I deeply appreciate being the honouree at the CJPAC annual fund-raising and networking event, and delighted that the evening is co-chaired by Leo Kolber and Jonathan Dietcher, two of my oldest and closest friends in Montreal.
Both are prominent leaders of Montreal’s Jewish community, which has contributed so much to Montreal, Quebec and all of Canada. Leo’s fundraising over the decades, on behalf of the Jewish General Hospital and Israel, is the stuff of legend.
As for the Dietcher family, they have long been leaders in Montreal’s Jewish community, a role that began with Jonathan’s father, Moses. Jon has been a valued advisor and loyal friend to me for decades.
In Baie Comeau, where I was born and grew up, there was no Jewish community, no congregation, no synagogue.
It was when I graduated from Laval and moved to Montreal to practice law in 1964 that I first came into contact with a large Jewish community which, as it turned out, ignited my interest in and support of the Jews and Israel.
The Jews of Montreal were, in my judgment, remarkable. Families were close, values were taught, education was revered, work was honored and success was expected: these principles had spawned over the decades an extraordinary community of teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers and business leaders. How could it be, I often wondered, that the progenitors of such a law abiding and productive group – that was demonstrably making such a powerful contribution to the economic, cultural and political life of Montreal and Canada – were reviled over centuries and decimated in a six year period, beginning in the year of my birth. Thus began my first serious reflections on and encounters with anti-Semitism, a state of mind that is born in ignorance and nurtured in envy. Anti-Semitism is the stepchild of delusion and evil.
Though I had never been to Israel, I immediately understood from the Jewish community of Montreal that the bond with Israel was emotional and existential, instinctive and intuitive.
It was during my early years in Montreal that I learned of the shocking culture of anti-semitism that prevailed in this country and this city within our own lifetimes—of a strike at a French-language hospital because a Jewish graduate of Université de Montreal medical school was appointed to intern there. Of the notorious quota system at McGill, with Jewish students also needing higher marks to get in. Of clubs where Jews needn’t apply.
In 1937 our Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King visited Germany to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler. King recorded the following impressions of that meeting: “He [Hitler] smiled very pleasantly and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man. His face is much more pre-possessing than his pictures would give the impression of. It is not that of a fiery over-strained nature but of a calm, passive man deeply and thoughtfully in earnest. His skin was smooth. His face did not present lines of fatigue or weariness. His eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicates keen perception and profound sympathy. Calm, composed and one could see how particularly humble folk would have come to have profound love for the man. As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc. He is distinctly a mystic.”
This, from the Prime Minister of Canada less than 2 years before Hitler launched the bloodiest war in world history.
The following day, our Prime Minister had lunch in Berlin with the Nazi Foreign Minister von Neurath, who delivered himself of some interesting opinions: “He admitted that they [the Nazis] had taken some pretty rough steps in cleaning up the situation, but the truth was the country was going to pieces at the time Hitler took hold. He said to me that I would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews, and the way in which they had increased their numbers in the city, and were taking possession of its more important part. He said there was no pleasure in going to a theatre which was filled with them. Many of them were very coarse and vulgar and assertive. They were getting control of all the business, the finance, and had really taken advantage of the necessity of the people. It was necessary to get them out to have the Germans really control their own city and affairs. He told me I would have been surprised at the extent to which life and morale had become demoralized – that Hitler had set his face against all that kind of thing, and had tried to inspire desire for a good life in the minds of young people.”
And how did Canada’s Prime Minister react to these diabolically racist and extremely ominous comments by one of the most powerful leaders of the Third Reich?
Mackenzie King wrote: “I left him feeling that I had met a man whose confidence I would continue to enjoy through the rest of my days… After returning to the hotel, I wrote a letter of some length by hand to von Neurath whom I like exceedingly. He is, if there ever was one, a genuinely kind, good man.”
The Prime Minister sets both the agenda and the tone in Ottawa. Is it any wonder then that Canada was slammed shut to Jewish immigrants before and during the War and when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the War, a senior immigration official famously replied: “None is too many.” Most regrettably, the Government of Canada even refused entry to a ship called the St. Louis, bearing a shipload of Jews desperate for Canada to admit them, but who instead sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned.
