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‘Be on the front lines,’ former Canadian envoy Irwin Cotler advises young Jews

The 83-year-old received a lifetime achievement award at a Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs conference in Ottawa.

Irwin Cotler. Photo by Dave Gordon.
Irwin Cotler. Photo by Dave Gordon.

Irwin Cotler, the 83-year-old human-rights advocate and former Canadian parliamentarian, received the lifetime achievement award of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs last month at a conference in Ottawa. 

The award, according to organizers, recognized “his enduring commitment to the pursuit of justice” and “advancement of human rights for the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed.”

The international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, Cotler served as a Canadian parliamentarian from 1999 to 2015, as well as minister of justice and attorney general. He is also a law professor emeritus at McGill University and an international human-rights lawyer who has represented clients such as the former Soviet refusenik and Israeli statesman Natan Sharansky, and Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned anti-apartheid activist and former president of South African. 

Until recently, Cotler was the Canadian government’s special envoy on antisemitism. In his acceptance speech, he applauded the multi-partisan groups standing up against rising antisemitism “who heed this call to action, where we act in concert on behalf of our common humanity.”

Cotler was in Jerusalem on Oct. 7. “Every rocket shot is a war crime, but a massive number fired at cities, that’s a crime against humanity,” he said at the event. The attacks occurred “against the backdrop of global antisemitism that has been metastasizing for years now,” he added.

“This is a hideous singling out of the Jewish people for selective opprobrium and indictment,” he said. “The laundering of antisemitism under the cover of anti-racism, under universal public values, the protective cover of the United Nations, the authority of international law, culture of human rights, the framework of social justice” has inverted “all of our foundational values.”

Cotler is the stepfather of Jerusalem-born Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s special envoy to combat antisemitism.

Irwin Cotler with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the “Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It” two-day conference in Ottawa on Oct. 17, 2023. Credit: Teckles Photo Inc.

‘Defending our democracy’

One of the things Cotler said he finds most disturbing is “the mainstreaming, the normalization and legitimization of antisemitism” in political, popular, media, sports, entertainment and campus culture.

“This is what the future leadership is taught and bred,” he said.

Cotler is optimistic about the future, noting that “2023 is not 1943,” and “there is a Jewish state as an antidote to Jewish powerlessness.” 

“In 1943, the Jews could not get a meeting with the president of the United States,” he said. “In 2023, the president has been a leader in calling out this moral evil,” referring to U.S. President Joe Biden.

Cotler told JNS that young Jews should step forward bravely to unmask, expose and combat antisemitism, as well as to affirm their Jewish identities.

“Ensure that antisemitism, which is the oldest, longest, most enduring of hatreds, is also toxic to democracy,” he said. “In combating antisemitism, we are defending our democracy. It’s an assault on our humanity. We defend our common humanity in combating antisemitism. It’s an assault on human rights.”

“Be on the front lines,” he advised young Jews. “Take up positions of leadership and show the way.”

‘I wanted our voices to be heard’

Raheel Raza, a Muslim journalist and activist who is part of the Council of Muslims Against Antisemitism, also attended the award ceremony. She told JNS that more non-Jews need to support Israel.

“I’m so glad that they incorporated Muslim voices because I wanted our voices to be heard,” she said. (Arif Virani, Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general, and Farah Pandith, whom then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed the first-ever U.S. special representative to Muslim communities in 2009, also spoke.)

“Unfortunately because of social media, the perception that is out there is that the Jews are alone at this time,” Raza said. “This conference is bringing to light [that] they are not alone.”

Most Muslims “understand that Hamas is a terrorist organization, no ifs, ands or buts” but cannot speak out due to fear,” she added. “I’m sitting proof of that—from death threats to a fatwa to lawsuits to hate mail.”

Shai Deluca, a former Israeli soldier who is now an interior designer and a North American television personality, moderated a panel at the event. He told JNS that “walking into a space to see 1,000 people in support of the Jewish community and uplift us is something that I so needed.”

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