Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau’s apol­ogy to Canada’s Jewish com­mu­nity

An apol­ogy 80 years af­ter the fact is still valu­able

The Niagara Falls Review - - Opinion - RHODA E. HOWARD-HASSMANN Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann is a res­i­dent of Hamil­ton, and Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at Wil­frid Lau­rier Uni­ver­sity. She es­tab­lished a web­site on of­fi­cial apolo­gies and is co-ed­i­tor of The Age of Apol­ogy (2008).

On Nov. 7, 2018, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau apol­o­gized to Canada’s Jewish com­mu­nity for an event that oc­curred al­most 80 years ago. In June 1939, Canada re­fused land­ing rights to the MS St. Louis, a ship car­ry­ing 907 Ger­man Jewish refugees. The ship re­turned to Eu­rope, where the refugees were dis­persed among Bri­tain, the Nether­lands, Bel­gium and France. The lat­ter three coun­tries were later over­run by the Nazis, re­sult­ing in the deaths of 254 pas­sen­gers.

Trudeau’s de­liv­ery was sober, ar­tic­u­late and sin­cere. He ac­knowl­edged that by turn­ing away the St. Louis’ pas­sen­gers, as well as countless other Jews who tried to find sanc­tu­ary in Canada, the coun­try had de­prived it­self of many fu­ture pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens. He ac­knowl­edged that Canada’s anti-Semitic poli­cies had helped to fa­cil­i­tate the Holo­caust, since Hitler could see that the fu­ture Al­lied coun­tries were not in­ter­ested in help­ing Eu­ro­pean Jews.

Trudeau also ex­plained the ex­tent of anti-Semitism in Canada be­fore and af­ter Sec­ond World War. He ac­knowl­edged the Jewish com­mu­nity’s con­tri­bu­tions to Canada, in­clud­ing its com­mit­ment to char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ours, an im­por­tant state­ment given anti-Semites’ be­lief that “Jews only help them­selves.”

Trudeau also re­ferred to the BDS (boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions) move­ment against Is­rael and its ap­par­ent ha­rass­ment of Jewish stu­dents at Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties. The BDS move­ment is a le­git­i­mate protest against the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies in the West Bank and Gaza. But if BDS ac­tivists ha­rass Jewish stu­dents only be­cause they are Jewish, then that is anti-Semitism.

I didn’t ex­pect that part of the apol­ogy would be to me. The Prime Min­is­ter apol­o­gized for/to the “7,000 Jewish pris­on­ers of war” who were held in Canada with the very peo­ple who had per­se­cuted them. Th­ese peo­ple were not POWs; they were in­ternees, Jews from en­emy coun­tries who had been in Bri­tain when the war be­gan and were in­terned un­der the En­emy Aliens Act. Many teenage boys and younger men were sent to camps in Canada and Aus­tralia; some were sent on the same ships as Nazi POWs and some were held — at least ini­tially — in the same camps as Nazi POWs.

One of those 7,000 Jews was my own fa­ther, a refugee from Ger­many who was in­terned in a camp near Sher­brooke, Que­bec, from which he was re­leased by late 1941. He would prob­a­bly not have been pleased to be called a pris­oner of war, im­ply­ing that he had fought for an en­emy coun­try. Af­ter his in­tern­ment he joined the British army.

I won­der as well whether fa­ther would have ac­cepted this apol­ogy, had it been of­fered be­fore he died in 1998. My own opin­ion, as a de­scen­dant to whom the apol­ogy was also of­fered, is that I am grate­ful for the prime min­is­ter’s ac­knowl­edge­ment that anti-Semitism was rife in Canada be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the war. I’m also grate­ful that he ac­knowl­edges the ex­tent of anti-Semitism now and promises to in­ten­sify ef­forts through the Se­cu­rity

I won­der as well whether fa­ther would have ac­cepted this apol­ogy, had it been of­fered be­fore he died in 1998.

In­fra­struc­ture Pro­gram to pro­tect places of wor­ship (not only Jewish syn­a­gogues, but also mosques and Hindu Tem­ples).

Eighty years af­ter the event, does this apol­ogy ac­tu­ally mat­ter? It mat­ters to some sur­vivors of the St. Louis (one is still alive in Canada), and to the de­scen­dants of the St. Louis’s pas­sen­gers. It may also mat­ter to some peo­ple who were in­terned and their de­scen­dants. It mat­ters to those mem­bers of Canada’s Jewish com­mu­nity who ag­i­tated for the apol­ogy. More broadly, it is an ed­uca­tive tool that in­forms all Cana­di­ans about anti-Semitism and the harm it has done and still does. And that is a good thing.

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