I was born in Baie Comeau, Quebec in 1939, the year the Nazis marched and the Allies responded. My only recollections of the war are scenes of my dad marching proudly with fellow militia members, children's whispers of German submarines lurking off our shores and my electrician father telling of the horrors of Hitler and why he had to be crushed if civilization were to be saved. My sisters and I understood very little of the unspeakable reality he sought to describe.
There were no Jews in Baie Comeau. It was not until I entered law school at Université Laval in Quebec City in 1960 that I really came to know Jews. I had two Jewish classmates, Michael Kastner and Israel (Sonny) Mass, one from a wealthy family and one working class like me. We became friends and remain so to this day. I learned about the tiny but impressive Jewish community there, but little of its history and challenges in Canada. It was when I moved to Montreal to practice law in 1964 that I first came into contact with a large Jewish community, which ignited my interest in and support of the Jews and Israel.
By this time, the horrors of the Holocaust and the systematic persecution of Jews was fully documented. Why, I asked myself, would such evil be visited upon anyone, and specifically the families of this vibrant community I was getting to know?
Jews have made a powerful economic, cultural and political contribution to Canadian life.
The Jews of Montreal were remarkable. Families were close, values were taught, education was revered, work was honored and success was expected. How could it be, I often wondered, that the progenitors of people 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.
Following the Holocaust, the cry of "never again" became both affirmation and promise. We expected that humanity would forswear anti-Semitism forever. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 reinforced this hope. Unfortunately, today, Jewish communities and the world's only Jewish state globally confront this re-emergent evil.
This latest anti-Semitism did not surface suddenly, in a vacuum. It forms part of a historical continuum that was only briefly interrupted, if at all, following the Second World War. Where did it all come from, what makes it so resistant to suppression – and will it ever end?
It all begins, I think, in that transitional period from BCE to CE, a time with a variety of faiths vying for attention. This came abruptly to a halt in 70 CE. The destruction by the Romans of Jerusalem's Second Jewish Temple was the pivotal event of that era. Only Christianity and Judaism survived the catastrophe. Originally, the people who followed Jesus considered themselves Jews. Once a Christian Church evolved, however, it took up an antagonistic position towards Judaism and its practitioners.
Jews, first and foremost, were branded with the most devastating of charges – Deicide. They were accused of the stubborn refusal to accept Christ's Godhead and His sacrifice. They were pictured as consumed with a detestation of Christianity and defilers of its rituals and symbols, the agents of Satan and the future allies if not the progenitors of the Antichrist, their ultimate aim to destroy the one true faith.
We can well imagine how ordinary men and women would have felt about Jews as a result. Individuals in the medieval world were overcome by fear of a world where so little was understood. Demons lurked unseen, and therefore beyond retribution. There was, however, one visible demon against whom one could retaliate – the Jew.
It was the Jew who was said to have poisoned the wells and who was responsible for the Black Death. The disappearance of children, in what has become known as the "Blood Libel," was readily and falsely blamed on alleged Jewish murderers who required the blood of Christian children for nefarious rituals. All this infected countless Christians with the soul-devouring virus of Jew-hatred.
The founding of the Inquisition in 15th-century Spain fully effected the transition from religious to racial anti-Semitism. The issue in Christian-Jewish relations was no longer God but genes.
The Nazis, with their emphasis on racial and ideological purity, were the natural inheritors of those who for two millennia have been centrally motivated by anti-Semitism. Nothing captures better the anti-Semite's single-mindedness than the account of Hitler, just prior to his suicide as the Third Reich lay in ruins, calling on Germans to maintain the "struggle against the Jews, the eternal poisoners of the world."
Contemporary anti-Semitism has added the state of Israel to its list of targets, to deny the Jewish state its rightful place among the community of nations. Israel has become the new Jew.
Canadians talk proudly of our tolerance and fair-mindedness. Often a tone of moral superiority insinuates itself into our national discourse. But these virtues are of fairly recent vintage – we have little to be smug about. In 1933, Toronto witnessed the Christie Pits riot – anti-Semites terrorized a Jewish baseball team in a street battle that went on all night.
The next year in Montreal all the interns at Notre-Dame Hospital went on strike to protest the hiring of a Jew who had graduated first in his class at l'Université de Montréal. This man was forced to resign because, as Le Devoir reported, Catholic patients would find it "repugnant" to be treated or touched by a Jewish doctor.
In 1938, the Canadian Jewish Congress decided not to publish a study of the status of Jews in English Canada because the findings were so profoundly unsettling.
