Canada Announces More Funding for UNRWA

Dec. 22, 2020

By RON CSILLAG

Canada has announced more funding – up to $90 million over three years – for Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The funds will “help respond to the rising needs of vulnerable Palestinian refugees in UNRWA’s five areas of operation: the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan,” said a Dec. 21 statement from Karina Gould, Minister of International Development.

The previous release of regular funding to UNRWA was in 2018, when Canada announced a contribution of $50 million over two years.

This time, the funds will contribute “to meeting the basic education, health and livelihood needs of Palestinian refugees, especially women and children,” Gould’s office stated. 

It will also provide “emergency life-saving assistance to an estimated 465,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon, through UNRWA’s Emergency Appeal for the Syria regional crisis. In addition, it will complement UNRWA’s response to the new and emerging needs created by the COVID pandemic.”

Canada’s funding of UNRWA continues to be a hot-button issue in Jewish circles. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eliminated aid to the agency in 2010 over its ties to Hamas. The Liberals restored funding in 2016 with promises of more stringent oversight. The latest tranche puts Canada’s combined commitment at about $200 million.

There have long been allegations that funds and supplies to UNRWA are diverted to terrorist activity, black marketeering, and to bankroll antisemitic and anti-Zionist propaganda, especially in Palestinian schools.

B’nai Brith Canada said it is “extremely disappointed” at Canada’s latest round of aid to the agency.

The move represents “a missed opportunity to leverage our international leadership to foster conditions for a durable Middle East peace during a time of transformative regional change,” B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn told the CJR in an email. The agency’s core objectives “are not conducive to finding equitable solutions for Palestinian ‘refugees,’ and its educational efforts help perpetuate a feeling of hatred towards Israel and the Jewish people. This must end.”

Mostyn called it “intolerable that UNRWA schools continue to indoctrinate Palestinian children toward antisemitism and eternal war, rather than peace and acceptance. Canadians deserve to know that their international aid dollars are not supporting terrorism or incitement in any way, shape or form.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, sounded a more conciliatory tone. He said CIJA supports Canadian humanitarian aid “to those genuinely in need, particularly the victims of the devastating conflict in Syria where the humanitarian situation remains extremely dire.”

Over the years, Fogel said CIJA “has communicated our concerns about UNRWA’s accountability and neutrality to the Government of Canada. We appreciate both the government’s acknowledgement of these concerns and the measures Canada has now put into place to ensure meaningful accountability and oversight.”

Ottawa said it is continuing its support for UNRWA’s “ongoing efforts to promote neutrality in its operations and among its staff.”

On its website, the federal government referenced the “Framework for Cooperation” between Global Affairs and UNRWA, a 3,000-word document that lays out such issues as monitoring, reporting, oversight, policies of neutrality, and compliance with Canadian anti-terrorism requirements. It was signed in April 2017 by Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner General of UNRWA and Peter Boehm, Deputy Minister of International Development.

In August 2019, B’nai Brith and CIJA called on Ottawa to suspend funding to UNRWA after a damning report alleged widespread mismanagement, nepotism and wrongdoing at the agency.

Last April, Erin O’Toole, then a candidate for the leadership of the federal Conservatives, told The Canadian Jewish News: “I will end funding for UNRWA unless it is significantly reformed. It cannot under any circumstances provide support to terror organizations or their affiliates. It also cannot create dependencies, which serve as a deterrent to lasting peace and deter resettlement efforts in other parts of the world. Canada will not continue funding if these reforms are not underway by the midway point of our first term.”

Gould’s Dec. 21 statement said the needs of Palestinian refugees “are undeniable, especially during a global pandemic: they face high rates of poverty, food insecurity and unemployment,” continued. Ottawa’s continued support for UNRWA “builds upon Canada’s long-standing commitment to Palestinians while also contributing to stability in the region.”

She said this latest round of aid will help more than half a million Palestinian refugee children receive quality basic education.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, expressed concern that Canada “still refuses to support UNRWA politically or diplomatically.”

