Then Says it Speaks For Us

Dec. 16, 2020

By ANDREW COHEN

Since its induced birth a decade ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has offered full-throated support for the government of Israel. As official advocate of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, it suggests it speaks for Canadian Jewry.

That CIJA “represents hundreds of thousands of Jewish Canadians affiliated with the federation,” is as empty as its claim that it is non-partisan. It isn’t really, at least not when it comes to Israel.

CIJA can scarcely utter a discouraging word about the harshest policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, from expanding settlements on the West Bank, to undermining the multi-party Iranian nuclear treaty.

Three years ago, for example, when the United States announced it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, CIJA quickly assembled an on-line forum of three panelists. All heralded the decision, a breathless exercise in propaganda from an organization which celebrates “educating Canadians about the important role Israel plays in Canadian life.”

Because Likud has been in power longer than CIJA has been in business, we don’t know how CIJA would react to a moderate government in Israel. But we do know how it reacts to a more moderate government in Canada on Israel: CIJA complains and complains.

In 2015, CIJA was quick to jump on Justin Trudeau, then in opposition, for “trivializing” the Holocaust. Yet it was unfazed when Steven Blaney, a Conservative minister, did much the same two days later.

More recently, when CIJA joined two other Jewish organizations in criticizing Canada’s vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian self-determination, it showed, once again, how CIJA is out of step with opinion at home and abroad.

CIJA issued a joint statement of protest with B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Each representative was quoted independently, as if none would take responsibility for the other – or, out of vanity, each insisted on his own megaphone.

Jon Allen, Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel, rejected their woolly-minded argument in the CJR. More than most Jews, he knows Canada is an unflinching friend of Israel. He explained persuasively why we voted with the rest of the world, including every one of Israel’s long-standing allies (other than the United States).

But that wasn’t enough for CIJA. Nothing is but the orthodoxy. This happens when your board of directors includes the perfervid John Baird, Stephen Harper’s foreign minister, beloved by CIJA; when he resigned unceremoniously in early 2015, CIJA saluted “his clear and conscientious foreign policy vision of which all Canadians can be proud.” Actually, many Jews were appalled, and helped defeat the Conservatives that October.

The Liberals can appoint Bob Rae as Canada’s Ambassador to the UN; they can avow moral and material support for Israel until the coming of the Messiah; they can appoint Irwin Cotler envoy on anti-Semitism (which CIJA uncharacteristically praised). CIJA is rarely satisfied.

Then again, why should anyone care what CIJA thinks? Its officers are unelected, unaccountable and untroubled by criticism, which it reliably ignores or dismisses. Sustained by the Federation, which is sustained by tax-deductible donations, CIJA says what it wants – and then says it speaks for us.

CIJA has lacked credibility since it was mysteriously established in 2011. Some say it was the product of a hostile takeover of the Canadian Jewish Congress, engineered by wealthy conservative Jews with the blessing of the governing Conservatives. That may explain its defensiveness.

For an organization which sees itself as a communicator, CIJA has clownish media relations. Despite its self-described legion of “analysts, public affairs specialists, web and social-media practitioners, relationship builders and media relations experts,” it is among the least responsive advocacy organizations I’ve seen in 43 years in journalism.

CIJA boasts of its work on Jewish issues in Canada (curiously, it does not have “Canada” in its name), which are detailed on its website. For fighting antisemitism, encouraging Jewish education, protecting kosher food, and other campaigns – wonderful. I applaud that, although it’s hard to judge its effectiveness or its value for money. Its budget is said to be $8 to $11 million, of which 40 percent, goes to advocacy on Israel. (CIJA refuses to say). To push this and other causes, it has 10 or so lobbyists.

For all its resources, though, how is CIJA the voice of “hundreds of thousands” of Jews in a country of 390,000 Jews? By what arithmetic, and with what authority?

The Canadian Jewish Congress, a venerable Jewish parliament, did not worry about its legitimacy. It had the confidence of Jews because it tried to represent all of them. It was a forum of conciliation between faiths, a voice of immigrants, and a champion of social justice. It had authenticity and loyalty. This we can say with confidence: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is not the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The Federation can address the problem with CIJA. It can tell CIJA to stop advocating for Israel in Canada, and focus exclusively on education and other domestic issues. It can allow donors skeptical of CIJA to designate their support to other worthy charities within the Federation. Or choose others outside it.

As the pandemic strains many charities heroically serving our community, CIJA is one progressive Jews no longer want to hear – and need no longer subsidize.


Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is an award-winning columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History

Dayeinu: Enough About the UN Vote

December 11, 2020 –

By ZACK BABINS

For most of 2020, same-sex marriage in Israel was effectively illegal. 

Well, that’s not quite true, and I apologize for the sensationalism. The truth is that same-sex marriage has never been legal in Israel. It’s “recognized,” which isn’t quite the same.

LGBTQ+ Israelis, or any Israelis who, for whatever reason, don’t want to submit to the Orthodox rabbinate’s dictums, have long had to travel to other countries to get married and return to the country – which, for obvious reasons has been quite impossible since March.

I didn’t learn this information from this news outlet, or any other outlet or organization that seeks to serve the Canadian Jewish community.

Instead I heard about the United Nations vote.

I also learned that – despite the ink spilled here and elsewhere – not a single Israeli citizen in Israel or in the Diaspora was in any way physically or tangibly harmed by Canada’s single vote at the UN General Assembly last month in favour of Palestinian self-determination (one of about 20 anti-Israel resolutions, all of which Canada voted against).

In fact, to my shock and surprise, the State of Israel was not un-existed overnight as a result of Canada voting for a resolution that did not explicitly include the phrase “Jewish self-determination.” It seems that the State of Israel, the very real embodiment of “Jewish self-determination,” does not require a UN vote to continue existing.

But I didn’t hear about that. I heard about the UN vote.

I didn’t hear about a high-ranking Conservative member of Parliament who fashions himself a friend of Israel, yet only a few months ago, retweeted wild and false antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, raging on about a “Great Reset” by “global financial elites” – two phrases that have meant “Jews” since at least the proliferation of the antisemitic forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th century. I heard about the UN vote.

In fairness, I heard a little bit about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointing Irwin Cotler as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

This is the first time Canada has had such an office. I applauded that move, as all Canadian Jews should have. I would say dayeinu, it would have been enough. But then, of course, the UN vote. That one UN vote.

The fact is, nobody else cares about the UN vote.

Israelis don’t seem to care about Canada’s vote at the UN. Their life didn’t change from one day to the next. Israelis don’t care that the vote was 163-5 instead of 162-6.

Palestinians certainly don’t care about Canada’s vote at the UN. They’re worrying about the pandemic. They worry about their jobs and their families. They care about creeping annexation, and worse.

