Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
2009 Temple Israel Hanukkah Freedom Lecture

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Ottawa, Ontario

Thank you Rabbi Garten.

Chag sameach.

The Hanukkah story is the story of a miracle.

Two thousand years ago, Antiochus, the Seleucid ruler of Jerusalem banned the study of Torah, put up statues of Greek gods in the Temple, and enforced total assimilation for the Jews.

For eight days, one day’s supply of oil burned in the Temple in Jerusalem. A sign of God’s will, a sign of God’s faith in the endurance of his people.

It’s a story that echoes through Jewish history with fearful symmetry.

The miracle of the oil is not so remote to survivors of the Shoah, their children and grandchildren.

Nor is it so remote to this country. Canada bears the imprint of survivors—not only of the Holocaust, but of a century’s worth of human tragedy and conflict.

My father came to Canada with his family as refugees from the Bolshevik revolution. This country gave him a new chance, and he loved the place, as people do, who have been given a second chance.

However “Canadian” my dad became, he always remained a Russian refugee. His two sons grew up with the songs of their father’s Orthodox faith in our ears—and with his unwieldy last name, too.

This is a secular truth of the Hanukkah story—one with special meaning for us as Canadians. Our society is built on diversity. Our differences sustain us.

The most basic meaning of freedom in our society is the capacity to be who we are and wish to be, to achieve what we strive to achieve—no matter what our origins are, or where in the country we live.

Our American neighbours and cousins take a low-maintenance view of freedom — it is the condition that prevails when nothing gets in its way.

In this country, however, “peace, order, and good government” is an altogether more complicated proposition.

Canadians tend to see freedom through a small-“l” liberal lens: we take as a given that we cannot achieve freedom by ourselves, and that the purpose of government—good government—is to shape a society in
which individual freedom can flourish.

We believe that individuals cannot be free without a free society—and without the social institutions that sustain it. Public education for all. Free access to healthcare. Pensions. Public security. And the full protections afforded by a sovereign nation state.

In our Canadian understanding, government is neither an unlimited good nor a necessary evil, but rather creates and sustains the framework of opportunity that makes freedom possible.

We are a cold northern nation of 33 million people spread out across the second largest expanse of territory of any country on earth. Most of us live along a thinly-populated band of settlement a hundred kilometers deep and five thousand kilometers long.

We understand—by virtue of our geography and our history—that wise government is essential to keep regions from falling behind, to keep Canadians free and equal, and to keep us together.

We have managed to survive and prosper as individuals only by banding together. Our rights strike a distinctive balance between the individual and the collective.

Individual freedoms are not unlimited or unconditional, as they are in the American constitution. In Canada they are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified
in a free and democratic society.” These words appeal to a tacit understanding of a distinctively Canadian balance between liberty and community.

From the beginning, we’ve made a complex unity out of our linguistic, cultural and national differences. We’ve anchored collective rights to language and education in our constitution. We’ve respected claims to
land and territory that pre-existed our political foundation. We’ve learned to compromise, to reach out across divides that have broken other countries apart.

Nous sommes un pays bilingue, voue a la compréhension des autres à travers la différence linguistique. C’est notre défi, mais c’est aussi notre gloire et notre exemple au monde.

The sheer difficulty of keeping this complex unity together has bred compromise and conciliation into the Canadian soul. Because our unity cannot be taken for granted, we understand that pragmatic political
leadership and moderate government are conditions of our survival—that pragmatic adaptation is a better guide for leadership than ideology and dogmatism.

The Canadian condition is defined by our fragile unity. Fragile yes, but enduring also. If we believe that individuals cannot be free without a free society, then we must acknowledge that we cannot be free as Canadians unless our complex social fabric remains intact.

Toutes les politiques, dans notre pays, sont des politiques d’unité nationale. Un leadership qui ne comprend pas ça est voué à l’échec.

We cannot fight our partisan battles—we cannot try to win elections—by pitting one community against another, one region against another, one group of Canadians against another.

If we push for political victory by tearing the threads of mutual respect and common citizenship that unite us as Canadians—then we will have gone too far.

This is why my party protested when the Conservatives started sending flyers into ridings with large Jewish populations, which basically accused the Liberal Party of Canada of anti-Semitism.

One of those ridings was Irwin Cotler’s.

Now I’ve been in this game for a little while. I get that sometimes, in politics, people take liberties with the truth.

But calling Irwin Cotler an anti-Semite? That takes chutzpah.

The allegation is absurd, but the tactic is worse than that.

It is wrong to use Israel as a wedge to divide the Jewish community for partisan gain.

And it is reckless for political leaders to try to score points by branding one another as “anti-Israel”—to try to win votes by claiming a monopoly on supporting Israel.

My party has a proud record of support for Israel, of working effectively with the Jewish community, and of speaking and acting against terrorism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of hatred.

I myself have lived and worked in Israel. I know it from the kibbutz Misgav Am in the north to Beersheba University in the Negev in the south.

But my party will never claim to be the only genuine defenders of Israel in Canadian politics—because we want all parties to be genuine defenders of Israel.

We must never let the Middle East conflict divide us into bitter solitudes.

We must reach out and find a common way—commitment to the security of Israel, equal commitment to a Palestinian state living in peace beside its neighbour.

And we politicians must have the discipline not to pander to ethnic and cultural communities.

That approach is wrong, because it involves addressing Canadians from diverse backgrounds as something other than as equal Canadian citizens.

By indulging in a multiculturalism of political wedges, a multiculturalism of pandering and voter targeting and electoral math, we can only shred the soul of true Canadian multiculturalism—the equal respect and equal citizenship that’s written into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For me, as a political leader, that means saying the same thing to all Canadians, whether you’re talking to them in a church basement in Trois-Rivières or a mandir in Brampton, a gurdwara in Vancouver, a
mosque in Toronto, or a synagogue in Ottawa.

We can never pick and choose which groups are entitled to respect and fair treatment.

We can never pick which groups are entitled to freedom of speech. All must speak and all must be heard. Speech may offend, but speech must never intimidate, strike fear or silence—especially on our university
campuses. Freedom is a balance between necessary affirmation and necessary respect.

Freedom in Canadian society requires that our government and our public institutions treat us with equal respect, no matter what our origins are, or where in the country we live.

The Hanukkah story is not just about an eight-day miracle. It’s a parable of unity and discord.

The Maccabean revolt was not, after all, a simple rebellion against a Greek tyrant. It was also civil war between Jews—those who had assimilated to Hellenic culture and those who had not.

So, if you’ll permit me a little goyish interpretation, the Hanukkah story also teaches us that the failure to accord equal respect in a diverse society invariably leads to conflicts not just between groups,
but also within them.

This is why equal respect must always be the watchword of Canadian politics. If we fail, our diversity will become a liability, and our freedom insecure.

To be free in Canadian society means being able to hold on to our differences, without losing our grip on the shared experience of citizenship.

It means living without fear of exclusion from the institutions that hold this country together.

The history of Canada has been built on one, simple conviction: that we are not many, but one, not a collection of communities, but one great people, bound to each other by the promise of equality,
opportunity and justice for all.

This is my Canada. I will try to speak for it and defend it. I am sure you will too.

Thanks for listening.