A mirror of the community
At Confederation, there were only around 1,000 Jews living in Canada. One could not speak of a Canadian Jewish community for another 50 years. By then, the population had swollen to some 125,000 and the combination of global affairs and domestic concerns created the need for a national organization. From its formation in 1919, to its demise in 2011, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) was a mirror of the Canadian Jewish community, reflecting its concerns, advocating for its rights and evolving into arguably the gold standard for a national body that spoke on behalf of an ethnocultural and religious minority. The CJC had its critics who maintained that it did not represent the totality of the Jewish community and that its interests collided with those of local federations and other Jewish groups. Notwithstanding these often valid concerns, the CJC was a potent force in breaking down the barriers of discrimination, not only for Jews, but for Canadians in general.
One hundred years ago marked a turning point for world Jewry. Three events – the Russian Revolution, the turning of the tide against the Axis powers and the Balfour Declaration – raised both hopes of a national homeland and fears for the safety of Jews in the former Russian Empire. The newly founded American Jewish Congress served as the impetus for Canadian Jews to create a similar entity – a Canadian voice to transmit the hope into a reality and to fight against anti-jewish violence.
This came to fruition shortly after the armistice. A group of influential Jewish leaders, headed by Lyon Cohen, the vice-president of the Federation of Zionist Societies, set in motion the first plenary of the CJC in Montreal in March 1919. Two hundred and nine men were elected by some 25,000 Jews, around 20 per cent of the national total, representing the ideological spectrum from General Zionists, to Bundists, synagogues, landsmanschaften and the unaffiliated. In Toronto alone, 100 candidates campaigned for 40 seats. They were motivated to present a unified voice to the Borden government at the peace talks over by the fate of their brethren in Eastern Europe, the future of Palestine in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and to mitigate the growing anti-immigrant sentiments at home.
Unfortunately, the CJC’S prospects were
Canadian Jewish Congress was a potent force in breaking down the barriers of discrimination, not only for Jews, but for Canadians in general.
dealt a near death blow by the postwar recession, from which it would not recover until 1933. Its rebirth was spurred by the National Socialists gaining power in Germany, the mounting anti-semitism at home and the stringent immigration restrictions that ultimately denied European Jews a haven in Canada. The reinvigorated CJC was spearheaded by the outsized personality of its president, Samuel Bronfman, the diplomatic skills of its executive vice-president, Saul Hayes, and its alliance with B’nai Brith Canada to create the Joint Public Relations Committee, later known as the Joint Community Relations Committee (JCRC), to combat racial discrimination. It mounted a campaign to open Canada’s doors to European Jews, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
In the immediate postwar period, the identity of Canadian Jewry was rapidly changing from a community of immigrants, to a community of Canadians. The CJC and the federations were tasked with helping Holocaust survivors transition to Canadian life. In addition, the community was still beset by discriminatory practices, from local covenants that prevented them from living in certain neighbourhoods, to quotas in universities and barriers to employment. In response, JCRC, the Jewish Labour Committee and other ethnocultural organizations worked in concert to persuade local and provincial governments to pass anti-discrimination legislation. The JCRC’S lay leaders included Rabbi Abraham Feingold and Bora Laskin, who served under the aegis of Ben Kayfetz, its director from 1947 to 1985. Together, they helped establish the CJC as a leading human rights organization.
The 1960s was marked by the resurgence of anti-semitism and the existential threat to Israel. The CJC, spurred by the emergence of politicized Holocaust survivors, succeeded in lobbying for the criminalization of hate speech. Maxwell Cohen, dean of Mcgill’s law school, chaired the committee, and its draft led to the passing of an anti-hate speech act in 1970. The Six Day War, followed by the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, together with the campaign for Soviet Jewry, spurred the community’s involvement. With the rise of Holocaust denial, the CJC, in association with B’nai Brith, provided the documentation to the Crown for the sentencing of Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra in the 1980s.
Bronfman retired in 1969, and Hayes retired a few years later. Delegates to the CJC’S national plenaries, held every three years, elected the incoming president and voted on scores of resolutions. Some 1,000 attended, representing a fraction of the lay members across the country. Regional structures replicated the national one in dealing with local issues. The CJC considered itself to be “a parliament of Canadian Jews.” This was mitigated by the reality that prominent men had an outsized role in the organization. They tended to come from Conservative and Reform congregations and were successful in business and the professions, namely law. The pattern was broken when Rabbi Gunther Plaut took the reins in 1977 and was succeeded by Professor Irwin Cotler. The first woman to assume a leadership position was Rose Wolfe in 1979 and Dorothy Reitman was elected national president in 1986.
As the predominant ethnocultural voice in Canada, the CJC, often in association with other organizations, played an instrumental role in speaking on behalf of First Nations and Roma people who had claimed refugee status. At the UN Conference on Human Rights in Durban in 2001, CJC president Keith Landy and executive director Manuel Prutschi were the lone voices from the Jewish Diaspora to counter the domination of the anti-israel delegations. Co-presidents Rabbi Reuven Bulka and Sylvain Abitbol welcomed Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Rick Hillier, commander of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, as featured speakers at CJC events. And CJC Pacific chair Mark Weintraub was instrumental in the government’s decision to label Sudan’s actions in Darfur as an act of genocide.
Contrary to popular perception, the CJC was not a fundraising organization, nor did it align itself with a political party. Its funding came from United Jewish Appeal, via the federations. It worked with all political parties and its members came from across the political spectrum.
CJC’S operating budget was reduced at the beginning of the millennium. Concern was voiced by the federations that there was a duplication of advocacy between CJC and other bodies, leading to a reorganization in 2005, whereby a supervisory organization, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) was created, to which the constituent bodies were subservient. When this arrangement proved to be cumbersome, they were defunded in 2011 and their functions were incorporated into a single organization, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which adopted the acronym of its predecessor. At its dissolution, Bernie Farber was the CEO and Mark Freiman was the president.
Throughout its history, the CJC was a reflection of the Jewish community. By taking a position of leadership, it was a standard bearer for human rights for all Canadians. Its accomplishments were due to the dedication of lay volunteers, representing a broad spectrum of the community. As we celebrate Canada at 150, their contribution is to be inscribed in the story of Canadian Jewry.
Franklin Bialystok teaches Canadian Jewish history and culture at the University of Toronto.