Editorial: Effi Eitam Must Not Head Yad Vashem

Nov. 25, 2020

The inestimable Avner Shalev has headed Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust museum and memorial, since 1993. Shalev oversaw great changes at the renowned institution in Jerusalem, including growth, strong fundraising, and great advances in digital research. He took an already well-reputed venue and buffed it to an even higher gloss. Now 81, Shalev is retiring.

Nominated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to replace him is a notorious former Israel Defense Forces general, Effi Eitam. Usually, such a high-level appointment is carefully considered. After all, Yad Vashem is the collective memory to the world of the Six Million Jewish victims of the Shoah. It stands as a clarion call against evil and represents the epitome of human rights and dignity. Surely, the chairperson of such a vitally important institution would adhere to and represent the values of Yad Vashem.

But dozens of Holocaust survivors, Jewish ethicists, academics and others have called on Netanyahu to drop Eitam. To date, the prime minister has remained unmoved.

Who is Effi Eitam? Why is he the most unjustifiable person to lead Yad Vashem? You don’t have to look far.

In 1988, then Commander Eitam was in charge of the Givati Brigade, which had captured an alleged Palestinian terrorist. On Eitam’s orders, brigade members murdered the handcuffed, unarmed prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers were court martialed and Eitam received a severe reprimand recommending he never be promoted.

But he did move up the ranks and ended his career as a brigadier general.

It was then on to politics. He served in the right-wing National Religious Party, where he held various portfolios. During this time, and even before entering the political arena, he advocated for the ethnic cleansing of the entire Arab population of what he termed Judea and Samaria. In fact, Eitam has called Arab Israelis, who are citizens of Israel, an “elusive threat” that “by their nature resemble cancer,” an illness “in which most of the people…die because they were diagnosed too late.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs, tells this story of Eitam in a Times of Israel piece unsubtly headlined, “Effi Eitam is a deplorable choice to head Yad Vashem”:

“I heard Effi Eitam give a drasha at Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan shortly after 9/11. He explained to the audience that what happened that day was God’s way to return to the world arena and stir the world to a religious war. I was at that service along with the late Elie Wiesel, who was in utter shock that a Jew was able to utter such assertions.”

Today, we live in a world where Holocaust denial, antisemitism and hate have made giant leaps forward. Appointing Eitam to head the most auspicious example of Jewish dignity, a museum which speaks to the evil of racism, genocide and hate, is reprehensible.

All Jews of good conscience must speak out boldly and clearly in rejecting Eitam, who has blood on his hands and bigotry in his heart, to head Yad Vashem.

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.

Campaign Seeks to End ‘Illegal” IDF Recruitment in Canada

Oct. 28, 2020

By RON CSILLAG

Progressive activists want Canada to prohibit what they call “illegal” recruitment by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in this country.

In an Oct. 19 letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti, they called on the government to conduct a “thorough investigation…of those who have facilitated this recruiting for the IDF, and if warranted, that charges be laid against all those involved in recruiting and encouraging recruiting in Canada for the IDF.”

The campaign is being waged by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, Palestinian and Jewish Unity, and Just Peace Advocates.

An open letter signed by the American linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, author Yann Martel, and more than 170 Canadians was delivered to Lametti this month asking him to investigate recruitment taking place in Canada for the IDF.

“It is a crime in Canada to recruit anyone for a foreign military,” says a statement from Just Peace Advocates. “It is also a crime to aid and abet such recruitment by offering incentives and encouraging any person to serve in a foreign military.”

The groups cite Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act, which states that “any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.”

The groups note that the only exception would be the recruitment of Israeli citizens who are not Canadian.

On “several occasions,” they allege, the Israeli consulate in Toronto “has advertised that they have an IDF representative available for personal appointments for those wishing to join the IDF.”

The consulate has “gone further” and arranged for IDF soldiers and veterans to be present in schools, summer camps and other venues in Canada “with the goal of inducing people to enlist.”

They add that according to one estimate from the CBC, 230 Canadians were serving in the IDF in 2017. “It is unclear how many of these individuals were recruited in ways that violate the Foreign Enlistment Act,” they say.