Earlier this month, Canada abstained on a UN resolution to renew UNRWA’s mandate, and voted “no” on another motion supporting the activities of UNRWA, the group noted in a statement following the announcement of Canada’s latest round of funding.

“It is hypocritical when Canada funds UNRWA to the tune of $90 million, but then refuses to stick up for the agency politically on the international stage,” said Michael Bueckert, vice president of CJPME.

JSpaceCanada welcomes the government’s announcement.

“This funding will provide Palestinians with crucial education, health, and livelihood supports – making important contributions to regional stability and peace,” the progressive group said in a statement. It also applauded Canada’s “continued work to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability of UNWRA and of all foreign aid commitments.”

Retired Supreme Court Judge to Head U of T Hiring Controversy

Dec. 21, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada will head an inquiry into how the University of Toronto handled the hiring of a scholar with a history of anti-Israel activism to head a law school program.

Honourable Thomas A. Cromwell C.C
Retired Justice Thomas Cromwell

Retired Justice Thomas Cromwell, who left the high court in 2016, will review how U of T’s law school handled the controversial hiring of Valentina Azarova to head its International Human Rights Program.

The probe was supposed to be led by former Trent University president Bonnie Patterson. She stepped down, however, over public concerns about the impartiality and credibility of an investigation commissioned by university administrators who might be among its subjects.

As the public face of the review changes, B’nai Brith Canada released a 17-page submission it intends to make, and questioned the focus of media coverage of the affair.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn said too much media attention has been focused on allegations of donor interference in the appointment and not on the fact the job was offered to a scholar whose extensive record of anti-Israel work would ultimately harm the human rights program and the academic freedom of Jewish students in it.

Valentina Azarova

“Azarova’s longstanding commitments amount not to impartial academic work but rather to an obsession with delegitimizing Israel, and to working with a variety of extreme anti-Zionist organizations,” he wrote.

“We believe it’s vital to draw attention to a side of this story that has somehow escaped the attention it deserves,” Mostyn added. “How someone like Azarova, with a background of extreme hostility to Israel, was not only seriously considered by U of T Law’s Search Committee to lead the IHRP, but was reportedly the unanimously chosen candidate to do so, cries out for a thorough airing.”

Azarova and her supporters say she was offered the position as head of the human rights program, but the offer was then withdrawn after objections from a university donor.

The law school dean has never denied being approached by a donor, but rejected suggestions that coloured his decision. He has said an employment offer to Azarova was never made because of unspecified immigration problems.

Tax Court Judge David Spiro has been identified as the donor who objected to Azarova’s hiring. His conduct is currently being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council, the disciplinary body for judges.

In its brief to the Cromwell review, B’nai Brith argues the hiring committee should have taken a harder look at Azarova’s “extreme one-sided history of seeking to delegitimize and demonize Israel, and her active and visible association with a multitude of virulently anti-Zionist organizations.”

B’nai Brith also urged the review to find that the university should have stopped Azarova’s candidacy once it was determined the hiring committee hadn’t addressed those issues; and that the university adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism as a guide to the application of its policies on freedom of expression, freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The Cromwell report is scheduled to be submitted in mid-January directly to university president Meric Gertler, who has promised to make its conclusions public.

COVID Slams Hamilton’s Shalom Village

Dec. 18, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Hamilton’s Jewish retirement home kept COVID infections at bay for nine months, but now, Shalom Village is being hammered by the deadly infection.

By Wednesday of this week, Shalom Village’s interim CEO, Larry Levin, reported that four people died from the virus and another 81 were infected throughout the campus.

Dr Larry Levin
Dr Larry Levin

“I appreciate that this is a time of tremendous stress, fear and sadness,” Levin said in a note to residents. “Indeed all of us at Shalom Village  (myself included) are devastated to know that so many of the Shalom Village family are impacted by the COVID virus, and saddened to have lost four of our residents to this pervasive, and deadly virus.”