Most Canadians, and frankly, a great many Canadian Jews, shouldn’t care about the UN vote either.

There is a global pandemic raging hotter and more destructively every single day, with cases climbing into thousands. Our families and our loved ones are in physical danger every day. Vaccines are coming but it is far from over.

We should be – many of us are – more worried about our employment and our businesses that may not survive the second wave without significant government intervention. We should be – and many of us are – worried about our own mental health – shaky at the best of times thanks to thousands of years of persecution. 

Our concern should lie with the subset of our local communities, the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, the rebels without a clue, who refuse to take the most basic of safety measures to protect all of us. And some of us are deeply concerned about the fact that these lunatics are being joined and lauded by white supremacists and neo-Nazis like Paul Fromm, who showed up to defend a Toronto barbecue restaurant operating illegally.

When I think about my political priorities as a Jew living in Canada, I don’t think about the UN. I think about my job and rent I have to pay. I think about being able to afford a Jewish life in an unaffordable Jewish community. I think about being able to return to a physical minyan or the JCC without fearing a security threat like we see all around the world, in Halle, in Pittsburgh, in Poway, and many more places, to say nothing of the fact that our Muslim brothers and sisters have been gunned down in this country while praying.

I think about a country whose most vulnerable citizens don’t have clean drinking water. I think about living in an environment in which I and my future children can breathe. I think about an Israel that is safe, secure, democratic, Jewish and tolerant, and I work and worry to make that Israel more real than it is now.

But I didn’t hear about any of that. Because, of course, I heard about the UN vote.


Zack Babins
Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Canada Votes at the UN: A Response to Jon Allen

Dec. 3, 2020

By MICHAEL MOSTYN

In his Nov. 25 defence in the CJR of Canada’s recent vote for what is, in fact, an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations, Jon Allen failed to properly address a number of key issues.

First, it is surprising to see Mr. Allen express consternation at the idea of Canada changing its vote from last year, when Canada altered its vote in favour of the same resolution. Since the days of the Liberal government under Paul Martin, Canada decided against voting any longer for one-sided, polemical anti-Israel resolutions at the UN. Last year’s vote for the resolution in question was a shocking departure from that principled policy, and so Canada’s vote against the resolution this year would have been an expected course-correction.

Second, we should not pretend that the problem with the resolution is its support for Palestinian self-determination or a Palestinian state. Israel itself has recognized the inevitability of that proposition on multiple occasions, including making generous offers in 2000, 2001, and 2008 for the creation of a Palestinian state. Tragically, the Palestinian leadership consistently rejected these offers because – bottom line – they refuse to accept the idea of a Jewish state. The persistent Palestinian rejection of Jewish self-determination is the core of the conflict, which this UN resolution only exacerbates.

The resolution makes peace far less likely by pre-determining that all areas east of the June 4, 1967 lines (also called the “Green Line”) are “the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem,” which therefore – absurdly – includes 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.

Crucially, and contrary to what Mr. Allen writes, Canada’s support of this resolution contradicts a key element of our own foreign policy. After all, in its official policy on “Support for a Comprehensive Peace Settlement,” Canada declares adherence to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for negotiations between the parties to determine the status of the territories. Since its self-defensive war in 1967, Israel has abided by 242 and 338 as the internationally accepted formula for peace-making.

However, the controversial UN resolution Canada just supported (co-sponsored by North Korea!) violates this formula, thereby contradicting our own policy against prejudging the outcome of negotiations. Oddly, Mr. Allen, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, has failed to acknowledge this glaring inconsistency.

Third, Mr. Allen ignores the context in which this resolution was presented at the UN. It was part of a suite of 17 resolutions targeting the world’s only Jewish state, compared to just seven resolutions dealing with the rest of the world. Our government has repeatedly recognized that this anti-Israel obsession at the UN is harmful to the cause of peace, which renders its partial participation with its “yes” vote on this one highly controversial resolution all the more galling.

Ironically, while peace and normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbours – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – being just the latest examples – are moving in one positive direction, typical anti-Israel forces in the West, including at the UN, insist on moving in a negative direction.

Mr. Allen is also mistaken that a significant portion of Canadian Jews shares his views. Rather, the position of B’nai Brith and the other major Jewish Canadian organizations represents an overwhelming consensus in our community, as shown by the hard data.

In 2018, the last year in which Canada opposed this resolution, a survey of Canada’s Jewish population by Environics, the University of Toronto and York University found that 45 percent of Canadian Jews felt that Canada’s support for Israel was “about right”; 36 percent felt it was not supportive enough; and just six percent felt it was too supportive (13 percent did not know or did not answer).

On this particular issue, Mr. Allen has positioned himself among that six percent. At B’nai Brith Canada, we are proud to represent the more than eight in 10, and we will continue to do so, advocating for our government to adhere, consistently, to its espoused principles.

Michael Mostyn
Michael Mostyn

Michael Mostyn is CEO of B’nai Brith Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s Curious Politics at the UN – Redux

Dec. 2, 2020

By DOGAN D. AKMAN

Successive Canadian governments, including the current one, never cease to refer to Israel as their strong ally and close friend.

Yet, on Nov. 19, Canada voted, for the second consecutive year, in favour of a United Nations resolution titled “The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

The preamble of the resolution, as are all such anti-Israel UN measures, refers to all sorts of international instruments, conferences, and whatnot to assert “the need for respect for and preservation of the territorial unity, contiguity and integrity of all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” As well, it:

• “Reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to their independent State of Palestine; and

• “Urges all states in the region and the specialized agencies and organizations of the United Nations system to continue to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination.”

This is an absurd resolution.

First, no country, including Israel, has denied the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

Second, none of the emanations of the UN system need to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination, since Israel and the United States, besides proposing and signing the Oslo Accords as the step towards Palestinian self-determination, offered two peace treaties with very generous terms in 2000 and 2018.

Third, the Palestinians have, to date, rejected every single peace offer that would have enabled them to become an independent state.

Fourth, the Palestinians never stopped claiming their entitlement to the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Fifth, as a matter of fact and law, the Palestinians do not have legal title to any of the so-called “Palestinian territory,” including any part of Jerusalem, save for personal land owned by individual Palestinians.

Finally, the lands in question are and remain set aside for the Jewish people pursuant to Article 80(1), Chapter XII of the United Nations Charter.

This article recognizes the continuing validity of the “Mandate for Palestine” established by the League of Nations, which incorporated the terms of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It goes beyond that to establish an internationally recognized right of the Jewish people – as the people indigenous to the lands covered by the Mandate – to establish their Jewish homeland which, in 1948, became the State of Israel.

