By Brian Mulroney
Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993, was awarded the World Jewish Congress’s Theodor Herzl Award in New York on November 9, 2023. This is an edited transcript of his remarks (courtesy sapirjournal.org).
In his book Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum tells of Hitler, just prior to his suicide, as the Third Reich lay in ruins, calling on Germans to “above all else [continue] the struggle against the Jews, the eternal poisoners of the world.”
Who would have imagined that this call, virtually from the grave, would be heeded more than 80 years later, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday in October when we witnessed in horror and disbelief the largest single-day murder of Jews since the Holocaust?
The most sacred duty of any government is to provide for the security of its citizens. No government could let these obscenities go unpunished and retain the trust of its people.
Hamas knew full well the reaction its murderous rampage against innocents would provoke. They knew and didn’t care. Indeed, it is the reaction they sought. They chose to put the lives of the two million people of Gaza they claim to defend in mortal danger in a deliberate, nihilistic attempt to set the Middle East on fire.
But why would they do this? It was not to increase the likelihood of a Palestinian state. It was not to improve the lives of the people of Gaza. So why? Because these are terrorists in the purest sense of the word for whom the senseless violent act satisfies the strategic objective, killing Jews.
Hamas knew something else. They knew they could count on a legion of apologists who, while decrying attacks on Jews here at home, are prepared to accept attacks on Jews in Israel as deserved.
Contemporary antisemitism has added the state of Israel to its list of targets. Israel has become the new Jew. Stripped of its intellectual pretensions, of the cloak of human rights, these ritual denunciations of Israel with which we have become all too familiar are a pernicious form of racism.
I do not believe in collective guilt or collective responsibility. Only the killers, and the organization they serve, are guilty of these atrocities. Their women and children are not. And yet, Hamas is using them to pay the price while they scurry about safely in tunnels, demonstrating to the world that they care no more for the lives of Palestinians than for the Jews they slaughtered.
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Elie Wiesel once asked: “What have I learned in the last 40 years? I learned the perils of language and those of silence. I learned that in extreme situations where human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin. It helps the killers, not the victims.” I am far too familiar with the history of my country, to ever be silent or neutral when it comes to the victims of antisemitism.
In the spring of 1937, two years after the Nuremberg Race Laws were enacted, Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King visited Germany to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler, after which he recorded the following in his diary: “My sizing up … was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man. … As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc. He is distinctly a mystic.”
The following day, King lunched 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. … [The Jews] 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.”
How did Canada’s prime minister react to these diabolically racist and extremely ominous comments by the most powerful leaders of the Third Reich? “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.”
King’s description of Hitler as a latter-day Joan of Arc, and von Neurath as a good man, was not the reaction of an ignorant rube duped by slick salesmen of hate. No. Von Neurath’s antisemitic screed simply validated what he, the prime minister of Canada, already believed.
We know this because, a few months before his trip to Germany, King revealed himself when he met an elderly Russian immigrant who related that he had built a furniture and clothing business on Rideau and Bank Streets in Ottawa, 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.”
This, from the prime minister of Canada!
The prime minister sets both the agenda and the tone in Ottawa. Is it any wonder, then, that Canada’s doors were 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”? Or that a shipload of desperate Jews was denied entry and instead sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned?
There come times in a nation’s history when the failure to do the right thing has consequences so great that its footfalls haunt us through history. This was such a time, a time when Canada’s heritage and promise were dishonored. 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.
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I was born in Baie-Comeau, a small paper mill town on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River in 1939, a few months before Canada declared war on Hitler’s Germany. 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 practice 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 were 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 honored, 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 antisemitism. Following the Holocaust, the cry of “Never Again” became both affirmation and promise. We hoped that humanity would forswear antisemitism forever. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 reinforced this hope.
In 1976, at a Quebec Economic Summit chaired by premier René Lévesque, I was astonished to hear the president of the Quebec teachers’ union denounce Sam Steinberg and other Montreal Jewish leaders in a decidedly racist manner. Although I was only a member of the private sector at the time, I demanded the microphone and denounced him and his views on the spot.
