Thursday, 8 November 2018

Trudeau apologizes to Canada's Jewish Community

Trudeau Apologizes to Canada’s Jewish Community

(please note: I published a shortened version of this blog in The Hamilton Spectator, November 10, 2018, p. A16)

Yesterday, (November 7, 2018) Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology in Parliament to Canada’s Jewish community for an event that occurred almost 80 years ago. 

Justin Trudeau
 In June 1939, Canada refused landing rights to the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees. The ship had already been turned back from Cuba and the United States. Eventually it returned to Europe, where the refugees were dispersed among Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The latter three countries were later over-run by the Nazis, resulting in the deaths of 254 St. Louis passengers. Here’s the link to the video of the apology.

Passengers embarking on the St. Louis in Hamburg
 Trudeau’s apology was very well-crafted, presumably with input from leaders of Canada’s Jewish community. The Prime Minister set out the context of Canada’s past anti-Semitic policies very clearly. He acknowledged they had helped to facilitate the extermination of European Jews, since Hitler could see that despite their rhetorical denunciations, the future Allied countries did not want to help the Jews whom he was persecuting. 

Trudeau also explained the extent of anti-Semitism in Canada before and after WWII.  He acknowledged that by turning away the St. Louis’ passengers, as well as countless other Jews who tried and failed to find sanctuary in Canada, the country had deprived itself of much useful expertise and many productive citizens. He acknowledged the Jewish community’s contributions to Canada, including its commitment to charitable endeavors (an important statement, given anti-Semites’ belief that “Jews only help themselves.”) His delivery was sober, articulate and sincere. As someone who has studied official apologies as part of her academic career, I could not have asked for anything better.

I didn’t expect when I heard the apology that part of it would be, in effect, to me. The Prime Minister apologized for/to the “7000 Jewish prisoners of war” who, he said, were held in Canada with the very people who had persecuted them. He was referring not to POWs but to internees, Jews from enemy countries (Germany, Austria, and Hungary) who had been in Britain when the war began and were interned under the Enemy Aliens Act until they could be sorted out.  Once that had been done, many of the teenaged 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. (My source for this is Eric Koch’s book, Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder, published in 1980 by Methuen).

One of those 7000 Jews (or in his case, “half’-Jew”) was my own late father, who was sent to Canada and held in a camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec, from which he must have been released by late 1941, as he married my mother in Scotland in early 1942. I don’t think he would have been pleased to have been called a prisoner of war by the Prime Minister, such a designation implying that he had fought for an enemy country.  He hadn’t: he was a refugee who after his internment joined the British army.

I wonder as well whether father would have wanted or 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 promised to intensify efforts through the  Security Infrastructure Program to protect places of worship (not only Jewish: mosques and Hindu Temples, for example, clearly need more protection after the mass shooting in a Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2017 and the torching of a Hindu Temple in my own city of Hamilton in 2001). (On the latter, see my blog entry: )

Trudeau also referred to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel and its apparent harassment of Jewish students on Canadian university campuses. The BDS movement is a legitimate protest against the Israeli government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, but it is not legitimate if it targets Jews as Jews. If Jewish students are harassed by activists in that group purely because they are Jewish, then that is anti-Semitism. I would not, for example, harass a Canadian Muslim to protest the actions of the Saudi government in Yemen and against its own citizens. Nor would I harass a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani descent to protest Pakistan’s discrimination against Christians.

The question might arise whether, eighty years after the event, Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology to the Canadian Jewish community actually matters. It does. 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, presumably, 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 the extent of anti-Semitism and the harm it has done and still does.

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