As a matter of fact, to this very day, the Jewish people are entitled to settle on any part of this land.

Yet, the UN resolution Canada favours makes no mention of the inalienable legal rights of Israel and of the Jewish people to the lands in question.

Neither does it require – nay, demand – that the Palestinian people, in the early realization of their right to self-determination, cease to engage in terrorism against Israel and school their children to hate Jews and Israelis.

It does not call on Palestinians to take every confidence-building initiative towards negotiating a peace treaty with Israel in good faith, without making egregious claims that would lead negotiations nowhere.

Finally, it does not call for abiding by the terms of the Oslo Accords, and in particular, by the formal written assurances and undertakings given by former PLO leader Yasser Arafat to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in consideration of the accord, which have never been honored.

Why would Canada vote for this anti-Israel, mendacious and misleading resolution? Perhaps Canada’s explanation of its vote, known as an EOV, can shed some light.

“While we do not agree with some elements of the preamble, Canada will support this resolution because of its focus on these important, core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the EOV states.

The assertion that Canada disagrees with some elements of the preamble is an understatement if ever there was one. Surely the government has an obligation to identify these elements, and the same obligation to identify the substantive parts of the preamble with which it agrees.

One may wonder that if Canada does not agree with the entirety of the preamble, why bother voting for the resolution itself?

Finally, the government’s indifference to the misstatement of the law with respect to the alleged illegal occupation is shocking – particularly since Canada’s official position has always been that in the context of the two-state solution, and in accordance with section 80(1) of the UN Charter, the boundaries of each state have to be determined through negotiations.

Nevertheless, the EOV goes on to state: “The vote today is a reflection of our longstanding commitment to the right of self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis.” 

Yet, the resolution is silent on Israel’s self-determination.

And if the Palestinians have not secured self-determination, is that Israel’s fault? The alleged illegal occupation has nothing to do with it.

Adds the EOV: “Canada will support this resolution because of its focus on these important core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This is surely nonsense. The only issue addressed in this resolution is Palestinian self-determination, implicitly twinned with the pre-requisite of ending the so-called illegal occupation of “Palestinian Territory.”

The government then grandly states: “We will continue to oppose resolutions and initiatives which do not speak to the complexities of the issues.” The resolution it supported can hardly be characterized as speaking to the complexity of any issue.

Would Canada vote for this kind of resolution against any other of its strong allies and close friends? I think not.


Dogan Akman
Dogan Akman

Dogan D. Akman is an independent researcher and commentator. He holds a B.Sc. in sociology, an M.A. in sociology/criminology and an LL.B in law. He held academic appointments in sociology, criminology and social policy; served as a Judge of the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, and was Crown Counsel in criminal prosecutions and in civil litigation at the Federal Department of Justice. His academic work is published in peer-reviewed professional journals while his opinion pieces and other writings are to be found in various publications and blogs.

Complex Yet Critical: Where Does the Jewish Community’s Relationship with the Trudeau Government Stand?

Dec. 1, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

The multicultural mosaic of Canadian society is a critical pillar, one that makes our country unique. It adds to the vibrancy and richness of the fabric of our great nation. However, it also results in ongoing complexity as communities navigate their relationship with each other and with the federal government.

It’s first important to recognize that the Jewish community, like other ethnocultural groups in Canada, is not monolithic. To assume so would be to take a reductionist perspective. The pursuit of unity of purpose, despite disparity of opinion, is a lofty yet laudable objective.

On Nov. 25, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed human rights advocate and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler to the newly-created post of Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

Based on Cotler’s impressive body of work in law, academia, and politics, he’s an excellent, unifying choice. I want to fully acknowledge the importance of this announcement. While we wait to learn details of his mandate, we should watch his work closely and contribute when possible.

However, I cannot help but be troubled by this announcement’s timing, as it comes on the heels of Canada’s jarring vote at the United Nations on an Israel-related resolution.

Each year, the UN General Assembly considers the same basket of 20 or so motions on the “Question of Palestine,” but which serve to single out Israel, apply an unfair double-standard in assessing its policies, or worse.

One such resolution, which Canada approved, affirms Palestinian self-determination, but without reference to the same rights for Israel, and defies Jewish connections to what it classifies as “East Jerusalem,” including the Western Wall.

The vote marked the second consecutive year that Canada opposed Israel on this key resolution, while supporting Israel on most others.

This was a break from 14 years of Canadian foreign policy that refused to support UN motions singling out Israel, and which the Trudeau government upheld during its first term. Many community members feel betrayed by this policy reversal, since Liberal candidates in the last election promised to keep with this longstanding government position.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to consider where the Jewish community’s relationship stands with the federal government. On one hand, Cotler’s new post is good news. On the other, some might view this gesture as a cynical attempt to regain Jewish trust, after strong disappointment from a broad coalition of Jewish advocacy groups and community members with Canada’s UN vote reversal.

To navigate this relationship going forward, it’s important for us to own our end of the partnership. First, I would argue that based on Jewish history, including the Holocaust, it is often difficult for Jews to be fully trusting of government actions, especially after that trust is tarnished. I am hopeful that through this new post, more Canadians will become aware of key aspects of Jewish history, and that governments will become more sensitive to the caution inherent in our trust.

It is also important that our community be empowered and know our worth. We are worth, simultaneously, having our past recognized and our future protected. Grassroots community members deserve greater opportunities for direct engagement with government officials as a complement to the commendable advocacy work undertaken by Jewish organizations. We should feel supported unreservedly, without grounds for doubt in the government’s intentions.

Finally, it is important to remind ourselves of the inextricable link between the Holocaust, antisemitism, and the modern State of Israel. Israel’s founding and continued vitality represent a haven for Jews around the world. Any attempts to recognize the impact of the Holocaust and antisemitism are half-hearted without support for the State of Israel. This is the message we should continue to convey to our elected officials and to our neighbours.

Canadian Jewry’s relationship with the government of Canada is both complex and critical, and vice-versa. Despite challenges, we must not walk away, and we trust that our partners likewise engage in good faith. Let’s continue striving for better.


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.

Natan Sharansky and Irwin Cotler: ‘Mr. No’ and ‘Getting to Yes’

By GIL TROY

My wife jokes that the two reasons she failed to learn constitutional law at McGill University’s law school are named Irwin Cotler and Natan Sharansky.

In the mid-1980s, Cotler, her constitutional law professor, was busy flying to Moscow and missing lectures in an effort to free Sharansky from the Gulag. Today, I joke that two of the reasons I don’t get a lot of sleep are named Cotler and Sharansky.

