PQ ethnocentrism could bring Jews and Muslims together

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 8-24-12

Amid a glorious summer, with great weather, fabulous festivals and deliciously lazy days, the collective blood pressure of most Quebec Jews spiked, as the provincial election contest heated up, referendum talk mounted and property values prepared to nosedive. You don’t need the honed-by-history, trained-by-trauma instincts of a long-oppressed people to hear the demagoguery and nativism in the rhetoric of Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois. All you need are the sensibilities of a humanist, the decency of a democrat, the passions of a liberty-lover. During the first great Palestinian terrorist onslaught of the 1970s, novelist Cynthia Ozick said Jews aren’t paranoid, but narapoid – a term she coined to mean when you think people are out to get you, and they are.

The Jews of Quebec live in a gilded cage. For many, Canadian niceness and the average Quebecer’s generosity generate many blessings: the standard of living is high, quality of life is good, community infrastructure is deep and Jewish identity is strong. Yet the nastiness of Quebec politics – and the ever-present, shouted today, perhaps whispered tomorrow, threat of separation, erodes community self-confidence and individual self-respect. Politically, most Jews are held hostage, forced to support the tired, ineffectual, tainted-by-corruption Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest, because the alternative isn’t just worse, but potentially catastrophic.

The separatist threat is debilitating enough, but Marois has raised the trauma considerably with her Charter of Secularism. The notion of banning Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh symbols in government offices but not, dare I say it, God forbid, the crucifix, because of its “cultural” significance – not its religious meaning of course – would be laughable if it were not so offensive. Marois has made it clear that she would invoke one of the least democratic planks in any modern democracy – the Charter of Rights’ Notwithstanding Clause – to impose her offensive, selective, Christianocentric, vision on Quebecers.

Fundamental rights of free expression and religious liberty shouldn’t be up for grabs. All Quebecers of good conscience should vote against Marois’ medievalism. This threat to peace, order and good government should also motivate Canadians across the country to rally against the Notwithstanding Clause. Provincial legislatures shouldn’t be able to suspend fundamental rights temporarily. The clause mocks the notion of constitutional guarantees.

I don’t get it. I thought the new generation of young, hip, cosmopolitan Quebeckers rejected their baby boomer predecessors’ extremism. Yes, there were historic imbalances between Anglophones and Francophones that needed correcting. And yes, these young, prospering, sophisticated Francophones have benefited from their elders’ boldness. But progress occurred, a new world developed, and now, this divisive, destructive demagoguery threatens all the good and goodwill that exist, while obscuring important work that needs to be done in improving the health-care system, cultivating the economy and making the infamous Quebec bureaucracy more respectful of individual citizens and their rights.

History teaches that a lynch mob atmosphere against some citizens ultimately hurts all citizens. So many people, be they of venerable French lineage or fresh off the boat, who have had run-ins with Quebec tax authorities or Quebec welfare boards or Quebec parking authorities understand that the province’s power dynamics are too skewed toward officious bureaucrats and against regular folk. We need a grand government worthy of its marvellous citizens, not a banana republic. Marois’ ethnocentrism and separatist talks diminishes individuals and the rule of law while preventing an important debate about this problem and many others.

There is one silver lining amid these gathering northern clouds. In targeting the hijab and the kippah, Marois has provided Muslim and Jews an opening for a much-needed dialogue. I have long wondered why every conversation between Muslims and Jews has to be about Israelis and Palestinians. We have many common challenges that could invite productive, meaningful exchanges. We should talk together about the tensions of preserving traditions in the modern world, of difficulties navigating smaller, more insular but nurturing communities along with larger, more expansive and empowering, yet sometimes alienating, communities.

In mobilizing together against Marois’ ethno-ugliness, Muslims and Jews might find some Canadian common ground and build strong ties that could help alleviate Middle East tensions. That would make us not just narapoid, but what I would call “fedended.” That’s when by defending yourself, you make yourself – and others – stronger.

This column appears in the August 30 print issue of The CJN

Gil Troy: March of the Living Canada 2012 Mini Israel Ceremony: Keynote Address, Lay Down Your Arms

VIDEOS

 

March of the Living Canada 2012 Mini Israel Ceremony, Gil Troy Keynote, Lay Down Your Arms

Every year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thousands of students march from Auschwitz to Birkenau honoring the memories of six million Jews and so many other innocent people murdered in the Holocaust. The students then travel to Israel, where a week later they celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
These scenes are taken from the 2012 Canadian March of the Living ceremony held on April 25th, 2012, at Mini-Israel, marking the transition from Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Remembrance Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).

This segment includes the keynote speeches from Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University. He was introduced by Michael Soberman, National Director, Canada Israel Experience.