That day, I promised myself that if I were ever in a position of leadership, I would do what I could to lift some of the stain from our national character left from that time in the 1930s when we abandoned the Jewish people at the very time in their history that they most needed our protection.
So, in 1984, as leader of the Opposition, when the Pierre Trudeau government invited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s United Nations representative to be heard in Parliament, at a time when the PLO was officially designated as a terrorist organization, I summoned the Israeli ambassador from his sickbed to my office so that we could jointly excoriate both the government and the PLO.
In 1985, now prime minister, my government appointed the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi War Criminals who had escaped to Canada, because, as I said then, “Our citizenship shall not be dishonored by those who preach hatred” and “Canada shall never become a safe haven for such persons.”
I appointed Jews to my cabinet and to the highest reaches of the public service and judiciary. I appointed three Jews in succession as chief of staff, perhaps the most sensitive and influential unelected position in Ottawa: Stanley Hartt, Norman Spector, and Hugh Segal.
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 forty 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 that he was a Jew. I elevated this remarkable Canadian to the Privy Council on his 90th birthday.
As leader of the Opposition, I articulated my view of Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East 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 “unshakeable commitment” to the integrity and well-being of Israel. And for my nine years as prime minister, we did precisely that.
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 right thing.
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 best qualified to make determinations about its own well-being.” I believe that to be true today.
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 antisemite. Nor does it mean that a strong defense of Israel’s right to security precludes the acceptance of a Palestinian state whose citizens can know the benefits of health care, education, economic opportunities, and growing prosperity. This should be the objective of all who believe in justice and the dignity of mankind.
This latest surge of antisemitism did not suddenly surface out of nowhere. It is part of the historical continuum that was only briefly interrupted following the Second World War. In the wake of the Holocaust that killed two out of every three European Jews, a butcher’s bill so obscene that even now, more than eighty years later, it beggars understanding, firewalls were thrown up, and the bonfires of antisemitism were for a time reduced to flickering embers.
But those firewalls, weakened by the passage of time and willful neglect, have been breached. Cloaked in the armor of free speech, fueled by hate, and stoked by the oxygen of the internet and social media, those fires now burn out of control.
A telling example of that neglect is that, according to a recent study, 22 percent of young Canadian adults haven’t heard about, or weren’t sure they had heard about, the Holocaust, 52 percent couldn’t name a concentration camp, 62 percent were unaware that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 57 percent of Canadians said that people now care less about the Holocaust. American surveys on the subject have returned results just as discouraging.
No child comes into this world a hater. Hatred is learned. Therein lies both the problem and the solution: education, education, education. Our children must be taught why this soul-devouring virus cannot be countenanced and why it must be eradicated.
Canadians and Americans share an incontrovertible truth. We are almost all children of immigrants. We have been ennobled and enriched by every culture and religion that thrives in the rich soil of our freedom.
We derive our strength and our energy from our diversity. And while Jews may remain separate from others in the specifics of their faith, they are joined intimately with all of us in their pride of citizenship, their love of peace, and their appreciation for what jewels we have in these civilized and mature nations. We are home for millions who have sought sanctuary and a fresh beginning far removed from the savage winds of violence that afflict so many parts of the world.
In the final analysis, Jews are our fellow citizens; they are our friends; they are our neighbours. And this is their home. But until they feel safe and accepted, it will never, in any complete sense, be home for anyone.
Antisemitism, born in ignorance and nurtured in envy, is the stepchild of delusion and evil and is a scourge that must be eradicated. It will not be stamped out in my lifetime, nor in the lifetime of my children, or even, sadly, in that of my grandchildren.
But as Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing fine or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.”
I urge you all to keep the faith in the trying days to come. ♦
Brian Mulroney was Canada’s 18th prime minister, from 1984 to 1993.