At the age of 80, the indefatigable Cotler sets such a high standard of productivity and impact, you want to keep up. Just yesterday, he was named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. Meanwhile, his younger 72-year-old friend, Sharansky, and I just finished a three-year-marathon writing and rewriting and more rewriting project, which resulted in our new book, Never Alone.

These days, I hope, young people will joke that two of the reasons they balance their deep pride in being Jewish and Zionist with a broad commitment to human rights and fixing the world are named Cotler and Sharansky, too.

Sadly, in our either-or world, these human rights activists and traditional liberals risk being unfashionable. Beyond supporting Israel, they dare to be complex thinkers. When people demand they choose liberalism or nationalism, identity or freedom, Jewish particularism or universalism, they answer, “yes, both.” They understand that to row effectively, you need two oars; that for a bird to fly, let alone soar, it needs two wings.

In the late 1970s, Cotler, already a renowned McGill law professor and human rights lawyer, started representing Sharansky, essentially deputized by Natan’s wife, Avital. Back then, even some Israeli operatives read Zionism too narrowly. As we describe in Never Alone, these Zionists-with-blinders feared that Sharansky’s work with the Soviet human rights icon Andrei Sakharov and the broader dissident movement endangered the Refusenik movement’s fight for free emigration for Soviet Jews to Israel. The Israelis didn’t understand that to the KGB, seeking to leave was as threatening as speaking out. Still, they pressured Avital, suggesting she divorce her husband because the KGB was going to jail him, and Israel wouldn’t be able to protect him because he crossed some line They also pressured Cotler, among others, to stay away from Sharansky. None of them broke.

While appealing to international tribunals and Soviet courts, snaring the Communist dictators in their own hypocrisies, Cotler helped score a huge victory. Two months after Sharansky’s arrest in 1977 on trumped-up charges of espionage, rumours were flying about him in the West. Cotler and other lawyers, especially his Harvard law school colleague Alan Dershowitz, turned to Dershowitz’s former student, Stuart Eizenstat, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser. Eizenstat convinced Carter to break from standard American policy and declare that Sharansky wasn’t an America spy. Denying one accusation risked implying that others might be guilty. Carter’s bold statement helped tremendously.

For all their similarities in vision and ideology, for all their contributions to Zionism and human rights, there’s a profound difference. Our book is divided into three parts – 9-9-9 – for Sharansky’s nine years in Gulag, nine years in the Israeli government (he served in four cabinets, including as interior minister and deputy prime minister), and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He often jokes that he doesn’t know where he suffered most, but usually replies, “in politics.”

Not that he wasn’t effective. His many accomplishments range from helping Russian immigrants settle, to furthering Israel’s privatization, to building bridges between Israeli Arabs and Jews, the ultra-Orthodox and others, and between Israel and the Diaspora.

Still, Sharansky hated being a politician: the compromising, the posturing, the nattering. He jokes it was easy in prison. “All you had to say was ‘no.’” He describes his political “failure” by saying: “I was in four prisons and never resigned; I was in four governments and resigned twice.”

By contrast, Cotler served for 16 years as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister of Justice and Attorney General for three of those, and thrived. He retired, somewhat reluctantly, in 2015 at age 75, having been selected by his peers as Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year. Recalling that when he was 11, his father told him the Parliament represented vox populi, Cotler said: “This is the voice of the people. This is the seat of governance. This is where the laws of the country are made. This is where the national debates take place. This is where coalitions can form across party lines on certain cases and causes and move them forward.”

Note the power of programming. Sharansky survived in the Gulag as “Mr. No.” Cotler thrived as a lawyer, professor, activist, and parliamentarian by getting to Yes. Democracy in general and human rights work in particular requires both skill-sets – from different practitioners. You need Sharansky-dissidents taking those stands as outsiders, and you need Cotler-lawyer-legislators as insiders building the platforms on which those stands are made – as well as the safety nets to save the dissidents when necessary.

I have benefited immensely by learning from both. Their lives prove that when you belong to the Jewish people you are Never Alone – and that no matter how brave or visionary you are, you cannot accomplish much alone. You need teamwork, people with different skills, changing the world step by step, insiders and outsiders, “Mr. No” and “Getting to Yes,” working together.


Gil Troy
Gil Troy

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100 – one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life” – Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.

Canada Votes at the UN: A Response to the CIJA, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center

Nov. 25, 2020

By JON ALLEN

I am writing in response to the recent joint statement issued by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada, and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center regarding the Nov. 19 vote by Canada on a United Nations resolution affirming the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

I was surprised to receive the statement and I fundamentally disagree with it. I was surprised because it leaves the reader with the impression that this is a new resolution, a different vote from the one last year, and that the government has rethought its policies and has now betrayed the “Jewish community,” which these organizations purport to represent.

Just to be clear: This is the same resolution that the government, along with 163 other states, including all Europeans, the Nordics and New Zealand, supported last year. There were good reasons then for Canada to support the resolution and it is arguable, given recent events in the region, that there are even better reasons to support it this year. Moreover, it would be highly unusual for a government to change its vote one year as it did in 2019, and then, barring changed circumstances, reverse the change the next. Thus my surprise at both the tone and aggressive nature of the statement in question.

First, the reaffirmation of the right of Palestinians to self-determination and to an independent state is wholly consistent with Canadian government policy, and has been for decades through the Chrétien, Martin, Harper, and now, the Trudeau governments.

Second, some have suggested that the resolution is flawed because it does not specifically mention Israel, its right to exist or the two-state solution. This is a clear misreading of its intent and substance. The resolution is not about Israel or its right to exist. Israel exists and has since 1948, no matter who or how many times its existence is challenged. As the name of the resolution suggests, it is about the right of the Palestinian people to a state. The second to last preambular paragraph (preambular paragraphs set the context for the operative paragraphs that follow) specifically refers to a “lasting and comprehensive peace settlement between the Palestinians and the Israeli sides” and then cites: the Madrid Conference, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the Quartet road map, all of which assume, support and encourage a two-state solution.

Third, as mentioned, if Canada was correct in supporting the resolution in 2019 – and I believe it was – then given recent events in Israel and the territories, the vote this year is even more justified. The last year has seen significant expansion of illegal settlements, including into areas deep into the West Bank and around East Jerusalem. Such activities threaten the very viability of the two-state solution and the self determination of Palestinians referred to in the resolution. We also should recall that 2020 was a year in which the Israeli government threatened to annex approximately 30 percent of the West Bank, including much of the Jordan Valley.

Finally, I take exception with any statement of this nature that suggests that it represents the views of “the Jewish community.” It does not represent my views or those of the tens of thousands of progressive Jews for whom the two-state solution is seen as the saviour of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It would be more accurate, if in future communications, the organizations in question would make clear that they speak on behalf of themselves and not the Jewish community at large.


