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

Dec. 16, 2020

By ANDREW COHEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

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

Dayeinu: Enough About the UN Vote

December 11, 2020 –

By ZACK BABINS

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

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

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

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

Instead I heard about the United Nations vote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zack Babins
Zack Babins

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

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.

Cotler denies IHRA Definition Will Suppress Israel Criticism

Dec. 7, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism does not stifle criticism of Israel or discredit advocacy for Palestinian rights, says Canada’s first ever Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

A key role for Irwin Cotler, who was named to the new post by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 25, is leading Canada’s delegation to the IHRA, an intergovernmental organization founded more than 20 years ago and headquartered in Berlin.

Canada endorsed the legally non-binding working definition of antisemitism, formulated in 2016, in June 2019 as part of an anti-racism plan. This October, Ontario became the first province to accept the definition.

Opponents of the definition point to clauses that make it antisemitic to claim that the existence of Israel is “a racist endeavour” or to apply a “double standard” to Israel not expected of other democratic nations.

This is an unpaid, part-time position for Cotler, 80, whose work with the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which he founded after leaving politics in 2015 and chairs, will continue as before.

Charges that the IHRA definition will be used as a weapon against pro-Palestinian advocacy, including the promotion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, are unwarranted and disingenuous, Cotler believes.

“It’s turning it on its head,” he told the CJR in an interview. “There is no intention to silence Palestinian advocacy; on the contrary. The definition states clearly that criticism of Israel is not in itself antisemitism…What is antisemitic is denying Israel’s right to exist. Singling out Israel for opprobrium and indictment is hateful, and to not say so is discriminatory.”

Cotler said he “fully affirms Palestinian rights, that the Palestinians are a people with the right to self-determination, including a free, independent and fully protected state. I have said it over and over again.”

As envoy, he is tasked to support the implementation of the definition across the country and internationally, in concert with civil society and academia.

“The definition is the first international normative set of standards for understanding what antisemitism and facilitating how to combat it in domestic and foreign policy,” he explained. “It’s basically a set of metrics as to when the line is crossed.”

Cotler urged the creation of the Special Envoy position during a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau in late 2019. Most of Canada’s allies, and notably the United States and United Kingdom, have had similar posts for years.

“I’m committed to doing this for one year. Then I’ll be happy to hand it over to somebody else,” said Cotler, who was a member of the Canadian delegation at the IHRA’s founding in Stockholm.

He stressed that the definition is an affirmation of “the right of the Jewish people and Israel to live as equal members of the family of nations…It’s anchored in international human rights and equality laws.”

In his home province and city, the definition has not gained much traction. A motion to adopt it has not come before the National Assembly, and the City of Montreal last year shelved it for further study.

“It’s an educative process,” said Cotler. “When people better appreciate that this is basically an anti-discrimination framework, protecting Jews individually and collectively, I believe they will adopt it. But as long as there are voices misrepresenting what it is, it will take a while.”

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

Dec. 1, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

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

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

By GIL TROY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gil Troy
Gil Troy

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

Breaking News: Irwin Cotler Named Special Holocaust Envoy

Nov. 25, 2020

Canada has named Irwin Cotler, the internationally respected human rights advocate, founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and former Justice Minister, as this country’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

According to a Nov. 25 press release from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, Cotler will lead the government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), “working with other member countries and both domestic and international partners to strengthen and promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research in Canada and around the world.”

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler

“The Holocaust was one of the darkest chapters in human history,” Trudeau’s statement said. “Seventy-five years after the liberation of Nazi concentration and extermination camps revealed the full horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish communities in Canada and around the world face rising antisemitism. The Government of Canada will always stand with the Jewish community, and fight the antisemitism, hatred, and racism that incite such despicable acts. We will also continue to preserve the stories of survivors through younger generations, and work to promote and defend pluralism, inclusion, and human rights.

“That is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named the Honourable Irwin Cotler as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism,” the statement continued.

“The Government of Canada is committed to reinforcing and strengthening Canada’s efforts to advance Holocaust education, remembrance and research, and to combat antisemitism as key elements of the promotion and protection of human rights at home and abroad.

“With a longstanding record of leadership in the fight against racism, antisemitism, and hate, and extensive experience in human rights and justice including in cases related to mass atrocities, Mr. Cotler will lead the Government of Canada’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). He will work with other member countries and both domestic and international partners to strengthen and promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research in Canada and around the world.”