The campaign made front-page news in Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper on Oct. 19.

Asked about the effort at an unrelated news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 19, Lametti said “diplomats from another country, therefore the diplomats of Israel who are here, follow Canadian law,” adding that the issue is “a question for investigators [and] the police, to decide whether there have been violations… I will leave the decision to the institutions we have in Canada to monitor the situation.”

Asked by Le Devoir whether he “completely wash[es] his hands” of the matter, Lametti replied that “we have institutions in Canada that are responsible for reacting to such situations. They are not exactly the same institutions in other countries and so as I said in the first answer, I will leave room for the responsible people in Canada to do what needs to be done.”

In a statement to the CJR, Galit Baram, Consul General of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, said: “In Israel, the law requires compulsory service. Every Israeli, male or female, must serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli citizens living abroad are obligated to settle their status with the Israeli authorities.

“As part of the consular services provided to Israelis living abroad, Israeli diplomatic missions assist in connecting with the IDF authorities. In large Israeli communities abroad, such as Toronto, which is the largest in Canada, a recruiting office representative may be dispatched at times to conduct in-person interviews.

“Israel and Canada are steadfast allies. Any allegations against Israel in this matter are unfounded,” Baram said.

In a similar vein, Israel’s Consul General in Montreal, David Levy, told Le Devoir that “these consular services we provide are reserved for Israeli citizens and do not apply to non-Israelis who volunteer for the army.”

Winnipeg-based lawyer David Matas points out that the Foreign Enlistment Act prohibits enlistment “in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly foreign state.”

Israel, said Matas, “is not at war with any foreign state which is a friend of Canada.”

He said the prohibition described in the act is limited to recruitment or other inducement.

“The behaviour of the Israeli consulate described in the [letter to Lametti] is not a recruitment or other inducement, since the Israeli announcement is limited to persons who wish to join the Israeli armed forces,” according to Matas, who’s considered an expert in the intersection of Canadian and international law, particularly as it applies to Israel.

“These persons would already have formed the wish to join the forces. There is no inducement nor [does there] need be any for persons who have already formed the wish to join the [IDF].”

Matas said those people “are self induced, not induced by the Israeli consulate.”

Editorial: Avera Mengistu is Still a Hamas Prisoner. Why?

Sept. 9, 2020 – There is a common myth in Israel that it will never desert one of its own. Israel has cooperated beyond courage to bring back those killed on the battlefield. IDF officials have negotiated in the past with Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, even terrorist groups, often trading hundreds of captive Palestinian terrorists and enemy combatants for the body of one IDF fighter.

Recall Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who, in June 2006, was captured by Hamas terrorists entering Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing through their intricate tunnel system. Shalit was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years.

Israel and the Shalit family, which had resources thanks to campaigns in Jewish communities worldwide, kept his name and his plight at the centre of events. In October 2011, following tense and often fractious negotiations through intermediaries, Shalit was finally released in exchange for some 1,000 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, 280 of whom were serving life terms for carrying out deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

The treasuring of each Israeli citizen was, and continues to be, the truest test of Israel’s character.

Sadly however, in the case of Avera Mengistu, the credo of “no Israeli left behind if captured by enemy combatants” does not seem to hold true. Some feel racism is to blame.

Mengistu and his large family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 when he was five years old. Theirs was not an easy life. His father found it difficult to find work and the only income for the clan came from Avera’s mother, who cleaned homes in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border.

Avera’s life went from bad to worse following the death of his beloved eldest brother. He turned to friends for money, and his mental health became fragile to the point where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In March 2013, the IDF determined that Avera was not fit for military service. During this time, his mental health deteriorated even more.

A few months later, in circumstances that remain vague, Avera was seen near the Zikim beach on the Israeli-Gaza border. An IDF unit thought he was one of many Sudanese refugees who were trying to get into Gaza. He was last spotted near the security fence, and by the time Israeli border guards arrived, he had disappeared into Gaza. He has not been seen since.

