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.

JFK’s Assassination – and a Montreal Jewish Lawyer’s Good Name

Nov. 19, 2020

By FRED LITWIN

This Sunday marks the 57th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Hopefully, most people will commemorate his life and the hope his administration brought to the United States and much of the world. But I fear most tweets and articles will be about conspiracy, coverup, and wondering when more related assassination documents will be released.

I’ve been researching the JFK assassination since I was 18, in 1975. Back then, Geraldo Rivera showed the famous Zapruder film of the president’s shooting on television for the first time, and I became convinced there was a conspiracy. Over the years, my opinion has changed to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole gunman, and that was the basis for my 2018 memoir, I Was a Teenage JFK Conspiracy Freak.

The fact of the matter is that JFK conspiracy theories have ruined people’s lives and damaged reputations. And one person who was affected was a Jewish lawyer from Montreal: Louis Bloomfield.

The story begins on March 1, 1967 when a man in New Orleans, Clay Shaw, was charged with conspiracy to assassinate JFK. At the time, the only evidence against Shaw was a recovered memory from a witness who had been given sodium pentothal (so-called truth serum, and had been hypnotized three times). He remembered Shaw being at a party where the assassination was being discussed.

Three days after his arrest, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper in Rome, Paese Sera, ran a series of articles claiming that Shaw had been involved in unsavory activities while serving on the board of Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC) – a world trade centre that tried to make Rome an important trading hub.

Paese Sera alleged that the CMC was a “creature of the CIA … set up as a cover or transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds for illegal political-espionage activities.” Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, then published an article on March 7 with the headline “Clay Shaw of the CIA.” It alleged that Shaw “was given the task of establishing contacts with extreme rightist groups in Rome, including the representatives of the neofascist organizations.”

The story then appeared in other European communist newspapers, and then jumped into the legitimate press with two articles in Montreal’s venerable Le Devoir on March 8 and 16. The second article emphasized a possible Montreal link to the assassination. It was alleged that a retired American major, L. M. Bloomfield, held half the shares of CMC and that “he had participated in the espionage activities of the OSS (now the CIA) during the way.” They also claimed that Bloomfield was now a Montreal banker.

Louis Bloomfield
Louis Bloomfield

It is quite possible that these articles were planted by the KGB to convince Americans that the CIA was behind the assassination. But none of the allegations were true.

Clay Shaw never attended a board meeting, and there is no evidence that the CMC was engaged in anything untoward. But now, the papers of Louis Bloomfield, housed at the Library and Archives Canada, confirm that CMC was exactly what it claimed to be – a world trade centre.

Bloomfield’s law firm was extremely busy – in 1960 alone, it sent out over 2,000 letters. He wrote the managers of CMC many times but never mentioned the name Clay Shaw once, and there was nothing political in those letters. He was concerned that the CMC was not finding enough tenants, and was interested in the running of the firm – so much so, that he sent an associate to help manage the office.

Bloomfield was deeply troubled by the Le Devoir articles. He wrote then Editor Claude Ryan demanding a retraction. I searched through several months of Le Devoir, and I could not find any correction or retraction.

Bloomfield’s letter referenced Il Messaggero, another Italian newspaper, which presented the facts. There were “stormy financial events,” it said, and in 1962, the CMC was evicted from its building. Shortly after that, the company was dissolved, and the members of the board “gave rise to other initiatives.”

The articles confirmed that Shaw had never been to Italy and further noted that “there is no trace of his name in the foreigner’s office.” Also, “the name of Clay Shaw has conjured an image of mysterious activity which appears to be involved with the CIA, that is to say, the headquarters of counterintelligence in America, but nothing in the current situation seems to infer such risky speculation.”

After the Le Devoir articles, the whole affair became more sinister. The organization around Lyndon LaRouche, an American activist who trafficked in conspiracy, published an article claiming that Bloomfield ran an assassination bureau that oversaw JFK’s murder. Bloomfield worried about his physical safety and wrote the Commissioner of the RCMP, saying that “editors obtained certain bits and pieces of my biography, which have been mixed, garbled, and woven into a fabric of lies, hallucinatory accusations and statements that have no connection with me in any shape or form whatsoever.”

The reality was that Bloomfield was quite the mensch.

During the Second World War, he was a lieutenant in the infantry but was moved because of a heart murmur. He was profiled in the Canadian Jewish News in 1978, telling the paper that he was moved into “hush-hush, secret service jobs in a less hectic activity. I realize that this line will make conspiracy theorists go crazy, but so be it.”

His activities included locating German submarines in Mexico, and he said “his biggest coup came when he was able, because of past dealings with the Polish line, to prevent the Nazis from seizing a number of Polish ships in New York harbour, preventing them from sailing into the waiting hands of the German navy.”

After the way, Bloomfield became a lawyer specializing in corporate and international law and he authored many books and articles. He was on the drafting committee for the Helsinki Rules on the uses of international rivers.

He was on the board of governors of several hospitals and raised a lot of money for the Reddy Memorial Hospital in Montreal. He cofounded the World Wildlife Fund of Canada, and was active in many charities in Israel.

He served on the boards of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the Technion in Haifa. He worked hard for a wide variety of Jewish causes, including as honorary counsel for the World Zionist Congress (and as a judge for its tribunal), and he was the national treasurer of the Canadian Histadrut Campaign, raising money for Israel’s main labour union. He had his brother Bernard built a 2,400-seat stadium in Tel Aviv and 17 trade and vocational schools in Israel.

In 1965, Bloomfield was named the first Jewish Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to teaching first aid.

Shaw was acquitted of conspiracy, but District Attorney Jim Garrison then charged him with perjury, and it took another two years for that charge to be quashed. Shortly afterward, Shaw died of cancer, ruthlessly deprived of not only the best years of retirement, but most of his savings too.

I don’t think any of this held Bloomfield back professionally. But his online biographies are littered with accusations of involvement in the JFK assassination. Many conspiracy books mention his name. For instance, Michael Benson’s Who’s Who in the JFK Assassination has a two-page entry on Bloomfield.

His ties to JFK’s killing were also raised in 1967 in Canadian Dimension magazine. Bloomfield demanded a retraction of that article, and got one.

Conspiracy theories can be fun, but they can ruin lives – like Clay Shaw’s – and they can sully reputations, like Louis Bloomfield’s. So, let’s toast the memory of JFK this week, but please, don’t pick up that conspiracy book.


Fred Litwin
Fred Litwin

Fred Litwin is the author of On The Trail of Delusion, Jim Garrison: The Great Accuser. He has written for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun, C2C Journal, iPolitics and The Dorchester Review.