Levin said that as of Dec. 16, 40 staff had tested positive for the virus, and with those people required to stay home, staffing at the facility was maintained with the help of workers hired through a private contractor recommended by St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

“This has had a dramatic effect on our ability to staff the home,” he said. “We are in close contact with public health every day and we are making progress on this.

The staffing problem was so severe that the Hamilton Jewish Federation issued a call for volunteers to help with food delivery to residents confined to their rooms. Levin said on Wednesday, however, that those volunteers will not be used until the outbreak has been defeated. Any shortage of staff will be made up with workers from a private contractor suggested by St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

“This should meet our need until the outbreak has been cleared,” Levin said in an email exchange. “Any community volunteers will not be deployed until the outbreak has been declared over.”

“Right now we are managing with our existing model,” he added.

Levin reported six of the infected residents are in the facility’s apartment complex while 35 are in its long-term care facility.

Shalom Village has been ordered by the public health department to allow St. Joseph’s Healthcare to monitor, investigate and respond to the outbreak.

“St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton will be working in partnership with Shalom Village to monitor, investigate and respond to the infection prevention and control matters needed to prevent further spread of COVID. We welcome this partnership, which will assist us with additional education and training support, and expertise,” Levin said in his letter to the community. “Here in Hamilton, St. Joe’s has been working with a number of long-term care homes, retirement homes and congregate settings to support them through the COVID pandemic .

“The entire team is working together to minimize any additional spread of the virus, as well as its impact on those already infected,” he added. “Please be assured that Shalom Village is working closely with Public Health and with St. Joseph’s Healthcare to ensure that everything that can be done to deal with this outbreak is being done and we pray that the outbreak will be speedily resolved.”

Shalom Village is the sixth long term care home in Hamilton to have infection control orders issued by the health department. Five of those homes were still in outbreak Wednesday, accounting for 444 of the city’s 779 cases.

From March until this week Shalom Village managed to stay COVID-free through a combination of regular testing of staff and residents in its 127-bed long-term care unit with 81 apartments and a ban on visitors.

On Thursday, Hamilton’s congregational rabbis called for a community-wide prayer service for the residents and staff of Shalom Village.

The online event is set for Saturday at 7 pm on Zoom.

“As the rabbis of Hamilton’s Jewish community we watch with sadness and trepidation as the numbers of those infected with COVID-19, as well as the numbers of those dying from it, continue to rise. We fear for all residents of our beloved city, Hamilton. And we are especially distressed by the outbreaks at Shalom Village, which, with constant dedication and tirelessness, cares for the beloved, treasured elderly members of our community. We are concerned for the vulnerable residents, and we are equally concerned for those who care for them” Rabbis Jordan Cohen, Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli, Daniel Green and Aaron Selevan wrote.

The rabbis added: “Our prayers are only as good as the actions which accompany them. We would like to use this opportunity to remind everyone of the religious obligation to meticulously follow all current health regulations and recommendations: Stay home whenever possible, do not gather in groups, stay two metres away from others, wash your hands frequently, and wear masks.”

Saks Calls on O’Toole to Condemn ‘Vile’ Theories; Conservative Tweets Hail Party’s Record; O’Toole Calls Out Liberals on IRGC

Dec. 17, 2020

By RON CSILLAG

Newly-minted Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks (York Centre) has written to Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole asking that he condemn “vile antisemitic theories” surrounding billionaire philanthropist George Soros “promoted” by some Conservative MPs.

Yaara Saks
Yaara Saks

“Since the onset of the pandemic, several members of your caucus have promoted baseless conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric,” Saks wrote in her letter to O’Toole on Dec. 14.

“I refer to the misinformation around George Soros and the vile antisemitic theories about the World Economic Forum. To date, you have yet to publicly denounce this behaviour or reprimand your members,” Saks wrote.

The latest episode took place in the House of Commons on Dec. 8 when someone called out “George Soros” as Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was speaking.

Following question period, Liberal MP Omar Alghabra said it was Conservative member John Brassard (Barrie-Innisfill) who had shouted Soros’s name.

“Maybe he wants to explain what he said here in the chamber,” Alghabra said.

