Liberal MP Affirms Friendship with Jewish Community

Nov. 12, 2020 

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—One year after he was elected, Montreal-area Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi welcomed the opportunity to finally put to rest Conservative allegations that he is antisemitic and a proponent of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Sameer Zuberi
Photo credit: Bernard Thibodeau

“That’s completely false and wrong; it’s inconsistent with who I am and my record,” Zuberi told a videoconference hosted by Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Nov. 3. “…The Conservative attack is a red herring. If it were actually true, I would not be doing what I am doing now.”

On the eve of the contested Liberal nomination meeting in the Pierrefonds-Dollard riding in September 2019, the Conservative Party issued a press release describing Zuberi as having an “antisemitic past” and “promoted conspiracy theories” about 9/11.

The release also denounced Zuberi, who is Muslim, as a “radical activist” when he was a student leader at Concordia University in the early 2000s.

Zuberi, 41, who won the nomination over five other contenders, denied the allegations at the time, but went further in explaining why they were inaccurate and hurtful in response to a question during the virtual Temple event.

First, he emphasized that he comes from a mixed background. His father emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s and his mother is a third-generation Canadian from Brockville, Ont.

An aunt converted to Judaism, and she, his uncle and their children – Zuberi’s cousins – observe kashruth and Shabbat. “I participated in that from a young age. My parents always reminded me that we have Christians and Jews in our family. Since the cradle, that has always been my world view and why I have worked so hard to create understanding among communities,” he said.

Zuberi, who was active in the Canadian Muslim Forum and worked as the diversity and engagement officer in McGill University’s faculty of medicine before running in the October 2019 federal election, said he has been devoted to bridge-building throughout his life.

Well before he considered entering politics, Zuberi said he attended a Shalom Hartman Institute program in Jerusalem to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience. There, he “learned from rabbis, thought leaders and civil society in an unvarnished way.”

He said he “cares deeply for the Jewish community and respects the Jews of Canada and the world.”

Addressing the specific Conservative charges, which were never retracted, Zuberi said to characterize him as a “9/11 truther could not be further from the truth. I have constantly denounced terrorism and Osama bin Laden…I am on the record dozens of times.”

The Conservatives reproduced an exchange on Zuberi’s Facebook page from May 3, 2011, just after bin Laden was assassinated, to back up their allegation. Zuberi responded to a comment posted that whether bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 was still “a matter of public debate,” but cautioned the commenter against subscribing to theories that confirmed their views.

Zuberi points out that on that day, he had a letter published in the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette in which he wrote that “the death of Osama bin Laden is a welcome event.” The thrust of the letter was that, 10 years after 9/11, “it was time to turn a new page and move on to something else,” he explained.

As for the accusation that as a Concordia Student Union vice-president, he supported the suspension of the Jewish student club Hillel in late 2002 because it was accused of disseminating Israel Defense Forces recruitment materials, Zuberi said that, “at that time, I am on the record that Hillel should not be suspended. I dug up that statement and shared it publicly.”

The Temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow’s association with Zuberi goes back to before he entered federal politics. She said they worked together on interfaith and intercultural projects, and collaborated during the fight against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. He has taken part in the Temple’s Muslim Awareness Week and other programming, she said.

“Sameer has consistently been a friend of our community,” she said.

$100 Million Campaign Aims to Soften Blow from COVID

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The co-chairs of the extraordinary $100-million campaign underway to save the Montreal Jewish community from the ravages of COVID are vested in industries among the hardest hit: Commercial real estate and live entertainment.

But Jonathan Wener, chairman of the Canderel Group, and Mitch Garber, chairman of Cirque du Soleil, consider themselves very fortunate to have the financial resources that will allow them to weather the crisis.

They are pleading with those in a similar position to think of the many in the community who are experiencing real economic hardship.

Wener and Garber head up Federation CJA’s two-year “Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign,” launched in July to replace the usual annual Combined Jewish Appeal held in the fall.

In a Sept. 8 videoconference, the co-chairs described the “suffering” in the community, particularly among small business owners, such as those in the retail, manufacturing, import/export and restaurant sectors.

Companies, sometimes built up over decades, are closing or on the verge of doing so, they said. Montreal Jews are also not being spared from the widespread job losses.

If the $100-million goal is reached, $40 million will go directly to seeing those worst hit through the next 12 to 18 months, enough time, it is hoped, for them to get back on their feet.

The virtual event was organized by The Network, the CJA division for business and professional people over age 40.

“The reality is 99.9 per cent of people are gravely affected,” said Garber. “It’s very sad. It causes me great pain.”

He is witnessing devastation in his own world. In March, Cirque du Soleil suspended all shows, putting all but a couple of hundred of its 6,000 employees out of work and reducing annual revenue, which had been between $1 and $2 billion, to zero.

Mitch Garber
Mitch Garber

Garber is also chairman of Invest in Canada, a federal agency trying to attract foreign investment.

“This is a most difficult year to ask for money,” he said. “We are asking those who can to make up for those can’t give this year. We are asking you to hurt a little bit,” he said.

Wener, who is chancellor of Concordia University, was blunt.

“Many people have lost businesses and life savings, businesses they created themselves from nothing. It’s truly sad.”

Jonathan Wener
Jonathan Wener

He knows of families in the community who have “zero income” because both partners have lost their jobs.

“This is probably the worst year since the Depression. People are suddenly below the poverty line. They are bleeding to death,” he said.

“If you lost cash flow this year, think of those who are in a much worse situation. Take a little piece of your wealth (and give to the campaign).”

Wener said he believes businesses will gradually bring employees now working at home back to the office, at least for part of the week.

“Socially, people need to congregate. You can operate a company on Zoom, but you can’t build a company on it…People need to be able to walk down a hall and ask (a colleague), ‘What do you think of this?’ That’s how you build a community.”

He’s less optimistic about in-store shopping. The growth of e-commerce, he said, has only accelerated. Across Canada, “we are over-stored.”

Wener foresees underperforming shopping centres, with their large lots, being transformed into residential units or medical offices, which would bring traffic to the remaining retail tenants.

As for the future of live entertainment, Garber believes pent-up demand will fuel an eventual return to pre-pandemic times, when the crisis eases.

“People are hungry to get back out to live events, but it will take a long time.”