Canadian Jewish Congress
February 10, 2003
Excerpt of a speech by former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the opening
of a conference on antisemitism at the University of Toronto.
Israel is the new Jew
I was born in Baie Comeau, Que., in 1939, the year the Nazis marched and the
Allies responded. My only recollections of the war are scenes of my dad
marching proudly with fellow militia members, children's whispers of German
submarines lurking off our shores and my electrician father telling of the
horrors of Hitler and why he had to be crushed if civilization were to be
saved. My sisters and I understood very little of the unspeakable reality he
sought to describe.
There were no Jews in Baie Comeau. It was not until I entered law school at
Université Laval in Quebec City in 1960 that I really came to know Jews. I
had two Jewish classmates, Michael Kastner and Israel (Sonny) Mass, one from
a wealthy family and one working class like me. We became friends and remain
so to this day. I learned about the tiny but impressive Jewish community
there, but little of its history and challenges in Canada. It was when I
moved to Montreal to practise law in 1964 that I first came into contact
with a large Jewish community, which ignited my interest in and support of
the Jews and Israel.
By this time, the horrors of the Holocaust and the systematic persecution of
Jews was fully documented. Why, I asked myself, would such evil be visited
upon anyone, and specifically the families of this vibrant community I was
getting to know?
The Jews of Montreal were remarkable. Families were close, values were
taught, education was revered, work was honoured and success was expected.
How could it be, I often wondered, that the progenitors of people
demonstrably making such a powerful contribution to the economic, cultural
and political life of Montreal and Canada were reviled over centuries and
decimated in a six-year period, beginning in the year of my birth? Thus
began my first serious reflections on, and encounters with, anti-Semitism.
Following the Holocaust, the cry of "never again" became both affirmation
and promise. We expected that humanity would forswear anti-Semitism forever.
The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 reinforced this hope.
Unfortunately, today, Jewish communities and the world's only Jewish state
globally confront this re-emergent evil.
This latest anti-Semitism did not surface suddenly, in a vacuum. It forms
part of a historical continuum that was only briefly interrupted, if at all,
following the Second World War. Where did it all come from, what makes it so
resistant to suppression -- and will it ever end?
It all begins, I think, in that transitional period from BC to AD, a time
with a variety of faiths vying for attention. This came abruptly to a halt
in 70 AD. The destruction by the Romans of Jerusalem's Second Jewish Temple
was the pivotal event of that era. Only Christianity and Judaism survived
the catastrophe. Originally, the people who followed Jesus considered
themselves Jews. Once a Christian Church evolved, however, it took up an
antagonistic position towards Judaism and its practitioners.
Jews, first and foremost, were branded with the most devastating of
charges -- Deicide. They were accused of the stubborn refusal to accept
Christ's Godhead and His sacrifice. They were pictured as consumed with a
detestation of Christianity and defilers of its rituals and symbols, the
agents of Satan and the future allies if not the progenitors of the
Antichrist, their ultimate aim to destroy the one true faith.
We can well imagine how ordinary men and women would have felt about Jews as
a result. Individuals in the medieval world were overcome by fear of a world
where so little was understood. Demons lurked unseen, and therefore beyond
retribution. There was, however, one visible demon against whom one could
retaliate -- the Jew.
It was the Jew who was said to have poisoned the wells and who was
responsible for the Black Death. The disappearance of children, in what has
become known as the "Blood Libel," was readily and falsely blamed on alleged
Jewish murderers who required the blood of Christian children for nefarious
rituals. All this infected countless Christians with the soul-devouring
virus of Jew-hatred.
The founding of the Inquisition in 15th-century Spain fully effected the
transition from religious to racial anti-Semitism. The issue in
Christian-Jewish relations was no longer God but genes.
The Nazis, with their emphasis on racial and ideological purity, were the
natural inheritors of those who for two millennia have been centrally
motivated by anti-Semitism. Nothing captures better the anti-Semite's
single-mindedness than the account of Hitler, just prior to his suicide as
the Third Reich lay in ruins, calling on Germans to maintain the "struggle
against the Jews, the eternal poisoners of the world."
Contemporary anti-Semitism has added the state of Israel to its list of
targets, to deny the Jewish state its rightful place among the community of
nations. Israel has become the new Jew.
Canadians talk proudly of our tolerance and fair-mindedness. Often a tone of
moral superiority insinuates itself into our national discourse. But these
virtues are of fairly recent vintage -- we have little to be smug about. In
1933, Toronto witnessed the Christie Pits riot -- anti-Semites terrorized a
Jewish baseball team in a street battle that went on all night.
The next year in Montreal all the interns at Notre-Dame Hospital went on
strike to protest the hiring of a Jew who had graduated first in his class
at l'Université de Montréal. This man was forced to resign because, as Le
Devoir reported, Catholic patients would find it "repugnant" to be treated
or touched by a Jewish doctor.
In 1938, the Canadian Jewish Congress decided not to publish a study of the
status of Jews in English Canada because the findings were so profoundly
Overt anti-Semitism was not limited to minor players in Canadian society. On
Feb. 10, 1937, prime minister Mackenzie King met an elderly Russian
immigrant who related that he had built a furniture and clothing business on
Rideau and Banks Streets, had three sons and a daughter and was now
retired -- a true Canadian success story. King recorded in his diary: "The
only unfortunate part ... is that the Jews having acquired foothold ... it
will not be long before this part of Ottawa will become more or less
possessed by them."
A few months later, King visited Germany to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler,
and recorded: "My sizing up ... was that he is really one who truly loves
his fellow man ... There was a liquid quality about (his eyes) which
indicates keen perception and profound sympathy. Calm, composed, and one
could see how particularly humble folk would have come to have profound love
for the man. As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc. He
is distinctly a mystic."