Jon Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010.

Not Yet Hanukkah: A Story of Miracles

By BERNIE FARBER

November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.

The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.

In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.

His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.

It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.

Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.

Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”

The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”

He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.

Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.

His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.

Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.

Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.

Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate. 

A Modern Stone-Age Look at Social Connections

Nov. 24, 2020

By DOROTHY LIPOVENKO

Hello, bonjour, Wilma Flintstine here. 

Name sound familiar? Distant cousins have a long-running TV show. The one with the dinosaur that vacuums. 

Our side of the family has been Flintstine for millennia, narrowly escaping a name change when the family tool business went public in the Iron Age. The underwriter, Morgan Stonely, argued that Flint would be an easier sell on the IPO road show, upsetting the older directors. Legend has it the founder’s granddaughter, Rockel, cast the deciding ballot for keeping tradition, and was named Flintstine’s first female CEO in 1000 BCE.

The media promptly crowned her “The New Millennium’s New Power Tool.” Sales exploded, and short sellers in the company’s stock lost their togas. One sore loser publicly groused women should stick to their looms running a shmatta business. 

But traders who bet on her liked to say Rockel had a man’s head on a woman’s shoulders.

Soon enough, her success attracted the wrong attention. But not for long; outraged women shareholders sent corporate raiders fleeing in an uprising famously known as Balabustas at the Gate.  

Fast forward 3,000 years: Flintstine Industries cycled through numerous incarnations and eventually was gobbled up by some entity. The family yichus is nice as pedigrees go, but makes no difference when the 21st century is moving on without me.

True, my house, built in 1895, has running water and a flush toilet, but such modern conveniences I can get behind. I don’t have a cell phone (and I’m in good company on this one with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards); my refusal to open a Facebook account is a bigger headache for Mark Zuckerberg than his company’s data breaches. Birds tweet, not me; Instagram I initially mistook for an itty-bitty unit of measurement.

So how much longer can one hold out against the forces of technology? Is resistance futile? Or is resistance masking an attitude problem?

Answers: Don’t know. Probably. Maybe.

But does my living off the digital grid interest sociologists? No. Seems every week there’s new research on the impact social media is having, or wreaking havoc, on human behaviour.

Aside from spawning depression, loneliness and the latest bugaboo – cancel culture – the laundry list reads like Yom Kippur’s confessional rap sheet: Envy, mockery, indulgence, boastfulness, shaming, resentment, anger.

My favourite is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but of what, exactly? Even toddlers, once thrilled to flush toys down a toilet and watch the bathroom flood, are now hunched over digital screens like middle-aged accountants. Kinderlach, where’s the mischief?

Is it too late to curb the appetite for social media? Yes, because so many are hooked on popping virtually into kitchens and closets around the corner and around the world, obsessing that everyone else seems to be living a better life. 

But look no further than social distancing for the real shakeup in personal behaviour. And it’s not limited to six feet of empty space between you and the next customer in the checkout aisle.

Social distancing was not invented during this pandemic. 

On a personal level, we decide with whom we want to socialize, who our children can play with, who merits our time and attention, who gets to join our book clubs and social cliques. We may distance ourselves from people who don’t share our values, and we gravitate to the influential. Political differences, once the stuff of lively debate over coffee, have grown elbows sharp enough to bruise friendships, or turn newcomers away.

At some point, COVID will be over and we can happily return to standing next to someone at the supermarket without worrying whether we’ll catch something. Perhaps we’ll also learn to narrow other types of self-imposed distances.


Dorothy Lipovenko montreal
Dorothy Lipovenko

Dorothy Lipovenko is a former newspaper reporter who lives in Montreal, where she can be reached on a landline phone. She can be found in the kitchen, not on Facebook.

Anti-Social Media: When Mud is Thrown in All Directions

Nov. 23, 2020

By DAVE GORDON

If there was social media 3,000 years ago, Jews would have been bitterly divided over King David. The big scandal would be that he sent Uriah, husband of Batsheva, to purposefully die on the battlefield in order to take her as his own.

There would be a camp defending him: He’s a holy leader, the Messiah will come from him, he built Jerusalem! And a camp boiling with rage: He’s a misogynist, narcissist, evil, a murderer!

And it would fire from both ends; anyone who says otherwise is a traitor to our people. 

Surely we’re nodding, as though we’re reading a biting Onion satire serving as painful metaphor.

Something similar occurred lately to one of our community members, Rafi Yablonsky, who wrote about the blowback from his Facebook post congratulating Kamala Harris on her election as U.S. Vice-President. The epithets hurled at him were disgraceful – a shameful lack of civility and respectful discourse.

He should be – we all should be – rightfully outraged. 

With due respect to Rafi, whom I admire for his invaluable Jewish community service, I have an addendum. I believe he ought to have also chided his own side, even if in passing, so as not to give the impression such behaviours are limited to the right.

He complains there are Jews who are labeled “heretics” for not supporting Donald Trump, while I contend, at the same time, that it’s important to know there are Jews who are labeled heretics (and much worse) for supporting Trump.

He inadvertently provides evidence for this, in his “two kinds of Jews” theory:

“There are Jews who, ignore, or worse, laud and emulate his [Trump’s] hatred towards women, minorities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone who opposes him. These sentiments stem mainly from his decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and several other pro-Israel policy shifts. And then there are the rest of us.” 

So, one is either a Trump-supporting Jew who encourages hate in all its forms, or a morally upstanding anti-Trump Jew. This us/them black/white characterization is overly-simplistic, lacks crucial nuance, and implicitly paints “other” Jews as terrible people.

I have met scores of kind, good-hearted Jews who support Trump.

There are swaths of LGBTQ+, Latinos, Blacks and women who voted for him, too. Are they all hate-enablers?

No one can judge another’s character based simply on where their X is on their ballot. What I know about any given Trump voter is virtually nothing, because I do not have a looking glass into the heads of 73 million people. And neither does anyone else.

Here’s what some might find unbelievable. For every tweet, policy or malapropism that is perceived to be anti-woman, anti-minorities, or anti-LGBTQ+, there are Trump supporters who can explain a completely opposite perspective that they believe invalidates the accusation. And as we’ve undoubtedly heard, there are supporters who vote for policy over personality.

That doesn’t make them bad people. Misguided, perhaps. Uninformed, perhaps. Or, to their minds, wise. Whichever the case, they, like anyone, deserve to be treated with dignity.

So while Rafi is correct to reproach Trump-supporters who were disrespectful, it’s an error of omission to avoid mentioning the same issues that exist on the opposing end. 