The statement noted that the federal government adopted the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism in June 2019 as part of its anti-racism strategy.

As special envoy, Cotler will also support advocacy and outreach efforts with Canadians, civil society, and academia to advance the implementation of the definition across the country and its adoption internationally, according to the statement.

“We must never forget the painful lessons of the Holocaust, or the memories of those who lived through it,” Trudeau stated. “As Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, Irwin Cotler will use his vast knowledge and experience to promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research as we continue working with partners in Canada and around the world to fight against hate and intolerance. Because antisemitism has no place in Canada – or anywhere else.”

As envoy, Cotler will work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, and other departments to inform government policy and programming.

The IHRA includes 34 member countries and eight partner organizations with Holocaust-related issues as part of their mandate. Canada joined it in 2009.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was “thrilled” to learn of Cotler’s appointment.

“This announcement is a major step forward in the fight against antisemitism in Canada and shows a much-needed seriousness in our government’s commitment to this promise,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “We very much look forward to working with Mr. Cotler in his new role.”

“Mr. Cotler is a Canadian icon who has been tirelessly advocating for human rights for decades. Canada has demonstrated leadership by creating the position of special envoy, in discussion for months, and we are pleased Mr. Cotler was chosen to fill this important role,” said Joel Reitman, Co-Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Board of Directors.

Q&A: Prof. Gil Troy on Being Natan Sharansky’s Co-Author

Oct. 13, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

The newly published Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy (PublicAffairs, 480 pages) offers an intimate portrait of the man who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for his activism on behalf of Jewish emigration and who, after his release in 1986, became an outspoken politician in Israel. More recently, he was head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Troy, who made aliyah 10 years ago, continues to serve as a Distinguished Scholar in North American history at McGill University, where he’s taught from 1990. A specialist in the U.S. presidency, the New York-born Troy is a prolific author on the subject, as well as on Zionism. His most recent previous book was The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.

The CJR interviewed Troy about Never Alone and his impressions of Sharansky.

How long have you personally known Natan Sharansky? How long did you work on the book together, and how much are his words/ideas vs. yours?

I had the privilege of first meeting him in the early 2000s when he was Diaspora Affairs Minister, among other positions. He was very concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and I shared that concern as a McGill professor. It was mostly, however, a “hello, how are you?” type relationship, with occasional brainstorming meetings in his Jewish Agency office.

When I finished my last book, The Zionist Ideas, I asked him to write the preface, thinking of him as the most prominent and legendary Zionist in the world today. He kindly agreed – then turned it around and asked me to be his co-author.

Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy
Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy

We were true co-authors. We worked extremely closely together for three years, arguing lovingly about every word, every phrase, every logical sequence. And yet, in all that time, despite coming from such different worlds, we never had an ideological disagreement. So the book truly is our words, our voice – we call this a “memoir-festo,” a manifesto and memoir, because we are using his life story to tell a broader story about Jewish peoplehood and freedom.

Why the title Never Alone?

I was brainstorming with a good friend, David Suissa, [a former Montrealer now living in Los Angeles]. I told him that the KGB kept telling Natan, “you’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone,” but Natan says, “I knew I was never alone.”

“That’s it!” David shouts. “For 75 years we’ve emphasized ‘Never Again’ – and of course we will always revere our Holocaust martyrs – but our message now is that if you are a part of this amazing people called the Jewish people, you can know you are never alone.”

What surprised you the most in getting to know Sharansky so personally? Were there any revelations?

The newsiest part for me – and the most surprising – is that this guy is the real deal. This is a story of a man [and his wife Avital] who should have been crushed by the Soviet Union. Instead, they stood up, resisted, became symbols of freedom, and are now doing everything they can to continue the struggle, while living the simple, humble life they fought so hard to enjoy.

What does Sharansky have to say concerning Canada, about Irwin Cotler, who acted as his legal counsel while he was in prison, and the Soviet Jewry movement here? Of more recent note, the book discloses that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to dissuade emigration of French Jews to Canada to ensure their aliyah. True?

There is some fascinating Canadian content: heroes like Irwin Cotler, one of his attorneys, along with Andrea Bronfman and the Group of 35, [who] were part of that army of “students and housewives” that literally saved his life. “Students and housewives” was the dismissive phrase of one of his KGB interrogators that Sharansky, in typical fashion, flipped into a flag of honour.

