A mir­ror of the com­mu­nity

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - FRANKLIN BIALYSTOK SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

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.

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