Soros is a frequent lightning rod for antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. A Hungarian Holocaust survivor, he’s a heavy funder of liberal causes and a favourite target of the far-right, which accuses him of helping fellow financiers plot a global takeover in a “new world order.”

Freeland wrote about Soros during her previous career as a journalist and has met with him since entering politics.

After being accused by Alghabra, Brassard was defiant.

John Brassard
John Brassard

“There was nothing in what I said that was in any way antisemitic, and I am not going to sit here and take what they are doing in this situation lightly,” he told the House.

“I encourage you, Mr. Speaker, to listen to what was said. There was nothing in there that was in any way antisemitic, and I am not going to sit here and take what they have to say.”

In August, British Columbia Conservative MP Kerri-Lynne Findlay apologized after retweeting a video of Freeland interviewing Soros when she was a journalist with the Financial Times in 2009.

Findlay said Freeland’s closeness with Soros should alarm every Canadian, and that Freeland listened to him “like student to teacher.”

Findlay said she had “thoughtlessly” shared the video, whose source “promotes hateful conspiracy theories…I have removed the tweets and apologize.”

In her letter, which does not mention Brassard or Findlay by name, Saks said “this kind of misinformation amplifies the rise in antisemitism and antisemitic conspiracies that have arisen during the COVID pandemic and that Jewish Canadians know all too well. It threatens the safety of Jewish Canadians and subjects them to hostility, prejudice, and discrimination, but its ultimate result is the erosion of public trust in democracy. As Members of Parliament, we have an obligation to take a stand to ensure that the rights of all Canadians are upheld. The failure to address antisemitism within your caucus remains unacceptable.”

Saks, who won York Centre in October’s byelection, called on the Tory leader “to condemn this antisemitic rhetoric and uphold the rights and trust of Canadians.”

Erin O'Toole
Erin O’Toole

Neither O’Toole nor Brassard returned the CJR’s requests for comment. As of this writing, Saks’ office says it has not had a reply from O’Toole.

The day after Saks sent her letter, Winnipeg-area Conservative MP Marty Morantz issued a series of tweets championing his party’s support for Israel and Canadian Jewry:

• “Conservatives have unequivocally supported Canada’s Jewish community and the state of Israel. Any statement to the contrary is misleading and wrong.

• “Under our Conservative leadership, Canada became the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). As Chair, Canada committed to an ambitious campaign to raise Holocaust awareness and fight antisemitism at home and abroad.

• “I’m proud to work with elected officials from around the world as part of an Online Antisemitism Taskforce. Our taskforce aims to work with online platforms like Facebook and Twitter so that hateful antisemitic comments are treated as hate speech and dealt with appropriately.

• “Let’s look at the Liberal record. The Liberals voted against Israel at the United Nations General Assembly and committed new funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. This is an organization whose schools have been used as storage facilities for Hamas rockets to be used against Israeli civilians, and whose facilities have served as breeding grounds for anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments. The Liberals have doubled down on these anti-Israel activities, even after badly losing their [bid for a UN Security Council seat],” Morantz tweeted.

And in a conference call with ethno-cultural media earlier this month, O’Toole took the Liberal government to task for failing to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity.

O’Toole reminded reporters that in 2018, the House of Commons passed a Conservative motion supporting the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group, “and the Liberals themselves voted for it, and then they did nothing on it.” 

The Liberals “have dragged their feet for several years. It will really take a change in government to have this issue taken seriously,” he said.

In 2012, under the Stephen Harper government, Canada listed a subgroup of the IRGC, the Quds Force, as a terrorist organization.

Vaccine Rollout Brings Hope to Maimonides

Dec. 17, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Every December, Beverly Spanier has organized a Hanukkah party for her friends. That celebration, held in a favourite restaurant or hotel, continued even after she moved into Maimonides Geriatric Centre five years ago.

Planning the party was a project the retired high school teacher worked on for weeks in advance. A paraplegic, she got to the site via the city’s adapted transit service.

