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Interview'There's an absence of outrage against antisemitism'

Irwin Cotler’s ambitious agenda as Canada’s new special antisemitism envoy

As hate crimes against Canadian Jews soar, the respected human rights advocate will work closely with government and community groups to stem bigotry, including on social media

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaking to a Knesset committee in Jerusalem on March 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaking to a Knesset committee in Jerusalem on March 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A few weeks ago, internationally recognized human rights lawyer and activist Irwin Cotler was appointed Canada’s new permanent Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.

Cotler has served in the position since November 2020, but on October 13, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the assignment would be made permanent at the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism in Malmo, Sweden.

In his speech at Malmo, Trudeau said that Cotler’s mandate is to help advance Holocaust education, preserve the stories of survivors through younger generations, and combat domestic and global antisemitism.

Canada’s strengthened commitment to the special envoy position came following the convening in July 2021 of a National Summit on Antisemitism in Canada, which included discussions with government leaders, members of parliament, and representatives from civil society and religious groups about threats and challenges faced by Jewish communities throughout the country.

“Canada is the only country to date to have had such a summit,” Cotler noted in a video interview with The Times of Israel from his home in Montreal.

Cotler’s appointment was welcomed by leaders of the Canadian Jewish community, who had long advocated for a permanent special envoy with dedicated resources.

Cotler, 81, is an obvious choice for the new position. A former member of parliament, minister of justice and attorney general, and law professor at McGill University, Cotler founded and serves as international chair for the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Cotler is recognized as an expert on matters of free speech, freedom of religion, minority rights, peace law and war crimes justice.

Unlike the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, which is focused only on the international arena, Cotler is charged with combating antisemitism domestically, as well.

“Antisemitism is the oldest, most enduring, most virulent, most sophisticated and lethal of hatreds,” Cotler said.

Cotler has set out an ambitious 10-point plan including fighting Holocaust denial and distortion, expanding and improving Holocaust education, and working with all levels of government to combat hate crimes.

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaks to the media during a press conference in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2009. (AP/Dan Balilty)

“We plan on invoking parliamentary precedence and principals with respect to combating antisemitism, and to have a zero tolerance policy with regard to antisemitism within all political parties so that antisemitism does not become weaponized for political purposes,” Cotler said.

Cotler summed up his mission as doing whatever he can to eliminate what he refers to as “the three D’s: demonization, delegitimization, and the double standard regarding Israel and the Jewish people.”

The following interview with Cotler has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Times of Israel: It seems Canada was late in establishing the position of Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. The US, for instance, established such a position back in 2004.

Irwin Cotler: Representations had been made over time to the Canadian government to establish such a special envoy, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the decision was made.

It is ironic that Canada established it as late as it did, because Canada was so engaged in the issues that warrant a special envoy, in particular our involvement from the beginning with the first Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. In 2008, I co-founded with [British politician] Lord John Mann an inter-parliamentary coalition to combat antisemitism, and we held a conference in London in 2009, and a follow-up one in Ottawa in 2010. Those two conferences helped pave the way for the IHRA working definition on antisemitism. If you look at the protocol that grew out of the Ottawa conference, it has the exact same language that was then adopted as the IHRA working definition [of antisemitism] in 2016.

Illustrative: Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks via video link during the Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism – Remember ReAct, in Malmo, Sweden, on October 13, 2021. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AFP)

Whom will you be working with within the government?

Ministers in the new cabinet [sworn in October 26, 2021] will be tasked with being engaged with my special envoy role, including the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of justice, the minister of Canadian heritage, and the minister of national security. Each touches on my role.

The good news is that having served in the government myself as minister of justice and attorney general, and as a member of parliament for a long time, I know how the government works and the people in it.

Also, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights has established an all-party caucus on human rights… Among the issues in our all-party caucus is Holocaust remembrance and education, and combating antisemitism, which is part of the larger Canadian commitment to combat racism and discrimination, and part of the larger struggle for human rights and dignity, and indeed part of the larger struggle for international justice.

What about outside the government?

We also work with civil society organizations. I am in regular touch, sometimes daily, with Jewish community organizations like CIJA, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, B’nai Brith Canada, JSpaceCanada, and various student groups. It is extremely important to be engaged with young people and the campus culture, and to encourage allyship with other groups that are the targets of racism. We want to find a critical mass of advocacy to combat racism and hate, within which there is a distinct action plan to combat antisemitism.