This was a moment when Canada’s heritage and promise were betrayed. Canada’s conduct was absolutely disgraceful and I continue to be deeply troubled by the insouciance of our federal government confronted by such a stark and transparent moral challenge. To this day, I cannot watch footage of the faces of Jewish mothers, fathers and children consigned to the gas chambers in German concentration camps without, as a Canadian, feeling a great sense of sorrow, loss and guilt.
The Government of Canada ignored not only the plight of the Jews, but also the protests of the Canadian people, and the pleading of the press. A prominent Montrealer, William Birks, called the government’s closed door policy “narrow, bigoted and short sighted.” Socialist leader J.S. Woodsworth said he felt “helpless and ashamed” as a Canadian. The Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Free Press condemned Ottawa’s “cowardly policy.”
Why was nothing done? Because of political expediency; because the Prime Minister had a visceral distrust of Jews and was afraid he could not carry his cabinet on an open door policy, which in government circles was very unpopular.
But Prime Ministers are not chosen to seek popularity. They are elected to provide leadership. Prime Ministers are supposed to tell Canadians not what they want to hear but what they have to know. And what they have to know is a quotation from the Book of Proverbs inscribed on the Peace Tower in Ottawa: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Above all, it is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to lead on the great moral issues of the day: Popularity polls be damned. Because of Ottawa’s abdication of moral leadership, countless Jews perished in Hitler’s death camps and we as a country were deprived of them, their children and the glory of their lives.
And that is why you all must take an active interest in politics and public policy debates in Quebec and Canada. You must be present in all political parties where policy is developed, stands are taken and leaders are chosen. Political action operates from the ground up. If you are not there with the foot soldiers, you don’t get to qualify for promotion up the ranks, where the major decisions are ultimately made. Remember the old adage: “Les absents ont toujours tort”.
So join the political party of your choice and participate strongly in its growth. Both you and Canada shall reap the benefits of such activism. And I can tell you that, over a lifetime, I have never seen an instance where an organization of any kind has failed to be enriched and enhanced by the presence of a large, vigorous and vocal participation from the Jewish community.
To compound this historical error prior to the war, Canada allowed itself to become a haven for Nazi war criminals after the war.
One of the vows I made on taking office as Prime Minister was that this would no longer be acceptable. Not on my watch.
Early in my first term of office, I appointed the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi War Criminals who had escaped to Canada. As I said then: “Our citizenship shall not be dishonoured by those who preach hatred…Canada shall never become a safe haven for such persons.”
This was controversial and painful, especially for communities where Nazi war criminals posed as respectable citizens. Some wondered why we dredged up this painful episode from our past.
The answer is simple but profound: Canada needed closure, and the Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors, needed justice.
In this regard, great progress was made by the Commission but much more could have been done, had nothing not been done by Ottawa for decades.
In terms of Israel, our support was unequivocal from the beginning.
Even as Leader of the Opposition, when the government of the day invited a PLO representative before a parliamentary committee when it was still officially known as a terrorist organization, I called the Israeli ambassador to my office, where we jointly denounced this appearance.
And while still in opposition, I made it clear that in government our policy on the Middle East would begin from an “unshakable commitment” to Israel, beginning with the right of Israelis to live in peace within secure borders.
I have always believed that because of unique historical circumstances, that it was up to Israel, and Israel alone, to determine the issues and parameters around its national security, as well as its national interest.
This was indeed our policy during the nine years I was in office, at all times, and in all circumstances.
Let us give credit to the present Federal government, under the leadership of Stephen Harper which has been staunch and solid in its support of Israel.
The leadership on this file begins with the Prime Minister. You do not have to be a supporter of the present government of Canada to know that, for Stephen Harper, this issue is a matter of deep conviction for him, the right thing to do.
It certainly was for me.
I admired Israel. I loved its heroic story, of a country created by the Jewish Diaspora. It was a miracle. It still is.