The genius behind Tel Aviv’s towers

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-2-12

In Tel Aviv on March 22, hundreds of Israelis gathered at Israel’s Tel Aviv Exhibition-Gardens to honour the great Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur David Azrieli.

At 90 years young, David still dazzles, making his mark in business and philanthropy. The man who brought the indoor mall to Israel – and coined the term for it, kanyon – continues to initiate projects while setting new standards in charitable giving in Canada and Israel.

David is of that extraordinary Holocaust generation that not only survived, not only thrived in the New World, but improved it. Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, he escaped into Russia, survived getting shot, and eventually took the land route into Palestine, aided by another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. After studying at the Technion, he fought during the War of Independence, travelled abroad and arrived in Canada in 1954. While working as a melamed, a Hebrew-school teacher, he entered the wild world of real estate. One of those successful, hardworking, driven, visionary tycoons who makes it look easy – but outlasted many others who failed – he built an empire in Canada, the United States and Israel.

Along the way, David also built a beautiful family with his amazing wife, Stephanie, and four extraordinary children – my prejudice as a family friend shines through – while giving back as a community leader, heading the Canadian Zionist movement for many years. David has always proudly proclaimed himself a Zionist, embodying the Zionist values of self-reliance, forward-thinking and constructive action. An avid art collector, David is now applying his endless energy and broad vision to the world of charitable giving. News reports when the Azrieli Group in Israel went public estimated that he and his family may contribute one billion dollars to his foundation.

Successful philanthropy requires spending money intelligently, not just giving it generously. Two of the Azrieli Foundation’s signature projects prove that the insight that made David Israel’s Master Builder is now helping him to become the Jewish world’s Great Strategic Giver. In 2001, he published his memoirs, with his co-author and daughter, Danna Azrieli, as One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950. The experience proved so meaningful for him and his family that he decided to help others produce quality memoirs, too. The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program now humanizes the Holocaust victims “one story at a time,” allowing survivors without David’s resources to share their legacy with their heirs.

Similar empathy and creativity is being used to fight the problem of high school dropouts in Israel. When briefed about the challenges of keeping kids in school, David asked the critical question – when do we lose them? He discovered that most high school dropouts are “born,” if you will, in the frustrations of junior high. As a result, the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment has created a network of community centres in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere that assist young, overwhelmingly poor learners early in the educational process, so they can feel good about themselves entering high school.

Beyond the headlines, I have had the pleasure of knowing David as a loving family man, a warm presence, a sophisticated analyst, a probing conversationalist. Sixteen and a half years ago, when I was far more familiar with his reputation as a tough businessman than with his gentle scholarly soul, my wife – who grew up with his daughters – and I introduced him to our oldest daughter, who was about four months old then. David zeroed in on her, engaged her with his delighted smile, whipped out a camera, snapped off a roll of pictures, popped the film out of camera and gave it to us.  I had simply never seen a 74-year-old gush so much over a baby, nor had anyone simply handed me a roll of film like that before – in the pre-digital era, it was simply not done.

Whenever I drive into Tel Aviv, I am entranced by the three tall, sleek towers David built, which have become, surveys tell us, among Israel’s most defining icons. I marvel at their modernity, at the pioneering spirit behind them, at the constructive, entrepreneurial Zionism they epitomize. And I cherish the private moments my family and I have shared with the genius behind the towers, a modern-day David demonstrating the same reach, ambition and joyous abandon for which that great ancient king was known.

Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

A Rosh Hashanah lesson

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-15-11

On July 15, Ronnie Cahana, the 57-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal’s Town of Mount Royal, suffered a massive stroke in his brainstem. He now lies immobilized in the Montreal Neurological Institute, unable to talk, walk or even wave.

Yet, his mind is intact and his spirit is soaring, and from his hospital bed, Rabbi Cahana is teaching his devoted congregants, his loving family and the rest of us, about the soul’s power and Judaism’s deeper meaning, even when we lose the physical, the material. “I live in a broken place,” he said when stricken, “but there’s holy work to do.”

Rabbi Cahana’s body is in trouble. A ventilator and other tubes do for him what most of us do naturally. Nevertheless, he may be the healthiest – and happiest – person I know. “Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis,” he preaches. “To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Before the stroke, this gangly, 6’2 Houston-born rabbi was the least Texan Texan, and the most unconventional Conservative rabbi, I knew – I befriended Ronnie and his amazing wife, Karen, decades ago in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement.

A dazzling personality, both vital and ethereal, as well as a passionate Jew and perpetual seeker, Rabbi Cahana has never done small talk. He makes even the most casual interaction intense and intimate. Watching him with his congregants and his family is wondrous. His “How are you?” is never perfunctory. Rather, it’s a sincere probe, asking whether you’re getting the most out of your life, nurturing fulfilling relationships while benefiting from the kind of profound interaction he enjoys with Judaism and God.