That, of course, did not happen this year. Spanier, 75, has not left Maimonides since the pandemic began in March except for three hospital visits. In fact, she has been confined to her room for the past nine months, save for some time in its garden during the summer.

Beverly Spanier
Beverly Spanier

For the first months of the pandemic, all visitors, including paid caregivers on whom Spanier relied, were barred from Maimonides, and remain restricted.

For Spanier, Hanukkah has been limited to looking at the menorah in a municipal park from her fifth-floor window.

When Maimonides was selected as the first site in Montreal for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout, she didn’t hesitate to consent. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Spanier was among the first of the first in Canada – and indeed the world – to be inoculated.

Maimonides, a long-term care institution in Cote Saint-Luc, and a Quebec City nursing home, Centre d’Hébergement St. Antoine, received the first vaccine shipments to Quebec. The highly anticipated cargo landed at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal on the evening of Dec. 13.

Maimonides took delivery of two boxes of 972 doses each, and 150 residents and staff received their first shot on Dec. 14. Almost 95 percent of Maimonides’s approximately 350 residents have agreed to be inoculated, as have, at time of writing, 40 percent of its roughly 500 employees, according to CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that administers Maimonides.

Surplus doses from this initial batch will be made available to workers at other health care facilities in the local network.

The day after the first of her two shots, Spanier said she felt fine, with only a little redness at the injection site on her arm. Although she has much faith in medicine – her late brother was a doctor – Spanier was nervous about any adverse reaction and wondered if Maimonides had sufficient medical support on standby should a problem arise.

(CIUSSS officials reassured the public that it does have a trained team in place and precautions, such as a “crash cart,” to treat anaphylactic shock.)

“It is miraculous how the scientists and pharmaceutical industry have been able to produce an effective vaccine in such a short time, but you do worry,” Spanier said. “We are still, in a sense, in the midst of an experiment.”

On balance, she realizes that her risk of catching COVID is far greater than any associated with the vaccine. The consequences for Spanier, who has respiratory issues, could be fatal.

She also has a sense of responsibility toward society. “I think that we all have to do what we can to overcome this terrible disease and allow the world to return to normal.”

The psychological toll of the pandemic has been brutal, she said.

Maimonides has been hard hit by the coronavirus, twice. In the first wave, a third of residents were infected and 39 died, according to government information. It took the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and, after that, the Canadian Red Cross to help overwhelmed staff get the outbreak under control.

In early October, Maimonides was proud to announce there were no more active cases. But within weeks, the numbers went from zero to over 50 and, after trying to care for the sick in an isolated ward, transferred many to hospital.

On Dec. 16, Maimonides site coordinator Jennifer Clarke made public that, in the second wave, a total of 88 residents have had COVID and 19 have died. There are currently nine active cases, she reported.

Spanier compares her life to being on a “battleground,” with its fear, disruption and grief.

“We are a community here. I knew some of the people who died, or know someone who knew them,” she said. Her hope today is tinged with solemnity because she can’t forget the havoc the virus wreaked.

Much hoopla surrounded the rollout at Maimonides, with Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on hand for a ceremony held outside the building just before the first shot was administered to resident Gloria Lallouz, 78.

The politicians hailed it as a historic occasion. Hajdu, who did not hide her tears, said, “I see this as the first step toward the light.”

Spanier is more cautious. The first battle to be won is ending the pandemic, but the definition of victory in the long term, she believes, is changing society’s disregard for the institutionalized frail elderly.

“If any good has come out of this, it is that light has been shed on what is happening in chronic care places. We can’t just dump people, and the resources have to back that up. One orderly for 35 patients at night is not feasible anymore.”

Interview: Rabbi David Hofstedter, Founder of RoadMetric

Dec. 16, 2020

By DAN FLATT

Earlier this month, RoadMetric, an artificial intelligence (AI) powered traffic management solution, was acquired by Australian company Redflex. RoadMetric is headquartered in Jerusalem and founded by Toronto-based Rabbi David Hofstedter (shown above), with clients around the world. Rabbi Hofstedter is also the founder and CEO of the real estate and property management company Davpart Inc and is well known in Israel and beyond as the founder of The Dirshu Organization, providing scholarships to encourage Torah study.