I cannot count the number of times I have seen Trump and those who support him called Nazis, haters, and racists. This is especially true from the six “A’s:” activists, academia, athletes, artists, authors and anchors. The most recent example is CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who equated Trump with Nazis. Comparisons like these are being normalized; trivializing the Shoah by the day.

And to paraphrase Rafi, “there are Jews who ignore, or worse, laud and emulate this hatred.” I’ve seen Jews on social media compare Trump to Hitler, and compare his Jewish supporters to kapos, and not a peep – not even a “thumbs down” – from their friends. 

Just after the election, a prominent and respected member of our community stated on his Facebook wall that he believes Trump is “evil.” (What does that make Heinrich Himmler? “Super-evil?”) This individual also said Trump’s supporters are evil, and asked to be unfriended from anyone who supports the president.

By his reckoning, a person cannot simultaneously be a decent human being, and still think Trump may have accomplished some good (or at least, believe him better than the alternative). 

One must pass a “political purity test” even to be virtual friends with him.

How does unity, so vigorously preached, spring from such intolerance? 

So it’s clear: My political positions are complicated. I might be seen defending conservative positions online, but I also hold many classic liberal beliefs, and surprisingly, a couple of leftist ones.

I would sooner enjoy a dinner with a mensch with whom I differ than have so much as a l’chaim with a shmuck who votes like I do. 

This isn’t achieved through “othering,” which actually goes beyond just Trump, or Obama, or any politician. On social media, going as far back as the day I first signed in to Facebook in 2007, I saw disdain and derision in place of disagreement, on both sides. Particularly during election years. It got personal.

Obsessed as we are when Israel is demonized, and when Jews as a whole are dehumanized, somehow there’s no overlap in lesson when we do this to our fellow. 

In the early 20th century, author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about the French philosophe Voltaire, to whom the quote is often misattributed, famously wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

The 21st century needs an updated version: “I disapprove of what you say, and I will admonish those who demean you for saying it.”


Dave Gordon
Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon’s writing has appeared in more than 100 media outlets around the world, including the National Post, Toronto Star, Washington Times, BBC, Montreal Gazette, and Baltimore Sun. His website is www.DaveGordonWrites.com 

Ontario Does Not Need the IHRA Definition to Fight Antisemitism

November 19, 2020

By DOGAN D. AKMAN

On Oct. 26, the Ontario government short-circuited the legislative process around Bill 168, the Combating Antisemitism Act, and passed an Order-in-Council (“OIC”) through which the province adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, including the list of illustrative examples – the “complete definition.” The OIC was rushed through by Premier Doug Ford in response to the recent vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, where someone had carved an antisemitic symbol.

Once enacted, the Bill and the OIC require the government to be guided by the complete definition when it interprets its legislation, regulations and policies designed to protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to antisemitism.

As to be expected upon the OIC’s publication, the next day, three leading national Jewish organizations and a progressive one, JSpaceCanada, immediately praised, applauded and celebrated the decision.

And again, as to be expected, a variety of pro-Palestinian organizations, joined by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), protested the government’s move on the three perennial grounds, namely, the definition is faulty because it –

may be used successfully to label as antisemitic the critics of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and the  Palestinian Authority; those governing the treatment of her Israeli Arabs citizens; or the governance of parts of Judea and Samaria pursuant to and in accord with the Oslo accords, and

may infringe upon freedom of speech, and academic freedom.

I submit that the best way to begin the assessment of the OIC and predict the nature and scope of the alleged threats to freedoms is to examine Ontario’s record of fighting antisemitism during the years 2014 to 2020, a period when the province adopted an “anti-racism strategic plan” and enacted the Anti-Racism Act in 2017 along with the accompanying Three-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan. Ontario’s legislature also passed a motion denouncing the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign Israel that led nowhere.

Based on Ontario’s track record during these six years, the applause, praise and celebration over the IHRA decision are quite premature. In this period, Ontario became the antisemitism capital of the country. And the alleged twin threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom are unlikely to materialize.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 5, JSpaceCanada published an article in these pages titled “Why We Support the IHRA definition of Antisemitism…Cautiously,” in which it promises “to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not suppress freedom of speech or academic freedom…We are committed to monitoring and speaking out against any attempt to misuse the IHRA definition to attack Palestinian activism or to promote Islamophobia. And we will defend those whom we feel have been wrongfully accused of antisemitism.”

This, in turn, raises the question of when JSpaceCanada will fight antisemitism instead of allocating its resources to fight and defend Palestinian activism and Islamophobia (the latter has yet to be defined in a sensible manner.)

The plain truth is that Ontario did not and does not need the IHRA definition, whatever its merits, in order to fight antisemitism or to enact a proper BDS motion. It already had and still has the tools long before it adopted the IHRA wording.

But if that was the case, one may wonder why, for example, the province never took universities to task for:

• permitting the establishment of antisemitic campus clubs and demanding that they get rid of them;

• failing to prevent and deter the antisemitic verbal and physical harassment and violence perpetrated against Jewish students, and 

• allowing some of their faculty to engage in written and/or verbal antisemitic behaviour under the cover of academic freedom, and failing that, pleading freedom of speech.

The province also failed to set timelines within which the universities must resolve antisemitic problems on campus, such as the foregoing, and to warn them that failure to do so will result in cutbacks in provincial funding.

Academic freedom is not absolute. This freedom can be legitimately invoked only by those who abide by and discharge the corresponding moral and intellectual obligations. And in this connection, when did, for example, the JSC target those who write, teach and preach in dereliction of their obligations? When did it speak up against studies which deliberately use corrupt methodologies and resort to intellectually obscene analysis of data generated by such methodologies?

Those on the Jewish Left – “progressives” such as JSpaceCanada – risk aiding and abetting antisemitism by remaining silent instead of fighting the foregoing antisemitic activities and a multitude of others of the same ilk.

And given political and electoral realities, it remains to be seen whether this time around, Ontario will do what it would not for years.


Dogan Akman
Dogan Akman

Doğan D. Akman is an independent researcher and commentator. He holds a B.Sc. in sociology, an M.A. in sociology/criminology, and an LL.B in law. He held academic appointments in sociology, criminology and social policy; served as a judge of the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, and was a Crown Counsel in criminal prosecutions and in civil litigation at the federal Department of Justice. His academic work is published in peer-reviewed professional journals, while his opinion pieces and other writings have appeared in various publications and blogs.

It’s Not About Antisemitism. it’s About Free Speech

Nov. 18, 2020

By AMOS GOLDBERG

On Oct. 26th, Ontario adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism through an Order in Council. 

On the face of it, what could be more appropriate than adopting a clear definition of antisemitism that helps fight this scourge? It would seem obvious that all decent people should unite in this just and essential fight.