Visiting the bedridden rabbi, you brace for heartbreak and emerge uplifted. He mouths words – or laboriously blinks them out. When no one can read his lips, he closes his eyes, and someone starts reciting “a, b, c…” He opens his eyes at the desired letter. The “Blinkischer Rebbe,” as Karen calls him, blinks out stirring weekly sermons, greeting congregants from his “subterranean world,” urging them to use the blow he sustained to experience life and Judaism in new dimensions.

“I know the end will be good,” this rabbinic Stephen Hawking insists. “I did not lose anything. I gained.”

All summer, Rabbi Cahana has bathed in his extraordinary family’s love and laughter – he and Karen have five fabulous children, ages 14 to 23. Karen says it’s hard to despair when he’s so positive, when he delights in “feeling” every prayer for him, “visiting” with his late father, renewing his relationship to Judaism and God by painstakingly re-learning each mitzvah, bringing new meaning to each commandment.

On Tisha b’Av he fasted, demanding that his feeding tube be shut down. Every weekday morning, he puts on tfillin at the same time his congregants do.

“Finding spiritual paths in the hospital while vulnerable and fragile,” he blinked to them, provides “a great delight of the day… I hear the tone, rhythm, the light banter, music and join you. I know our sounds and I listen to your voices. Our prayers are good and honest, and God looks favourably on the kind.”

Currently, he can only wear the head phylacteries. This, he calls “the most healing of privileges. The retzuot [straps] course through the whole body… from the mind. Crown encircles the cranium. In the holiest of holies, the kesher, which we believe lies contiguously off of Hashem’s holy kesher knot, sits on the brainstem to heal, to repair, to purify the world.”

This year, I witnessed the miracles that can occur despite catastrophic brain trauma after my father took a serious fall and recovered remarkably. Rabbi Cahana has already progressed much faster than the doctors predicted. This Rosh Hashanah – as those who can rally around the Cahana family, bombarding them with the love and support they need – we should also learn from the Blinkischer Rebbe’s teaching.

Let us follow him, temporarily, voluntarily, into the realm of the purely spiritual, the world of the soul, his transcendent universe of pure Jewish thought and emotion. And let us return less complacent and more compassionate, less tense and more intense, less alone and more loving, learning that whatever this next year brings, “the end will be good.”

We love you, Charles Bronfman (In Honor of his 80th Birthday)

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-16-11

At an intimate birthday dinner in Jerusalem at the end of May, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, had a formidable task.
The golden-tongued Peres had to honour a personal friend of 60 years, a man who is a cherished friend to Israel, the Jewish People, and citizens of Canada and the United States. He had to find a fresh and meaningful way to capture the emotions in the room as we toasted a visionary philanthropist who has been honoured again and again with honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada and honorary citizenship status from Jerusalem.

Smart and sophisticated enough to know that, sometimes, it is best to trust simplicity and sincerity, Peres, brimming with emotion, welcomed Charles Bronfman to the exclusive club of vital, vibrant, inspiring octogenarians, and said: “We love you, Charles.” Peres’ soft-spoken delivery and Polish-accented “r,” elongating the name nobly, made the name “Charrrrles” sound like the loftiest of titles.

And it’s so true.

We love you, Charles, as Montrealers, because of the devotion you showed the city during its darkest hour. By keeping the Montreal Expos alive when you did, you were investing in the city where your father launched your legendary family’s many heroic accomplishments. And by supporting McGill and Concordia universities so generously, you helped Anglo life continue to thrive, not just survive.

We love you, Charles, as Canadians, because your Canadian foundation’s CRB Heritage Minutes not only educate Canadians about the past but offer a model of public education, proving that not everything popular and compelling need be superficial or stupid.

We love you, Charles, as Americans, because, spurred by your beloved late wife, Andrea, you helped us heal after the mass murders of Sept. 11. Andy’s initiative, “The Gift of New York,” giving free museum, culture, and sports tickets to 9/11 families, not only embraced the families brutalized by Islamist terrorism, it helped revive the New York cultural scene after the mass trauma, reminding Americans to define New York by the institutions that make it live, not the evildoers who marked so many for death.

We love you, Charles, as Israelis, because your Keren Karev is like a magic wand waved up and down the country, making once-ugly sites beautiful and turning seemingly intractable social and educational problems into opportunities to help people by pioneering creative, cutting-edge solutions.

We love you, Charles, as Jews, because your Taglit-Birthright Israel program has now launched more than 250,000 Jewish journeys at a critical time in the life of Israel and the Jewish People.

Like a brilliant matchmaker, you and your fellow philanthropists brought together Jews from communities scattered throughout the world – craving inspiration – with Israel, a country oozing with inspiration, but increasingly misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews who judge it harshly from afar rather than experiencing and embracing it up close.