The CJR interviewed Rabbi Hofstedter to learn more about this deal and his own unique path to success as a pioneer in the growing fields of AI and computer vision, and a community leader.

CJR: It’s not every day that we interview a rabbi about the acquisition of his technology company. Can you tell our readers about your career path and how you combined these two very different callings? How have these two aspects of your life complemented each other?

Rabbi Hofstedter: As a child of Holocaust survivors, the notion of not only living one’s life but also fulfilling one’s obligation in life was instilled in me at a very early age. This belief was reinforced during my teenage years and as a young adult studying in yeshivos. My marriage to a woman who is also a child of Holocaust survivors reaffirms our life’s mission, and that is to utilize all that has been bestowed upon us, whether financial, intellectual or any other benefits which shines G-d’s light upon the world.

I wouldn’t classify myself as a technology founder. My business involvement is primarily in real estate, as CEO of Davpart Inc. The establishment and my involvement in RoadMetric relates fundamentally to its enormous capability in protecting and saving lives.

Can you explain what RoadMetric’s technology does and how its primary customers use it?

Roadmetric is a leader in advanced vision analytics and leading-edge artificial intelligence tools which law enforcement agencies around the world use to run the full gamut of enforcement from traffic violations to security threats. Our advanced technology is a powerful tool maintaining road safety and the prevention of loss of life. Law enforcement agencies equipped with our cameras and video surveillance systems are able to track reckless driving, infractions such as speeding, running red lights and stop signs.

Municipalities can equip their buses and track any vehicles driving into bus lanes. Security forces of all kinds can track suspicious drivers and vehicles. Our cameras record the infractions, have advanced license plate reading capabilities, can upload the information and alert officers, and issue tickets immediately and seamlessly

RoadMetric has operations in both Toronto and in Israel. What have been the challenges and opportunities of building a company in these two countries?

RoadMetric’s headquarters is in Jerusalem, Israel. We do business around the world. I am located in Toronto. Certainly, the logistics challenges of maintaining quality control and our corporate culture have been enormous.

What can you tell us about RoadMetric’s acquisition by Australia’s Redflex? How did this deal come together? Will members of the RoadMetric team continue to build the product at Redflex?

The Redflex acquisition was a natural fit. We had been working with them for some time as we were integrating our systems to serve customers across North America. It became apparent that joining together would provide the best platform for RoadMetric to grow and expand to the next level.

Tell us more about your work with the Dirshu Organization.

It has been my life’s mission and passion. But if I begin to describe it, it would fill volumes. 2019-2020 was a particularly significant year for Dirshu. During the period between December and February, we celebrated the Dirshu World Siyum highlighting the enormous accomplishments of our participants. Events reaching massive crowds around the globe, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Paris, London, Manchester, Johannesburg, Newark, and many more were hosted.

The Dirshu World Siyum, in addition to providing a rallying point for our dedicated scholars, particularly those who struggle financially in spite of the generous scholarships that we provide, served as a phenomenal unifier for the Jewish people.

What advice would you give to young tech entrepreneurs building solutions with AI, Computer Vision and related technologies?

This is a new, fascinating and exciting area of business but nevertheless it is a business just the same. It is governed by the same business principles and regimen that govern all businesses.

 • To learn more about RoadMetric and its recent acquisition, you can read the official press release here.


Dan Flatt
Dan Flatt

Dan Flatt is a Toronto-based entrepreneur, business consultant and recovering lawyer writing about technology and business topics for the CJR. He is the founder and “chief neighbour” of Naborino, a platform (launching soon in Toronto) that will help neighbours in residential buildings to build community with each other and access unique group buying opportunities.

From Lab Coat to Power Suits: One Women’s Journey in Science Success

Dec. 16, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Turning in her lab coat for a business suit was never part of Julia Levy’s career plan.