Unfortunately, this definition – and especially the 11 examples appended to its original text – help very little, if at all, to fight antisemitism. Rather than helping to stamp out antisemitism, several of these examples actually serve to curb free speech on Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, shaping the debate over Israel-Palestine in a way that practically silences the Palestinian voice.

Let’s take a look at one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is considered antisemitic. The first question that comes to mind is: if denying Jews the right of self-determination is antisemitic because it’s a universal right, how should we define denying the Palestinian right for self-determination? Why is denying Palestinian self-determination a legitimated political opinion and, in fact, Israel’s practical policy, while denying Jewish self-determination is considered antisemitic? The second question that comes to mind is that almost all countries on the globe are accused of being racist. Why should Israel be shielded from such legitimate allegations?

But there is more to it. The reasons almost all Palestinians, including the most devoted supporters of the two-states solution, reject Zionism is not because they are antisemites, but because they experience Zionism as oppressive and colonial. None other than the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of the ruling Likud party, acknowledged this already in his 1923 article “The Iron Wall.” There, he asserted that like all colonized peoples, the Palestinians reject Zionism because they oppose what they perceive – and from their perspective rightly so – as foreign invaders. Following Jabotinsky, we can say that denying Jews’ right to self-determination in Palestine as such is not antisemitic even for ardent Zionists like Jabotinsky. One can certainly reject this view but there is nothing antisemitic in it.

Insisting on the opposite practically delegitimizes, silences and criminalizes all Palestinians (and very many non-Zionist Jews) who, as Jabotinsky observed, reject Zionism for understandable (even if rejectable) reasons. Opposing Zionism is hence a legitimate view secured by the right of free speech and, in fact, a legitimate Jewish opinion.

This is only one of many examples of how the definition actually prevents free speech and an honest discussion on Israel-Palestine while disguising itself as a fight against antisemitism. In fact, the definition actually distorts the very essence of this fight. Most scholarly accounts of modern antisemitism connect it to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the nation-state. Fighting antisemitism is about protecting a vulnerable minority against the violent homogenizing tendency of the majority society. The IHRA definition does precisely the opposite. It protects a powerful state, Israel, from criticism of its well-documented violations of the human rights of its vulnerable minority and occupants. In short, the IHRA definition has become a powerful silencing mechanism that serves only to increase the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kenneth Stern, who, 15 years ago, was the lead author of the IHRA definition (for research, not legislative purposes) and is now one of its chief critics, has written: “I’m a Zionist,” but “anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.” The IHRA definition has been deployed to undermine that right, he asserts. We should be very attentive to his words and call on the Ontario legislature to take great care in how it interprets this harmful definition. 


Amos Goldberg
Amos Goldberg

Amos Goldberg is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent publications are Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust; and his co-edited volume with Bashir Bashir: The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.

Wishing Biden and Harris Well Online? Buckle Up…

Nov. 17, 2020

By RAFI YABLONSKY

My parents were born in Israel. I was born in Israel. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel. All four of my wife’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. My wife’s grandfather, Bill Glied, with whom I sat at the verdict of Reinhold Hanning, one of the last Nazis to be tried for war crimes, had spent the last two decades of his life pursuing Holocaust education and telling his story to thousands of students. I have spent my adult life working in the Jewish community, raising millions of dollars for Israel and Jewish communal organizations.

And somehow, here was a comment on my Facebook post telling me that I was no longer Jewish, no longer Israeli.

What was my crime? My unforgivable sin, according to too many commenters?

After four years of the bigotry and venom that Donald Trump and his followers unleashed on the world, and after nearly four days of vote counting, Joe Biden had been declared President-elect in the United States. His running mate, Kamala Harris, had made history by becoming the first woman and first person of colour to hold the title of Vice President-elect.

Her election is an inspiration to millions of young girls across the United States. I was elated to see an end to the sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and racism coming from the White House. I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe that would be the end of the happy story. 

I put up a brief post on my Facebook wall – a picture of the VP-elect, and a message of congratulations.

I didn’t expect what was to come. 

I didn’t expect to be bombarded with over 100 comments attacking me. I didn’t expect to be sworn at, to be told that I was anti-Israel, antisemitic, and a Nazi party supporter to boot.

A sampler:

– For a Jew like you to support Biden is like supporting Nazi Germany.

– Congratulations on cheating.

– F**k you Rafi, you’re pathetic.

Paraphrasing, one commenter said I’m not Jewish. I’m not Israeli. I’m a Canadian communist for supporting Biden/Harris.

I founded the Hasbara at York group, a student organization at the university which focuses on Israel education. I’ve been called a fascist and a racist for supporting Israel in the past. I’ve been called an occupier and Nazi for supporting Israel. I’ve never had my Jewishness negated by a fellow Jew.

I didn’t expect to have my Judaism diminished. And I certainly didn’t expect that an old friend I’ve known for almost two decades would like that comment. 

I received a number of messages of support. From friends, from family, from current and former members of Parliament and heads of major Toronto Jewish institutions. But I barely slept that night. This was the first time I’ve blocked people on Facebook. I had to “unfriend” someone in real life. 

The truth is, I cannot remember a time when the Jewish community has been this starkly divided, and never this viscerally. Our community is drenched in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Donald Trump has divided the Jewish community into two kinds of Jews. There are Jews who, ignore, or worse, laud and emulate his hatred towards women, minorities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone who opposes him. These sentiments stem mainly from his decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and several other pro-Israel policy shifts. And then there are the rest of us. 

My grandparents who, thank G-d, survived Auschwitz, used to tell me how in the cattle cars, there were Jews of every denomination, from every corner of the political spectrum. Their destination didn’t care if they were secular or Hasidic, right or left wing. They were just Jews destined for the same fate. 

Jews argue. We disagree with each other. It’s a trait that is deep and celebrated in our history and our texts. But the Talmud tells us kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are not the enemy. But there is a part of our community – one that has been growing over the past four years – that treats any Jews who dislike Donald Trump as heretics. 

In the days since Biden and Harris were elected, there’s been a lot of calls for unity. I think that’s great. We are in desperate need of reconciliation, in the Jewish community as much as the rest of society. But reconciliation and unity doesn’t mean we meet in the middle. 

We meet in a place that respects women, Indigenous peoples and people of colour – and we in the Jewish community must dig particularly deep for Jewish women, and Jewish women of colour. We meet in a place that accepts and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community and the Jews who I’ve marched with in the Toronto Pride Parade when Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) tried to have us barred from participating.

I replied to that Facebook commenter, saying that while I pitied him, I didn’t think his support for Trump had cost him his Judaism. I still think about all the negative comments I received over the past few days and I hope daughters never see what their fathers wrote. I hope they instead see Harris shatter the glass ceiling and be encouraged to follow their dreams. 

