Trudeau Apology Welcome, But Action Needed to Confront Under the Surface Problem

It was a historical moment. Justin Trudeau, the current Canadian Prime Minister, stood in the House of Commons, Canada’s parliament, and delivered a speech where he apologized for Canada’s actions regarding the St.Louis refugee boat carrying European Jewish refugees during World War Two.  The 907 Jewish refugees seeking assylum were first rejected by Cuba and the United States before Canada under its “none is too many” foreign policy, denied them entry. The United States has already apologized for its inaction in the incident. The boat was forced to return to Europe where several hundred of the Jewish refugees died in Nazi concentration camps.

Trudeau was graceful in his apology. “Today, I rise in this House of Commons to issue a long overdue apology to the Jewish refugees Canada turned away,”

“We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS. St-Louis, as well as their families. We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction, whom we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps.”

“We used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”

“Your country failed you. And for that, we are sorry,” he said in his speech.

He also apologized for the manifestation of anti Semitism in Canada noting that 15% of all hate crimes target Jews and sometimes the Jewish community feels like “strangers in their own homes, aliens in their own land.”

While it is always welcome for a country’s leader to rise to a podium and decry anti Semitism, combating it with actions will be more difficult than words.

I spent over 20 years in Canada. While truly a progressive place in that all nationalities live together under one country, being an avid pro Israeli one was a challenge even in the very pro Israel Harper government. It isn’t being Jewish that is the problem. I have donned tzizis and a kippah openly in Canada and people may actually greet you warmly with “shalom” on the street. Some would ask you about Jewish customs while others will openly boast about how they spent time in a kibbutz long ago.

However a difference exists, you feel it in your bones. They will not say it for Canadians are a very polite and deeply private people for the most part but you are different to them. If you leave them alone or do not raise political arguments they will leave you alone. However discreetly without words you will have less friends, less job interviews. They will never say it because you are Jewish offcourse, as this would directly go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guards against discrimination on ethnic grounds, a criminal offense by law. People will not view you as one of them. It was this discreetness that started my drive to move to Israel years ago.

Sometimes, especially if it touches a political or business issue the private domain will come out into the open. As a University of Toronto graduate student at the elite Munk School of Global Affairs I still remember vividly being sent into a room full of blatant anti-Semitism by Hillel to defend Israel before they would pass a pro BDS resolution.  “What Israel is doing is no different than what Hitler did or what the Apartheid government in South Africa did” they would charge. “The Jews hate humanity and are after dominating others… you should get out of Palestine” . “Shame on you for ethnic cleansing”. The five Jews among myself spent the better part of an hour fighting the viscous wave. That year we succeeded in delaying the passage of a pro BDS resolution.  However the year after I graduated the resolution went through and the UofT’s student union officially supported the boycott of Israel. In the classroom it was only slightly better. Six Jews we were but I was the only openly Zionist one. I went into dozens of intellectual fights over Israel almost always outnumbered with noone wishing to back me in the defense of Israel. During Holocaust memorial day near the graduation date, a classmate, a son of a prominent politician, charged that Bibi was exploiting the Holocaust as a political issue with Iran. When I responded that the day should be about remembering the lives of the six million victims I was systematically defriended by much of the class. To this day I have few friends from the elite program.

Later as Jacob Sheep project shepherd and cofounder [an initiative to move the rare biblical breed from Canada to Israel that took place from 2014-2016], anti Semitism would rear its head again especially amongst Christians, some who claim to support Israel. One called the animals “demons with spots” and only backed down from threats to destroy the project after the police became involved. Others were more overt. “The Jews are bad to Christians and should be evicted from the property” and stated that the project was bad for Christian unity, one activist from a Christian Zionist group once wrote about the project to a landlord (keeping her name and the name of her organization anonymous). It was only after intervention from abroad that the fire died down. Despite active support from then Israeli ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak and the entire diplomatic staff in Canada not one Canadian government official was present in the sending off ceremony for the animals who made international headlines by moving to Israel in late 2016.

Speaking at Jacob Sheep farewell Gala in Hamilton ON in 2016 with the other Jacob Sheep project cofounder Jenna and with then Israeli Ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak in the background. No Canadian government representatives were present at the ceremony.

How does one combat anti Semitism in Canada? It is a hidden problem that roars its ugly head especially in political and religious discourses. The Jewish Federations, who represent the Jewish communities in Canada, should spend more resources on public outreach instead of a very insular approach. Public diplomacy is often left to groups such as CIJA which is more focused on political activism than civil society reproarchment. As a result, often, pro Israel activism in Canada is increasingly being left to Christian Zionist circles.  Many of them still believe that Jews should believe in Jesus and the representatives of the Jewish communities are nowhere in site. If you do not believe like them many but not all may blacklist their support.

Politically, despite years of pro Israel governance, many have a deep ignorance toward Israel and its culture. Many do not understand why Jews and Palestinians cannot live like Canadians, side by side in peace and full equality. The media is often to blame here as most of the time Israel in reality is a peaceful country with the occasional violent episode which becomes world headlines. Jews and Arabs still do not date and marry one another but both live high quality lives within their respective communities in Israel. In Jerusalem, every day, one passes by Arabs on the light rail or dining in a Jewish restaurant or Jews are found walking in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Coexistance increasingly is the norm here even though the identity as a Jew or Arab remains the core of what one is. A failure to portray the reality on the ground in Israel and a focus on anecdotes which are exceptions rather than norms is the root of a lot of political misunderstandings.

I am pleased with Trudeau’s speech but for Canada to truly become a country where one can proudly integrate as a Jew or be able to talk about Israel openly much more needs to be done. It was the inability to assimilate that was a driving force for my leaving the country and now living in the Jewish state.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree in International Relations. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.
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