Trudeau appoints new adviser on Canadian Jewish community and antisemitism

MP Housefather designated for new role following series of violent attacks on Jewish institutions and after PM’s party lost an election in stronghold with large Jewish population

Anthony Housefather, a member of Canada's parliament representing a Montreal riding, speaks out against rising antisemitism in parliament in Ottawa, June 4, 2024. (Office of Anthony Housefather/screen capture via JTA)
Anthony Housefather, a member of Canada's parliament representing a Montreal riding, speaks out against rising antisemitism in parliament in Ottawa, June 4, 2024. (Office of Anthony Housefather/screen capture via JTA)

JTA — A Jewish member of Canada’s parliament was tapped as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new adviser on the Jewish community and combating antisemitism following a series of violent attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools.

Anthony Housefather’s appointment Friday came as Canada has seen a spike in violent antisemitism. Two synagogues in Toronto were attacked last weekend, with windows smashed, and in May shots were fired at Jewish schools in separate incidents, one in Montreal and one in Toronto. There was a suspected arson at a Vancouver synagogue.

The announcement also came just two weeks after Trudeau’s Liberal party lost an election in a Toronto-area Liberal stronghold with a substantial Jewish population. The loss was depicted in Canadian media as a message from Jewish Canadians unhappy with the reports of increasing antisemitism and government policies seen as unfriendly to Israel.

Housefather told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he would seek an all-of-government approach to addressing rising antisemitism, cutting through bureaucracy either through legislation or through moral suasion.

“We say ‘this is federal, this is municipal,’ people are being redirected all over the place and, and they’re just frustrated,” he said. “We need coordination between different levels of government.”

In a statement, he alluded to reports of harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campuses. “While we cannot make antisemitism disappear, all levels of government, universities, and police can take concrete steps to make Jewish Canadians feel safer in this country,” he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of talks with his Polish counterpart in Warsaw, on February 26, 2024. (Sergei Gapon/AFP)

Born in Montreal, Housefather attended Herzliah High School, a Jewish day school, and got law and business degrees. He served as a mayor before entering parliament in 2015, where he represents a substantially Jewish riding, or district, in Montreal, Mount Royal. He is prominent in the Interparliamentary Anti-Semitism Task Force and is an outspoken advocate for Israel and Jewish issues.

Housefather has been targeted with antisemitic flyers in the Montreal area he represents, accusing him of being a “neo-Nazi” for his support for Israel and calling on him to “get out of Canada.“

One of Housefather’s immediate goals in his new position is legislation making blocking entry to a Jewish institution a crime, replicating pandemic-era laws aimed at protesters who sought to keep people from entering hospitals and other medical establishments to get vaccines.

“One criminal offense that I am strongly pushing for in terms of legislation would be what we call bubble legislation, that there’s a protective zone to enter or exit a place of worship, a school or a community center,” he said. “If you’re blocking the building, you’re stopping me from exercising my freedom of speech.”

In March, pro-Palestinian protesters sought to block people from attending a presentation at a Toronto synagogue at which realtors pitched the sale of properties in Israel and the West Bank, the latter of which is considered occupied under Canadian law.

He will remain in parliament and work in parallel with Canada’s special envoy on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, Deborah Lyons.

Students and activists pray inside an anti-Israel encampment at the University of Toronto campus in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on May 2, 2024. (Cole Burston/AFP)

“The fight against antisemitism is all hands on deck. Grateful to continue working with [Housefather] – in this new capacity – to take on the immense challenge facing Canada and Canadians,” Lyons posted on X. “Anthony’s dedication to fighting this epidemic of normalized and systemic antisemitism, while also lifting up the Jewish community and its contributions, make him an ideal partner in this work.”

Top Canadian Jewish and pro-Israel bodies, including the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai B’rith Canada, welcomed the appointment as did the Israeli ambassador to Canada. So did Trudeau.

“In recent months, we’ve seen a disturbing rise in antisemitism across the world, including right here in Canada. This must not continue,” Trudeau said in a statement. “Mr. Housefather’s role will be to advise the Prime Minister and ministers on the development and coordination of the Government of Canada’s work to combat antisemitism and ensure Jewish Canadians are able to live with vibrancy, security, and dignity.”

Trudeau, whose center-left party is plummeting in the polls, is navigating an Israel policy that aims to straddle the support Liberals have for decades enjoyed among the Canadian Jewish community and increasing criticism from the Canadian left for the country’s support of Israel.

“Over the last number of months, the Jewish community has become very unhappy with how all governments have handled antisemitism,” Housefeather said in the interview. “It is a very significant step by the prime minister to address the community’s concerns.”

Pro-Palestinian students and activists protest at an anti-Israel encampment on the campus at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, on April 29, 2024. (Graham Hughes/AFP)

That criticism has come from Housefather as well. He publicly considered ditching the Liberals because most of the party’s members of parliament voted for a non-binding motion put forward by a party to the Liberals’ left, called the NDP, that would recognize Palestinian statehood. Israel and its allies see the burgeoning movement among left-leaning governments in the West to recognize Palestinian statehood as a reward to Hamas for launching the war against Israel on Oct 7. Trudeau’s minority government is propped up by an agreement with the NDP.

Housefather walked back his decision in part because of conversations with Trudeau, who promised to involve him more in policy about antisemitism and Israel.

“I had very, very painful discussions where we talked about what I felt was not enough action by the government,” Housefather told the CBC at the time. And he said, ‘Come work with me, come work with Deborah Lyons, play a leadership role on this file and we will fix it.’”

The CBC reported that Housefather’s appointment was delayed because some Liberal Party lawmakers believed he was too divisive and others wondered what the distinction would be between his work and that of Lyons.

Housefather said his dual role, as a lawmaker and as an advisor, would complement Lyons’ role. “I’ll be able to talk to members of the House and the Senate. I’ll be able to deal with our [government] ministers,” Housefather said.

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