Illustrative: At the inaugural Canadian Limmud FSU, from right to left: Chaim Chesler, Matthew Bronfman, Limor Livnat, Irwin Cotler and Mitchell Bellman of the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. (Courtesy: Limmud FSU)

You have said that there were two tipping points leading to a changed and intensified antisemitism in Canada, and indeed around the world. What was the first?

The first was the 2001 [World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance] in Durban, South Africa [known as Durban I].

The conference turned into a conference of racism and hatred against Jews. I say this as someone who was there, who was a member of the Canadian delegation, and as a participant of the NGO forum. One people — the Jewish people — and one state — Israel — were selected for opprobrium and indictment. It was a festival of hate calling for the dismantling of Israel as an apartheid state.

A colleague of mine said that 9/11 was the Kristallnacht of terror, but Durban was the “Mein Kampf.” In other words, it was a blueprint, a tipping point between the old and the new antisemitism, a demonological antisemitism that talks of Israel as a racist, imperialist, colonialist, ethnic-cleansing, child-murdering, apartheid Nazi state. All those indictments were there at Durban.

In 2001 after Durban, the contracting parties to the Geneva Convention of 1949 came together for the first time in its history to put a state in the docket for crimes against humanity. It was not Russia, Syria, not any of the countries you might think. It was Israel. It happened again twice after that.  I am not saying that Israel, like any state, should not be responsible for any violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Israel doesn’t deserve any particular privilege or preference because of the Holocaust or the horrors of Jewish history. The problem is that Israel is systematically being denied equality before the law.

A woman holds a sign that says ‘Intifada until victory’ at a pro-Palestinian rally held during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, in Nathan Phillips Square, downtown Toronto, on May 15, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)

And the second tipping point?

In the last 20 years we have seen the fallout of Durban I, such as conspiracy theories that Jews were responsible for 9/11, the launch of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the UN Human Rights Council condemning of Israel. This led to the tipping point of the May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Canada Jews were targeted and threatened in their neighborhoods and streets, on the [university] campuses and in their communities. Synagogues were torched, Holocaust memorials were defaced, cemeteries were desecrated, and Jewish institutions were vandalized. Empirical data shows that 2020 saw the largest yearly rise of hate crimes against Jews (which had been rising for four consecutive years). By May 2021, it had reached the level of all of 2020. There was an explosion of incendiary hate speech on social media.

According to Statistics Canada, the Jewish community is the most targeted religious group for hate crimes in Canada, with between 300 and 400 police reports each year. Where is antisemitism coming from in Canada?

Antisemitism has been swivel headed. It’s a triangular approach — far right, far left, and radical Islam. But it is becoming more mainstream, and coming from parts that I consider to be the progressive left.

Swastikas were spray-painted on Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s front doors, on January 13, 2021. (Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center)

What disturbs you the most?

I am disturbed by the fact that antisemitism has for the first time been mainstreamed, normalized, and legitimized in the political culture. There is an absence of outrage underpinned by indifference and inaction. Also, I am very concerned about the globalization of antisemitism. Thanks to globalization and social media, what happens in Paris and London finds expression in Montreal and Toronto.

There is also the marginalization of antisemitism in the struggle against racism itself. For example when an advisory panel was set up in the Canadian armed forces to combat racism, it listed the other racisms against indigenous people, Blacks, people of color, Muslims, and Asians — but it made no reference to Jews. When Global Affairs Canada had its education and training in anti-racism, it talked about the other racisms, but not against Jews.

Most disturbing is the carrying out of antisemitism under the cover of anti-racism. In the campus culture, Jews are being seen as white supremacists. They don’t even feel they can give expression to their identity. Jewish students are being excluded and demonized as being white supremacists and apologists for “the apartheid Jewish state.”

A woman holds a sign that says ‘Liberal pacifism will not free Palestine’ at a pro-Palestinian rally held during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, in Nathan Phillips Square, downtown Toronto, on May 15, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)

What are the biggest challenges ahead?

There are four main challenges. First, antisemitism is a global phenomenon, so we need to work in concert with other countries and have a global action plan to combat antisemitism, including with regard to social media. In Canada, we must enact legislation that would hold social media platforms accountable, reforming the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code for that purpose.

Second, we need education about antisemitism, and not just the Holocaust. The two are interrelated.

Third, we must hold countries accountable for their Malmo pledges.
Canada made eight pledges and there are metrics to hold Canada accountable to them.

Fourth, parliaments have important roles to play, not just governments. For example, in February 2015, the Canadian parliament unanimously passed a resolution in response to the alarming global escalation of antisemitism, calling on the Canadian government to make combating antisemitism domestically and internationally a priority.

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