And in your typical style, you’ve followed through on the unexpected consequences of this bold experiment, pioneering through your Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York programs for the oft-overlooked and neglected Jewish 20-somethings, who deserve creative, open-minded and dynamic programs tailored to their unique characters.

Of course, this is only a sampling of Bronfman’s art of giving, the many amazing projects he has shared with the world. That such a miracle man is such a mensch, mastering the art of living, too, is even more impressive. I have seen how gentle, modest, and accessible he is with Birthright participants, flustered by meeting the great man, yet immediately put at ease by his charm.  And I vividly remember the first time, he, and the lovely but formidable Andy, along with their dog, Yoffi, first hosted an obscure young academic in the majestic Montreal headquarters of Seagram’s a decade ago. The warmth, the respect and the openness conveyed at our first meeting also set me at ease, launching me on one of my great life adventures: helping with Birthright’s educational programming.

And so for your kindnesses and your accomplishments, your greatness and your heimishness, I echo the president of Israel’s plain but profound words:  we love you, Charles – and happy 80th birthday.

Mulcair the mensch

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-19-11

As Liberals reel from their stunning electoral defeat and Conservatives rejoice, Israel’s supporters in Canada can find reassurance in two important outcomes from the recent federal election.

First, the re-election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sweet vindication. Harper has been a steadfast friend of Israel, defending and embodying the democratic values uniting Israel and Canada. Claims that Harper and his party would suffer at the polls for befriending the Jewish state proved as empty as the charge that Canada was not elected to the UN Security Council as punishment for voting for Israel.

The second piece of good news is that, as the NDP gets used to becoming the loyal opposition, the NDP deputy leader and designated coach for its unseasoned rookie MPs is Thomas Mulcair, a thoughtful, reasonable progressive who refuses to join the pile-on against Israel.

I had the privilege of hearing Mulcair address the Ottawa Conference on Combating Antisemitism last fall. Amid a tsunami of speeches, Mulcair’s stood out. It was short, elegant, eloquent and effective. Although I will only quote from a CBC blog description because the conference was under Chatham House Rule, Mulcair impressed me in three ways.

First, he struck me as someone who believes in democracy and the rule of law, refusing to sacrifice core ideals to follow one trend or another. Second, he was embarrassed, as a member of the McGill community, having graduated from McGill Law School, that McGill hosts Israeli Apartheid Week. His indignation reflected an awareness that those who claim to be “only” anti-Zionist are usually antisemitic, too, as well as a deep commitment to preserving universities as safe, open, tolerant places for thinking students.

Third, he described an ugly moment in an anti-Israel demonstration when protesters wanted to attack a Jewish-owned business. This move reflected what he called the “any Jew will do” mob mentality of picking on all Jews because of a disagreement with some Israeli policy – demonstrating the underlying antisemitism perverting so much of the anti-Israel movement.

A year earlier, when a local synagogue was defaced with swastikas in his riding, Mulcair again stood tall. He declared the act of hatred “particularly disgusting in the case of a congregation that includes several Holocaust survivors.” He quoted Martin Luther King’s teaching that “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really co-operating with it.”

And in that spirit, when his NDP colleague and fellow deputy leader Libby Davies supported the anti-Israel boycott movement, Mulcair confronted her swiftly and directly. Davies is a long-time critic of Israel who mocks Canada’s “so-called friendship with Israel.” She has no problem speaking at a rally whose chants call for another intifadah or being photographed at that rally in front of a poster making the false comparison between Israel and South African apartheid.

“No member of our caucus, whatever other title they have, is allowed to invent their own policy,” Mulcair proclaimed when Davies endorsed boycotts. “We take decisions together, parties formulate policies together, and to say that you’re personally in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions for the only democracy in the Middle East is, as far as I’m concerned, grossly unacceptable.”

I have no idea where Mulcair stands regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Israel’s ultimate borders, and I don’t care. We need a broad pro-Israel coalition that fights blatant antisemitism and the antisemitism masquerading as “only” anti-Zionism.

We need a broad pro-Israel coalition uniting people from left to right who defend Israel’s right to exist and fight the demonization of Israel and Zionism. We need a broad pro-Israel coalition standing for core democratic rights and the understanding that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, the only stable country following rule of law, the only steady source of civil liberties for Arabs and Jews, and the Mideast’s only true friend to Canada.

And we need to honour steadfast friends such as Mulcair, hoping that as he coaches his young, newly elected NDP MPs, he points out some of the hypocritical trends that some fellow progressives succumb to, while reminding them of the enduring liberal rights and democratic ideals that make Canada and Israel among the few functioning democracies in the world – whatever mistakes they may make, whatever imperfections they may have.