Her world was test tubes and the battle against disease, not profit and loss statements and the endless battle for another few pennies a share in profits.

In 1995, however, she made the leap from the lab to the boardroom of the company she had helped found and, as a result, helped create one of Canada’s leading biotech success stories.

Her success was even more remarkable because it all happened in the days when a woman was still more likely to be taken for the company CEO’s secretary than the boss herself.

Levy, 86, tells her story in a new memoir, In Sight: My Life in Science and  Health Innovation, recently published by University of Toronto Press. As well the personal story of a woman’s life spent in search of new medicines, it’s the tale of how Canada carved out a place for itself in the world of biotechnology.

“I thought it might be a useful thing to do for other people wanting to go into the biotechnology field in Canada,” Levy told the CJR in an interview from her home in British Columbia. “It gives the background to what it’s like to be an academic and then move into business. That is quite often quite counter to what a basic scientist thinks is important in their lives.

“If I had been asked in 1970 if I could envisage myself going into a business and being successful at it, I would have thought people were certifiably crazy,” she added. “I never had any inclination to do that at all because my big passion was science and teaching science. I loved to do that. Perhaps the memoir is my final lesson in teaching about science and technology.”

Born in Singapore and sent to Canada with her mother and sister as refugees just ahead of the Second World War, Levy was raised in Vancouver and graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1955 with a BA in immunology and bacteriology. She followed that with a doctorate in experimental pathology from the University of London before returning to UBC as an assistant professor in 1959.

In those days, she said, life could be difficult for a woman in science.

“I was a woman doing graduate work in the 1950s. The world has changed a lot, but it also hasn’t changed a lot,” she reflected. “I certainly suffered from that when I was in graduate school. The gender bias comes in, and the harassment and all of the unpleasantness that women have to put up with. It’s much worse when you’re just starting out.

“The other thing of course is the assumptions people make when you are starting out. If you’re a young woman and you’re at a scientific meeting and you’ve got a faculty position and you’re on your way, you have a lab of your own, you would still automatically get the question, ‘whose lab do you work in?’ That happened to me so many times.”

In the world of science, however, that pettiness falls away with time and a record of achievement in research papers published, she went on.

“That kind of harassment and bias tends to go away in science because your accomplishments are readily quantifiable. You can say on a piece of paper, ‘I published this many papers this year in these kind of journals,’ and there is no way anyone with a bias who wants to hold you back can do that,” Levy said.

Levy spent 27 years pursuing knowledge in her UBC lab, but two developments in the 1980s changed her life’s trajectory entirely.

The first happened on land, where she and her husband, Edwin (Ed) Levy, a physicist at UBC, were planning to build a vacation home. As related in a company history, in getting ready for that cottage, Levy gave her seven-year-old son Ben a machete and let him clear weeds on the property. One of those weeds was a plant called cow parsley, and Ben attacked it with such enthusiasm, his skin was soon covered in fluid that, when exposed to the sun, caused the skin to blister.

Intrigued, Levy learned that a substance in cow parsley’s leaves can attack and destroy certain kinds of tissue, skin cells included, when activated by exposure to light.

She started to think about the potential of photo-activated drugs and embarked on research that lead to her co-invention of photodynamic therapy (PDT).

What she helped to develop was a two-step process that started with an injection of a drug that collected around abnormal blood vessels. The drug could then be activated by a dose of non-thermal laser light, triggering a process that destroyed abnormal cells.

Seeing great potential for this kind of drug in treating cancer and other conditions, Levy and colleagues John Brown, Jim Miller, Anthony Phillips, and Ron MacKenzie formed a company they called Quadra Logic Technologies, now QLT Inc.

The company’s initial financing came from its founders, with Levy mortgaging her home to raise capital. That was after they approached UBC and a number of investment banks.

“It was a pretty naive scene in the early ‘80s, when biotech was just barely rolling in the U.S. and Canada,” she recalled. “The biggest thing was that investment money in Canada in those days was all resource based. The banks either hadn’t heard of biotech or thought it was pretty squirrely.”

