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.

It’s Not About Antisemitism. it’s About Free Speech

Nov. 18, 2020

By AMOS GOLDBERG

On Oct. 26th, Ontario adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism through an Order in Council. 

On the face of it, what could be more appropriate than adopting a clear definition of antisemitism that helps fight this scourge? It would seem obvious that all decent people should unite in this just and essential fight.

Unfortunately, this definition – and especially the 11 examples appended to its original text – help very little, if at all, to fight antisemitism. Rather than helping to stamp out antisemitism, several of these examples actually serve to curb free speech on Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, shaping the debate over Israel-Palestine in a way that practically silences the Palestinian voice.

Let’s take a look at one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is considered antisemitic. The first question that comes to mind is: if denying Jews the right of self-determination is antisemitic because it’s a universal right, how should we define denying the Palestinian right for self-determination? Why is denying Palestinian self-determination a legitimated political opinion and, in fact, Israel’s practical policy, while denying Jewish self-determination is considered antisemitic? The second question that comes to mind is that almost all countries on the globe are accused of being racist. Why should Israel be shielded from such legitimate allegations?

But there is more to it. The reasons almost all Palestinians, including the most devoted supporters of the two-states solution, reject Zionism is not because they are antisemites, but because they experience Zionism as oppressive and colonial. None other than the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of the ruling Likud party, acknowledged this already in his 1923 article “The Iron Wall.” There, he asserted that like all colonized peoples, the Palestinians reject Zionism because they oppose what they perceive – and from their perspective rightly so – as foreign invaders. Following Jabotinsky, we can say that denying Jews’ right to self-determination in Palestine as such is not antisemitic even for ardent Zionists like Jabotinsky. One can certainly reject this view but there is nothing antisemitic in it.

Insisting on the opposite practically delegitimizes, silences and criminalizes all Palestinians (and very many non-Zionist Jews) who, as Jabotinsky observed, reject Zionism for understandable (even if rejectable) reasons. Opposing Zionism is hence a legitimate view secured by the right of free speech and, in fact, a legitimate Jewish opinion.

This is only one of many examples of how the definition actually prevents free speech and an honest discussion on Israel-Palestine while disguising itself as a fight against antisemitism. In fact, the definition actually distorts the very essence of this fight. Most scholarly accounts of modern antisemitism connect it to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the nation-state. Fighting antisemitism is about protecting a vulnerable minority against the violent homogenizing tendency of the majority society. The IHRA definition does precisely the opposite. It protects a powerful state, Israel, from criticism of its well-documented violations of the human rights of its vulnerable minority and occupants. In short, the IHRA definition has become a powerful silencing mechanism that serves only to increase the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kenneth Stern, who, 15 years ago, was the lead author of the IHRA definition (for research, not legislative purposes) and is now one of its chief critics, has written: “I’m a Zionist,” but “anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.” The IHRA definition has been deployed to undermine that right, he asserts. We should be very attentive to his words and call on the Ontario legislature to take great care in how it interprets this harmful definition. 


Amos Goldberg
Amos Goldberg

Amos Goldberg is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent publications are Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust; and his co-edited volume with Bashir Bashir: The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.