Overt anti-Semitism was not limited to minor players in Canadian society. On Feb. 10, 1937, prime minister Mackenzie King met an elderly Russian immigrant who related that he had built a furniture and clothing business on Rideau and Banks Streets, had three sons and a daughter and was now retired – a true Canadian success story. King recorded in his diary: "The only unfortunate part... is that the Jews having acquired foothold... it will not be long before this part of Ottawa will become more or less possessed by them."
Is it any wonder then that Canada was slammed shut to Jewish immigrants during the war?
A few months later, King visited Germany to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler, and recorded: "My sizing up... was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man... There was a liquid quality about (his eyes) 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."
The following day, our PM had lunch with the Nazi foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, who "admitted that they had taken some pretty rough steps... but the truth was the country was going to pieces ... 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... it was necessary to get them out to have the Germans really control their own city and affairs."
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?
"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? Or that, when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada, a senior immigration official famously replied: "None is too many"? The government even refused entry to a shipload of desperate Jews, who instead sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned.
This was a moment when Canada's heritage and promise were betrayed. To this day, I cannot watch footage of the faces of Jewish mothers, fathers and children consigned to the gas chambers without, as a Canadian, feeling a great sense of sorrow, loss and guilt. 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.
Anti-Semitism is born in ignorance and nurtured in envy.
Anti-Semitism is born in ignorance and nurtured in envy. It is the stepchild of delusion and evil. The ongoing success of Canada's Jewish community is consequently often misunderstood, misrepresented and misreported. The rise in the number of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Canada and the pathetic but startling ravings of David Ahenakew testify to the intractability of the problem, and the constant need for vigilance, consistency and strength in dealing with the entire sweep of anti-Semitism.
In Dante's Inferno it is noted that "the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis, strive to maintain their neutrality." Prime ministers are not exempt from this, and because I served in that office for almost nine years, let me briefly recount some personal experiences:
In 1967, while a very young lawyer, I made my first (modest) contribution to the defense of Israel. It was a moment of extreme peril for Israel and I simply wanted to show my support.
In 1976, at a Quebec Economic Summit chaired by premier Lévesque, I was astonished to hear Yvon Charbonneau, then president of la Corporation des Enseignants du Québec (now an MP from Montreal) denounce Sam Steinberg and other Montreal Jewish leaders in a decidedly racist manner. I demanded the microphone and denounced Charbonneau and his views on the spot.
When the government in 1984 invited the Palestine Liberation Organization's United Nations representative to be heard in Parliament (when the PLO was officially known as a terrorist organization), as leader of the Opposition I summoned the Israeli ambassador so that we could jointly excoriate both the government and the PLO.
My government appointed the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi War Criminals who had escaped to Canada, because as I said then, "our citizenship shall not be dishonoured by those who preach hatred" and "Canada shall never become a safe haven for such persons." Much more could have been achieved had such a commission been appointed decades earlier when the evidence was fresher and the suspects much younger. But Ottawa had refused to act.
I appointed Jews to my Cabinet and to the highest reaches of the public service and judiciary. I appointed three Jews in succession – Stanley Hartt, Norman Spector and Hugh Segal – as chief of staff, perhaps the most sensitive and influential unelected position in Ottawa.
I appointed Norman Spector as Canada's first Jewish ambassador to Israel, smashing the odious myth of dual loyalties that had prevented Jews from serving in that position for 40 years.
I invited Chaim Herzog to make the first official state visit to Canada by a president of Israel. On June 27, 1989, I had the high honor of introducing president Herzog as he spoke to a joint session of the House of Commons and Senate.
Senator David Croll was an outstanding member of the Jewish community from Ontario, elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1945. He never made Cabinet for no apparent reason other than his Jewishness. I elevated this remarkable Canadian to the Privy Council on his 90th birthday.
My view of Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East was articulated as leader of the Opposition when I said that Canada under my government would treat fairly with the moderate nations in the region such as Jordan, but that, first and foremost, Canada would make an "unshakable commitment" to the integrity and well-being of Israel. And for nine years we did precisely that.
We committed Canada to participate in the Gulf War in 1991. The many reasons included the security of Israel. History will record we did the right thing.
In 1993, I was the first foreign leader invited to meet with president Clinton. At a joint news conference we were asked about the peace process. I said: "I'm always very concerned when people start to lecture Israel on the manner in which it looks after its own internal security, because for very important historical reasons, Israel is of course better qualified than most to make determinations about its own well-being." I believe that to be true today.
Canada is a marvelous country that has provided sanctuary and opportunity to millions, but many groups of immigrants have suffered injustice and discrimination. The story of the Jews, however, remains markedly different. The Holocaust saw to that. So when I ceased being prime minister, I continued publicly denouncing those that showed hostility or malice to Israel or the Jews. History has taught us what happens when we don't.
This does not mean 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 security precludes the acceptance of a Palestinian state whose citizens 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.
this article originally appeared in the National Post