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As Prime Minister, I Supported Israel -- And I Still Do

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What follows is an excerpt of a speech delivered May 9 at the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee annual dinner in Montreal.

In Baie Comeau, where I was born and grew up, there was no Jewish community, no congregation, no synagogue. It was when I graduated from Université Laval and moved to Montreal to practise law in 1964 that I first came into contact with a large Jewish community -- which, as it turned out, ignited my interest in and support of the Jews and Israel.

The Jews of Montreal were, in my judgment, remarkable. Families were close, values were taught, education was revered, work was honoured, and success was expected. These principles had spawned over the decades an extraordinary community of teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, and business leaders. How could it be, I often wondered, that the progenitors of such a law-abiding and productive group -- that was 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?

It was during my early years in Montreal that I learned of the shocking culture of anti-Semitism that prevailed in this country and this city within our own lifetimes: of a strike at a French-language hospital because a Jewish graduate of the Université de Montréal medical school was appointed to intern there; of the notorious quota system at McGill, with Jewish students also needing higher marks to get in; of clubs where Jews needn't apply.

In 1937 our prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, visited Germany to meet its chancellor, Adolf Hitler. King recorded the following impressions of that meeting:

"He smiled very pleasantly and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man."

This from the prime minister of Canada less than two years before Hitler launched the bloodiest war in world history.

The following day, our prime minister had lunch in Berlin with the Nazi foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, who delivered himself of some interesting opinions: "He admitted that (the Nazis) had taken some pretty rough steps in cleaning up the situation, but the truth was the country was going to pieces at the time Hitler took hold. 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 had really taken advantage of the necessity of the people. 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 comments by one of the most powerful leaders of the Third Reich? He wrote: "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 Second World War? Most regrettably, the government refused entry to a ship called the St. Louis, bearing Jews desperate for Canada to admit them. They sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned.

It 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 in German concentration camps without, as a Canadian, feeling a great sense of sorrow, loss and guilt.

The government of Canada ignored not only the plight of the Jews, but also the protests of the Canadian people and the pleading of the press. A prominent Montrealer, William Birks, called the closed-door policy "narrow, bigoted, and short-sighted." Socialist leader J.S. Woodsworth said he felt "helpless and ashamed" as a Canadian. The Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Free Press condemned Ottawa's "cowardly policy."

Why was nothing done? Because of political expediency; because the prime minister had a visceral distrust of Jews, and in government circles an open-door policy was very unpopular.

But prime ministers are not chosen to seek popularity. They are elected to provide leadership. Prime ministers are supposed to tell Canadians not what they want to hear but what they have to know. And what they have to know is a quotation from the book of Proverbs inscribed on the Peace Tower in Ottawa: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Above all, it is the prime minister's responsibility to lead on the great moral issues of the day -- popularity polls be damned.

To compound this historical error prior to the war, Canada allowed itself to become a haven for Nazi war criminals after the war. One of the vows I made on taking office as prime minister was that this would no longer be acceptable. Early in my first term of office, I appointed the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi War Criminals who had escaped to Canada. This was controversial and painful, especially for communities where Nazi war criminals posed as respectable citizens. Some wondered why we had dredged up this painful episode from our past.

The answer is simple but profound: Canada needed closure, and the Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors, needed justice.

In terms of Israel, our support was unequivocal from the beginning. While still in opposition, I made it clear that in government our policy on the Middle East would begin from an "unshakable commitment" to Israel, beginning with the right of Israelis to live in peace within secure borders.

The leadership on this issue begins with the prime minister. You do not have to be a supporter of the present government of Canada to know that, for Stephen Harper, this issue is a matter of deep conviction for him, the right thing to do.

These decisions and gestures I have enumerated -- and many more by other leaders, of all political parties -- are important both substantively and symbolically. I believe they represent in some measure how a prime minister should act because they send out signals to the nation and the world of where Canada stands on this extremely vital question. When I retired from office, I maintained that attitude, publicly denouncing those -- from the United Nations to the Canadian government to foreign governments and organizations -- that showed hostility or malice to Israel or the Jews.

Why is it important that we all continue to do this?

While life has improved for us all -- including of course the Jewish communities here and elsewhere -- history has taught us what happens when we abandon our vigilance and concern.

This does not mean, however, 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 exist and live in security precludes the acceptance of a Palestinian state where all citizens, and in particular young Palestinians, 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, because this is the pathway to peace. And I am certain that one day relatively soon we shall see the initiation of a process that will produce precisely this result.

James Joyce wrote that "the past is consumed in the present and the present is alive only because it gives birth to the future." The Jews of Israel have already emerged as a valorous people who have made the deserts bloom. And the Jews of Canada have found a home in this country, whose future is immeasurably brighter and whose values have been incalculably enriched because of their Jewish presence and their contribution to Canada and to all humankind.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day
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