There were some minor attempts to have him returned to Israel. All failed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Avera was in Gaza. He claimed the Ethiopian was wearing a uniform, was mentally healthy, and was part of ongoing negotiations relating to the 2014 Gaza-Israel truce talks.

And this is where Avera’s fate has largely stood to this day. Unlike the case of Shalit, there has been little mass public outcry from Israeli authorities for his release. His family, who are among the poverty-stricken Ethiopians in Israel, have no resources to fight for his release.

There is an inescapable feeling that the reason Avera’s case is not being handled with the determination and seriousness of other kidnapped Israelis is because he’s Ethiopian – and Black. Indeed, one of Avera’s brothers, Yalo, noted in an interview with Ha’aretz that “it’s more than racism. I call it ‘anti-Blackism.’ I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Hamas has also not lost sight of the fact that Avera’s case has garnered little attention, though there have been sporadic reports of Hamas demands for a prisoner exchange with Israel for his release. Notably, Hamas has used the racial bias issue as a propaganda chip. On its Twitter platform, a Hamas message claimed “obviously the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi (white Israeli) man behind.’”

This is a sad story of one man suffering from severe mental health problems. It seems sadly clear that both Israel and Hamas view the situation through the colour of his skin. It’s time that both sides see Avera as a man who must be returned to his family. His life matters and we cannot be silent.

Erin O’Toole On Record as Pledging Embassy Move

Aug. 24, 2020 – New Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has in the past indicated he is a strong supporter of Israel and would move Canada’s embassy there to Jerusalem.

Following a six-hour delay to fix glitches with the ballots, O’Toole handily won the Conservative Party leadership early Monday, taking 57 percent of the votes on the third and final ballot, compared to 43 percent for second-place contender Peter MacKay.

In a video posted to Facebook last month, O’Toole repeated his pledge to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the modern presence there just cements this. The Knesset, the Supreme Court and Foreign Ministry are all in west Jerusalem,” O’Toole said.

Canada-Israel relations have “weakened and wavered” under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he added.

“I stand with Israel,” he said. “Yesterday, today and always.”

This past February, MacKay backtracked on his position on moving Canada’s embassy in Israel. On day after he was quoting as saying he would not commit to such a move as leader, MacKay said it had “always been my personal view that Jerusalem is the undisputed capital of the State of Israel and that is where Canada’s embassy should be and under my leadership, will be located.”

O’Toole, a former party foreign affairs critic, wasted little time in staking out his position.

“Under Stephen Harper, Canada stood out as a resolute friend of Israel. Sadly, under Justin Trudeau, this strong support has weakened. We need a principled Conservative leader who will make Canada a true friend of Israel once again,” O’Toole said at the time.

“I have been absolutely clear about this and my views have not changed. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The strong presence of the Jewish people there is thousands of years old.

“I believe that we need more of a presence in the ground in Jerusalem. It’s crazy that our ambassador has to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to meet with government officials just to preserve a diplomatic fiction. It’s time to recognize reality and move our embassy,” O’Toole said.

Earlier this year, all Canadian political parties came out in opposition to Israel’s contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank, particularly the Jordan Valley. Israel has since postponed those plans.

The CJR reached out to Conservative leadership frontrunners MacKay and O’Toole. Only O’Toole replied, saying, “We don’t support any unilateral action whether it involves the Palestinians using the [International Criminal Court] against Israel, or the Israelis annexing disputed territory. Canada supports and remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.”

When he ran for the leadership in early 2017, a contest won by Andrew Scheer, O’Toole was an unstinting supporter of Israel, even in a field of 14 strongly pro-Israel candidates.

At the time, O’Toole said he supports “Israel as a democratic, Jewish state with secure borders… Israel has been ready to sign a final peace deal several times. Each time, the Palestinian leadership has walked away from the table. Palestinian leaders still refuse to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. It is this, and not the settlements, that is the obstacle to peace.”

O’Toole said he’d advance peace by establishing an exchange program between the Canadian Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces, “and vocally opposing efforts to isolate Israel, such as the recent United Nations resolution that the Trudeau government remained silent on.”