And because this evening is a celebration, let us celebrate the two economic miracles of Israel, the first even before the creation of the Jewish state 65 years ago, and the second unfolding before our very eyes.
The first economic miracle was in agriculture. The second one is in technology. Both have occurred because of the uniquely innovative culture of Israel and its people.
Think about it.
In the first instance, where there had been only a desert, there were orange groves. Where there had been no water, there was irrigation. Where there had been no settlements, there were kibbutzes. Not only did they feed themselves, the Israelis fed others, becoming an exporting nation.
Innovation and ingenuity is what drives the Israeli economy now, as it did then, but in a different economic space. Israel has the most intensive R&D economy in the world. Fully 4.4 percent of the Israeli economy, as a percentage of GDP, is in research and development. This is more than twice the average in OECD countries.
Private sector R&D is nearly 4 percent of GDP. In Canada, by contrast, private sector R&D is only 0.9 percent of GDP.
Israel’s Patent Cooperation Treaty encourages investment by foreign coinventors. Last year there were more than 500 new tech start-ups, and more than 5,000 new patents in Israel, many of them in the tech space. Israel leads the OECD in patents filed by universities and public labs.
All this economic activity is going on in a society as old as civilization, but a country as young as tomorrow.
From 800,000 people at its founding, Israel is 8 million strong today, three-fourths of the population being Jewish and the remainder Arab Israelis. The average age of the population is under 30, compared to nearly 40 years of age in Canada.
And on the United Nations Human Development Index of 184 countries, Israel ranks very high for its quality of life, 16th compared to 11th for Canada, but ahead of both France and Italy, which are G7 economies.
These numbers capture the dimensions of Israel’s success, but not its essence.
Canada is a marvelous country that has provided sanctuary and opportunity to millions, including my own ancestors. But our history has not been untroubled in this regard. Many groups of immigrants to Canada have suffered injustice and discrimination. From the Japanese to the Ukrainians to the Irish to the Italians to the Chinese and others the streets of Canada turned out not always to be paved with gold and the voyage to Canadian citizenship was sometimes marked by sadness and despair.
But the story of the Jews remains markedly different. The Holocaust saw to that. Accordingly, these decisions and gestures I have enumerated – and many more by other leaders of all political parties – are important both substantively and symbolically. I believe they represent in some measure how a Prime Minister should act because they send out signals to the nation and the world of where Canada stands on this extremely vital question. When I retired from office, I maintained that attitude, publicly denouncing those from the United Nations to the Canadian government to foreign governments and organizations that showed hostility or malice to Israel or the Jews.
And why is it important that we all continue to do this? While life has improved for us all – including of course the Jewish communities here and elsewhere – history has taught us what happens when we abandon our vigilance and concern.
This does not mean however that Israel should be immune from criticism. One can strongly disagree with policies of the Government of Israel without being called an anti-Semite.
Nor does it mean that a strong defense of Israel’s right to exist and live in security precludes the acceptance of a Palestinian state where all citizens, and in particular young Palestinians, come to know the benefits of health care, educational excellence, economic opportunities and growing prosperity, similar to those available in Israel. This should be the objective of all who believe in justice because this is the pathway to peace. And I am certain that one day relatively soon we shall see the initiation of a process that will produce precisely this result.
To conclude with the Founder, in David Ben-Gurion’s epic autobiography, there is a striking quotation on the distinctiveness of Jewish history in the human experience. In the concluding paragraph of his memoirs, he wrote:
“The essence and the significance of Jewish history lies in the preference of quality over quantity. For our security, survival and status in the world, and the preservation of the legacy of our Prophets until the end of time, Israel must strive incessantly for moral, cultural, technological and social improvement and to be a unique people.”
James Joyce wrote that “the past is consumed in the present and the present is alive only because it gives birth to the future”. The Jews of Israel have already emerged as a valorous people who have made the deserts bloom. And the Jews of Canada have found a home in this country whose future is immeasurably brighter and whose values have been incalculably enriched because of their Jewish presence and their contribution to Canada and to all mankind.