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 is 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 be strong advocates on our community’s behalf. 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 our partners likewise engage in good faith. Let’s continue striving for better.
first published in the Canadian Jewish Record, Dec 1, 2020
Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.