QLT’s initial office and lab was over a Vancouver bakery where the founders worked after hours to turn their ideas into marketable drugs. In 1985, that search took on a personal element for Levy when her mother began to develop age-related macular degeneration, an incurable deterioration of the central portion of the retina and a leading cause of blindness in people over age 50.

Levy noticed that, like cancer, the eye condition manifested itself by forming new, abnormal tissues. Finding a way to attack those tissues with the light-activated drugs became her mission.

It took 15 years, but by 2000, that work resulted in regulatory approval for Visudyne, a drug that became QLT’s signature achievement.

“With Visudyne we had no competition for the first few years; I mean we sold a million dollars worth of the drug on the first day it was approved. It was hundreds of millions of dollars a year that we were making,” Levy said. “It was a very big product and the company was valued at over a billion dollars because of it.”

Julia Levy, David Dolphin, Visudyne
Julia Levy with David Dolphin, creator of the Visudyne molecule, in 1990

Visudyne was released in April 2000. By the end of the second quarter of that year, sales hit $25 million and more than doubled within a year to $56 million as the drug spread to more than 50 countries.

During Visudyne’s tortured trial and approval process, the other founders of the company had left and it was decided Levy should take over as president rather than risk bringing in someone entirely new.

“I felt comfortable doing that because by that time our company was quite mature and we had a great finance department and good human resources, we had all the divisions properly taken care of with senior people who knew what they were doing,” she said. “To find someone who was up to speed to take over was just impossible. We were working very well as a team so at that point I said I would do it. It was the right thing to do.”

Levy held the top position until 2002, leading the company through a period of explosive growth before stepping down. She continued to serve on the board of directors until 2006, when she became director emerita, and was actively involved with its scientific advisory board until 2008, when she retired from QLT entirely.

Today, she remains actively involved in mentoring and investing in early stage life sciences ventures and serves as an advisor to several academic and non-profit programs.

Her scientific reputation has been marked with seven honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, research chairs in her honour at Johns Hopkins University and the University of British Columbia departments of ophthalmology. In addition, the Chemical Institute of Canada awards the Julia Levy Award for successful commercialization of innovation in the field of biomedical science and engineering.

Beyond its actual products, Levy said she hopes QLT has helped create a vibrant biotech industrial scene in Vancouver.

“There were no role models when we started, but today, the biotech scene in Vancouver carries the hallmarks of the QLT experience,” she said. “I think that’s one of the best things that we did was to help create that environment where other people flourished too.”

Reservist Should be Tossed for Racist Ties, Navy Agrees

Dec. 15, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The decision on Myggland was also welcomed by FSWC.

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

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

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

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

Dec. 15, 2020

By SIDNEY MARGLES

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

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

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

But did being Jewish carry any advantage or disadvantage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sidney Margles
Sidney Margles

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

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

Dec. 14, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratz College, Carleton University to Partner on Holocaust Studies

Dec. 14, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

Paul Finkelman

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

Benoit-Antoine Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Jewish News Returns Next Month

Dec. 14, 2020

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

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

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

Bryan Borzykowski
Bryan Borzykowski

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

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

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

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

Yoni Goldstein
Yoni Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be a slower, careful re-launch.

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

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

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

Another revenue generator will be advertising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Diplomat Sugihara Honoured for Wartime Heroism

Dec. 11, 2020

By LILA SARICK

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

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

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

Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara
Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking News: Community Mobilizes Following Tragic Fire

Dec. 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: CTV news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U of T Launches Working Group to Combat Antisemitism on Campus

Dec. 10, 2020

By RAHUL KALVAPALLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Reprinted with permission from UofT News.

Jewish Day Schools Call for Distribution of COVID Funds

Dec. 10, 2020

By LILA SARICK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legal team called the decision a moral victory.

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

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

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

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

Their clients are considering an appeal, they said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vera Schiff, Holocaust Survivor, Named to Order of Canada

Dec. 9, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

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

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

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

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

Vera Schiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obituary: Goldie Hershon, Former CJC President, was 79

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

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

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

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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