The following day, our PM had lunch with the Nazi foreign minister
Konstantin von Neurath, who "admitted that they had taken some pretty rough
steps ... but the truth was the country was going to pieces ... He said to
me that I would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews, and the way in
which they had increased their numbers in the city, and were taking
possession of its more important part. He said there was no pleasure in
going to a theatre which was filled with them. Many of them were very coarse
and vulgar and assertive. They were getting control of all the business, the
finance, and ... it was necessary to get them out to have the Germans really
control their own city and affairs."
And how did Canada's prime minister react to these diabolically racist and
extremely ominous comments by one of the most powerful leaders of the Third
"I wrote a letter of some length by hand to von Neurath whom I like
exceedingly. He is, if there ever was one, a genuinely kind, good man."
The prime minister sets both the agenda and the tone in Ottawa. Is it any
wonder then that Canada was slammed shut to Jewish immigrants before and
during the war? Or that, when asked how many Jews would be allowed into
Canada, a senior immigration official famously replied: "None is too many"?
The government even refused entry to a shipload of desperate Jews, who
instead sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned.
This was a moment when Canada's heritage and promise were betrayed. To this
day, I cannot watch footage of the faces of Jewish mothers, fathers and
children consigned to the gas chambers without, as a Canadian, feeling a
great sense of sorrow, loss and guilt. Because of Ottawa's abdication of
moral leadership, countless Jews perished in Hitler's death camps and we as
a country were deprived of them, their children and the glory of their
Anti-Semitism is born in ignorance and nurtured in envy. It is the stepchild
of delusion and evil. The ongoing success of Canada's Jewish community is
consequently often misunderstood, misrepresented and misreported. The rise
in the number of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Canada and the
pathetic but startling ravings of David Ahenakew testify to the
intractability of the problem, and the constant need for vigilance,
consistency and strength in dealing with the entire sweep of anti-Semitism.
In Dante's Inferno it is noted that "the hottest place in hell is reserved
for those who in times of great moral crisis, strive to maintain their
neutrality." Prime ministers are not exempt from this, and because I served
in that office for almost nine years, let me briefly recount some personal
- In 1967, while a very young lawyer, I made my first (modest) contribution
to the defence of Israel. It was a moment of extreme peril for Israel and I
simply wanted to show my support.
- In 1976, at a Quebec Economic Summit chaired by premier Lévesque, I was
astonished to hear Yvon Charbonneau, then president of la Corporation des
Enseignants du Québec (now an MP from Montreal) denounce Sam Steinberg and
other Montreal Jewish leaders in a decidedly racist manner. I demanded the
microphone and denounced Charbonneau and his views on the spot.
- When the government in 1984 invited the Palestine Liberation
Organization's United Nations representative to be heard in Parliament (when
the PLO was officially known as a terrorist organization), as leader of the
Opposition I summoned the Israeli ambassador so that we could jointly
excoriate both the government and the PLO.
- My government appointed the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi War
Criminals who had escaped to Canada, because as I said then, "our
citizenship shall not be dishonoured by those who preach hatred" and "Canada
shall never become a safe haven for such persons." Much more could have been
achieved had such a commission been appointed decades earlier when the
evidence was fresher and the suspects much younger. But Ottawa had refused
- I appointed Jews to my Cabinet and to the highest reaches of the public
service and judiciary. I appointed three Jews in succession -- Stanley
Hartt, Norman Spector and Hugh Segal -- as chief of staff, perhaps the most
sensitive and influential unelected position in Ottawa.
- I appointed Norman Spector as Canada's first Jewish ambassador to Israel,
smashing the odious myth of dual loyalties that had prevented Jews from
serving in that position for 40 years.
- I invited Chaim Herzog to make the first official state visit to Canada by
a president of Israel. On June 27, 1989, I had the high honour of
introducing president Herzog as he spoke to a joint session of the House of
Commons and Senate.
- Senator David Croll was an outstanding member of the Jewish community from
Ontario, elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1945. He never made Cabinet
for no apparent reason other than his Jewishness. I elevated this remarkable
Canadian to the Privy Council on his 90th birthday.
- My view of Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East was articulated as
leader of the Opposition when I said that Canada under my government would
treat fairly with the moderate nations in the region such as Jordan, but
that, first and foremost, Canada would make an "unshakable commitment" to
the integrity and well-being of Israel. And for nine years we did precisely
- We committed Canada to participate in the Gulf War in 1991. The many
reasons included the security of Israel. History will record we did the
- In 1993, I was the first foreign leader invited to meet with president
Clinton. At a joint news conference we were asked about the peace process. I
said: "I'm always very concerned when people start to lecture Israel on the
manner in which it looks after its own internal security, because for very
important historical reasons, Israel is of course better qualified than most
to make determinations about its own well-being." I believe that to be true
Canada is a marvellous country that has provided sanctuary and opportunity
to millions, but many groups of immigrants have suffered injustice and
discrimination. The story of the Jews, however, remains markedly different.
The Holocaust saw to that. So when I ceased being prime minister, I
continued publicly denouncing those that showed hostility or malice to
Israel or the Jews. History has taught us what happens when we don't.
This does not mean that Israel should be immune from criticism. One can
strongly disagree with policies of the government of Israel without being
called an anti-Semite. Nor does it mean that a strong defence of Israel's
right to security precludes the acceptance of a Palestinian state whose
citizens come to know the benefits of health care, educational excellence,
economic opportunities and growing prosperity similar to those available in
Israel. This should be the objective of all who believe in justice.