When Natan arrived in Israel, Andrea and Charles [Bronfman] were among the donors who helped him ease the way for other Soviet Jews arriving by bankrolling innovative programs. Irwin Cotler remains a close friend of both authors, and a mentor to me.

And yes, Natan does report that Bibi thought that [then Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s sympathetic, enthusiastically pro-Israel Conservative government might discourage French Jews from moving to Canada and encourage them to move to Israel. Natan [and I] approach Zionism differently. We don’t want to be commissars of Zionism; we encourage an Aliyah of Choice based on Identity Zionism, a decision to join the Jewish people and live in the Jewish homeland to seek ideological fulfillment and a certain kind of communal experience, not because you are forced to or fear antisemitism.

What opinion does he express about Netanyahu? Donald Trump?

Natan and Bibi have been friends for 30 years. Natan is grateful for all that Bibi did to save Soviet Jews, and to defend Israel’s security as effectively as he has. But Natan is also repeatedly disappointed by Bibi’s demagoguery against Arabs and against critics, and felt personally betrayed when Netanyahu sabotaged the Western Wall compromise to welcome egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – especially because Bibi himself knew how important it was.

Natan [and I] were stunned that American Jews couldn’t thank Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or now, can’t appreciate the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords. But we are both dismayed and often appalled by Trump’s boorishness, his bullying, and his uncharacteristic caution when it comes to clearly denouncing the antisemitic extremists who have felt encouraged by his rise to power and his rhetoric.

What does Sharansky say about the state of Israel today or its future?

In the book, we propose what we call the Driving Test: in what direction is Israel or any country going? We are happy to report that, despite some worries here and there, the directional signals all point positively. Take a simple test: would you rather be in the Israel of 1950 or 2000 or 2020? There’s a lot of false nostalgia about early Israel, but Arabs have more equal rights today, Mizrachim [non-Ashkenazi Jews] enjoy more respect, we are closer to peace and we have more freedom, democratic quality of life, and prosperity – quite the miracle, we both like to say.

On Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly with American Jews, what is his outlook?

We do see warning signs of divergence, of two different communities with two different agendas, but we also see encouraging signs of convergence and a new mutual respect. Programs like Birthright illustrate the new Identity Zionism approach of partnership, wherein Israelis and Diaspora Jews learn from one another, look out for one another, save one another, rather than assuming that it’s a one-way relationship.

Sharansky has been in our consciousness for close to half a century, yet he remains an enigma to all except those who are closest to him. He’s not a man of faith in the conventional sense and his ideology is hard to categorize. So what sustains him? Is he someone who had “greatness thrust upon him” and perhaps would have preferred the life of an obscure mathematics professor?

With him, what you see is what you get. He’s really modest, a mensch, a funny, ironic, thoughtful idealist who doesn’t wallow in the pain of the past but delights in the miracles of the present while working for even more miracles in the future. I am an historian. Usually, when I scrutinize popular gods up close, I discover their clay feet really quickly. Natan and his wife are genuine – they live their values and getting to know them is getting to appreciate them on deeper levels, far beyond the hero worship, which makes them both uncomfortable.

While he is not a formal philosopher and was not only never a king but thought he was a terrible politician, he is more philosopher-king than man of faith or humble academic. He is driven by ideas, but wants to live by them and inspire others to live by them – so he is less interested in refining them theoretically than championing them practically.

Secondly, he understands that dictatorships are fear societies and really appreciates the freedom we all too often take for granted in modern Western democracies. And third, he really loves the Jewish people, loves being Jewish, is thrilled to live in Israel, and wants to share that with others, not in a heavy-handed way, but in an educational manner.

Sharansky insists Never Alone is not a memoir because he is not done yet. What are his plans?

He starts his work days at 5:30 a.m. and, until the pandemic, travelled around the world. He chairs the Shlichim institute of the Jewish Agency, training emissaries from Israel to work all over the world, and chairs the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, headed by Montreal native Charles Small.

He also chairs the initiative to have a proper, thoughtful memorial and museum in Babi Yar [site of a Second World War massacre in Ukraine] and he just won this year’s Genesis Prize.

Informally, he is writing, teaching, and fighting for the big ideas in our book, about identity and freedom, about the joys of being Jewish and the dangers of veering to one extreme – or the other.

– This interview was edited for length and clarity.