Canadians Help Fund Education, Cancer Research in Israel

Aug. 12, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canadian philanthropists are giving more than $3 million to Israeli universities to fight cancer and clear hurdles to higher education for Ethiopian Israelis and Israel Defense Forces veterans.

For Sylvia Soyka of Markham, Ont., the money her family’s foundation is giving to Canadian and Israeli pancreatic cancer researchers is a personal commitment to overcome the disease that killed her father.

Sylvia Soyka
Sylvia Soyka

“This is very personal for me, and that’s why the project is named for my father,” Sylvia Soyka said in an interview. “The one thing I’ve come to understand about this disease is that nobody understands much about it, other than it’s very bad.

“There is an urgent need to shine a light on this disease now,” she added.

The Soyka Foundation’s grant will finance the second phase of research projects in the two countries looking for treatments and early diagnosis techniques.

Alex Soyka
Alex Soyka

Early diagnosis of the disease is especially important, Soyka said, because while her father was 90 when he was stricken, its victims are usually much younger.

“This is a young person’s disease,” she said. “Its victims go very quickly and often leave young families. It’s a horrible disease.

While progress is being made – when the first stage of the research started in 2014, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was less than five percent – today it is nine percent.

“We’re making huge progress, but even doubling the survival rate still leaves you in a pretty scary place,” she said.

Soyka would not discuss the specific amount of the donation, other than to say there’s still a huge need for support.

“To a large degree it doesn’t matter because no matter how much it is it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “There is a huge need because there is still such a knowledge gap in this field.”

The Soyka Foundation’s support will finance researchers from Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.

Ethiopian students hoping education will be their ladder up in Israeli society will get a boost from the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation grant.

Morris and Rosalind Goodman
Morris and Rosalind Goodman

Morris Goodman, now 89, co-founded Pharmascience Inc., now the second largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in Canada. The Goodman Foundation was endowed in 2008 and focuses on scientific research to improves public health, experiential and informal education and community capacity building.

The Montreal-based foundation is partnering with Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian Israeli students who are engaged in social, community or academic leadership activities.

Divided equally between the universities, the gift will support students pursuing graduate studies while highlighting the importance of higher education in this demographic and promoting community engagement.

Foundation president Maxyne Finkelstein said Ethiopian Israelis are held back in life because they’re denied the chance at higher education.

“In Canada people go for a second and third degree because they want to achieve the most they can,” she said in an interview. “In this case, you have a population where very few of them are able to access these opportunities.”

Israel is home to about 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants who started arriving in the country 35 years ago. According to a news release from Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, about half live below the poverty line, they are sharply under-represented in the country’s universities, and often face financial hardship in pursuing education.

Finkelstein noted that in a country where up to 45 percent of the general population has 16 years of education, only about 10 percent of Ethiopians get through to a bachelors degree.

“We looked at a gap in society and asked if there was something we could do to create greater social mobility and a real step forward toward greater financial independence and family stability for the future,” she said.

The scholarships will cover tuition and living expenses and are not targeted at any particular field of study. The only condition on the support is that applicants must do some form of community volunteer work.

“We want to advance Ethiopians in fields where they want to advance and where they feel they can make a contribution to society,” Finkelstein said. “We feel these people can be role models to other young Ethiopians, and this is an area where we can create a real social change.”

Finkelstein would not disclose the value of the gift. Applicants for the next university semester are already being recruited.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro of Calgary are investing $625,000 in a five-year program of scholarships for young Israelis who have completed their mandatory military service but who lack money for further education.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro
Lenny and Faigel Shapiro

“I have always been attracted to the IDF soldiers, these young people who come out of the army at age 22 and have no money to go to school,” Lenny Shapiro said in an interview.

“I want them to be able to have an education and get a degree,” he said. “When I was a young man in Montreal, I didn’t have that chance until I could go to night school.”

Shapiro made his money as head of Allied Resources Management in western Canada’s oil business. The scholarship program is currently supporting 60 students and he hopes to expand that to 100.

The value of each award is being increased. In addition of portion of the Shapiro gift will be matched by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and Hebrew University.

The Shapiro scholarships cover tuition costs only.