And more than anything else, I hope that those Jews who have taken to dismissing our Jewishness remember that kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh and that we are all Jews and will always be family.


Rafi Yablonksy
Rafi Yablonksy

Rafi Yablonsky holds a BComm from York University and worked in the hi-tech industry before working at United Jewish Appeal as Manager of Strategic Initiatives. Rafi has worked as the Toronto Director of Chai Lifeline, as campaign director at JNF Toronto, and most recently, at the Baycrest Foundation as Manager of Major Gifts.

Parshat Lech Lecha: The Incredible Journey…Into Ourselves

Nov. 6, 2020

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.
– Dr. Seuss

In passages following the story of Noah and the collapse of the Tower of Babel, we meet Abram, but G-d is AWOL. The Torah mentions Abram’s ancestors and his family, but on the topic of a budding relationship between him and G-d – one that resulted in monotheism and the creation of three of the world’s religions – the Torah is not forthcoming on Abram becoming the world’s first Jew. The first indication that G-d has made contact with him is in the first line of Lech Lecha:

“Adoshem said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen 12:1). 

This is a little disorienting: It feels like we stumbled into the middle of an intense and affectionate conversation with no context or understanding. The reappearance of G-d raises many more questions than it answers; How did G-d reach out to Abram? How did their relationship develop? Why did G-d choose Abram in the first place?

Our sages fill in the answers with Midrashim, but much goes unanswered, and the mystery is never really solved.

Another unexpected occurrence is after G-d tells Abram to Lech Lecha, usually translated as “Go Forth.” It speaks of making Abram a great nation, how he will be blessed, his name shall be great…and then the conversation abruptly stops. Abram doesn’t thank G-d or ask any questions or even acknowledge G-d’s extraordinary message. All we learn is that at 75 years old, Abram went forth. His silence is puzzling. Perhaps he is overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to say, or maybe he feels there is nothing to say. Or maybe Abram realizes that Lech Lecha here is not just information but a spiritual destiny, and that there are no words to express that new awareness. As the expression goes: “A meaningful silence is always better than meaningless words.”

Abram’s subsequent journey away from his father’s home is one with which many of us can identify. Most of us remember having to make a physical and emotional break from our parents’ homes to become self-actualized. 

Hillel houses on university campuses highlight Lech Lecha as a touch-point for new students arriving every year. These young adults leaving their parents’ homes for the first time feel a connection with Abram when G-d tells him to Lech.

But it’s not only students who can identify with Lech Lecha. The phrase has another deeper connotation: It doesn’t just mean “Go Forth,” but also “Get To Yourself” or “Go Inward”. When a student breaks away and leaves home, another journey is occurring, that of the parent. Yes, Abram and Sarai embody young adults leaving their parents’ homes, but they also represent their middle-aged and menopausal parents examining and restructuring their lives from within.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce says, “Abraham’s going forth to Canaan, his going away from his homeland, coincides with his going into himself, instructing the reader to understand that a journey should lead inward and outward, to the known and the unknown, heavenward and earthbound.”

Like Abram and Sarai, young people have to decide where to go, how to conduct themselves with strangers, how to manage their households, and a thousand other decisions, making mistakes along the way. It all comprises how they want to live.

But Abraham and Sarah are also commencing a different journey – a journey inward. They have to decide who they are, what do they believe, and how much faith they have in this next stage of life. When G-d adds an extra hei to their names to reflect their covenant, they need to reassess: Do their internal identities match their new external ones?

Lech Lecha is a journey that we all take and we take it more than once in our lives. For good and for bad, in sickness and in health, in the versions of ourselves that are young and a little older, the command to go forth must include the time and the silence to learn who we are. 


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 in December 2020.

Why We Support the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism… Cautiously

Nov. 5, 2020 

By JORDAN DEVON AND KAREN MOCK

On Oct. 27, Ontario became the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. JSpaceCanada, the organization we represent, joined the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in applauding this decision

As most in our community are aware, we do not always see eye to eye with these organizations. As a progressive Zionist Jewish voice, we are unapologetic in our opposition to the Israeli occupation and emphatic in our support for a two-state solution – positions that aren’t always shared by more dominant community institutions.

But on this occasion, we felt the need to rise above these differences. While our community has diverse voices and opinions, there is clear consensus about the need to combat the alarming rise of antisemitism. We cannot protect our society from the scourge of antisemitism if we are unable to name it, to identify it properly, and to address it consistently. 

The IHRA definition states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The definition has been given broad acceptance by Jewish communities around the world. By adopting it, Ontario is following the anti-racist/anti-oppression norm that victimized groups can best define the terms that describe discrimination against them.

However, it must be noted that the IHRA definition does not come without its critics.

Shortly after we released our statement in support of the provincial government’s decision to bypass public committee hearings and proceed to endorsement, we received concerned, disappointed, and even angry messages from allies and colleagues in the Arab community, who noted that the IHRA definition has been used to suppress criticism of Israel in jurisdictions around the world. 

Indeed, the IHRA definition comes with a list of illustrative examples of antisemitism, some of which have been interpreted as appearing to conflate criticism of Zionism and Israel with antisemitism.

The definition, as drafted by Kenneth Stern and an international team of scholars, was meant to be used as a tool or resource to assist in identification and documentation, and not to be legally binding. However, there is great concern that the IHRA definition has been weaponized by right-wing groups to suppress even tepid criticism of Israel – a reality that has been acknowledged by Stern himself.

But we can understand why reference to the IHRA language is alarming for communities who experience Israel and Zionism differently than Jews do. And we acknowledge the distinctions and relationships between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

Criticizing Israeli policy is not inherently antisemitic. Indeed, the IHRA definition itself specifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that against any other state cannot be considered to be antisemitic.”

As a progressive Zionist organization, JSpaceCanada has actively criticized discriminatory Israeli government policies, and we will continue to do so, challenging Israel to fulfill the promise of its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between well-meaning critics of Israel and those who are influenced by antisemitism, or may cross the line into antisemitic rhetoric.

We will continue to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not supress freedom of speech or academic freedom. In the same vein, we would expect that definitions of racism or any form of discrimination should not be used to silence speech that does not meet one of the criteria of hate speech.

We are committed to monitoring and speaking out against any attempt to misuse the IHRA definition to attack Palestinian activism or to promote Islamophobia. And we will defend those whom we feel have been wrongfully accused of antisemitism.


Dr. Karen Mock is the President of JSpaceCanada
Jordan Devon is the Vice-President of JSpaceCanada. 
JSpaceCanada is an all-volunteer, non-partisan, progressive Jewish organization.