04/10/2013 08:52 EDT | Updated 06/10/2013 05:12 EDT

You Don't Have to be Jewish or Liberal to Believe in Social Justice

TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 24: Some 2,000 people attend a rally to support religious tolerance after a series of recent anti-semitic attacks struck synagogues and homes March 24, 2004 at the Lipa Green Centre in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Donald Weber/Getty Images)
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TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 24: Some 2,000 people attend a rally to support religious tolerance after a series of recent anti-semitic attacks struck synagogues and homes March 24, 2004 at the Lipa Green Centre in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Donald Weber/Getty Images)

In a Huffington Post Blog submission last week, B'nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant wrote:

There is already a movement that wants to neutralize Jewish support for the Conservative Party and the mantra is that all three parties have the same agenda regarding Israel, a two-state solution, so why do we have to support the Conservatives? In a well-orchestrated campaign we will soon begin to see a new Jewish agenda being proposed by some, which will advocate that Jewish community adjust its focus to Aboriginal issues, child poverty, health care and social housing. There will be a concentrated effort to realign the Jewish agenda with that of the Liberal Party, an effort which was made in the last election by the now defunct Canadian Jewish Congress

Now to be clear the entire blog was dedicated to an attack on Canadian Jews who would dare identify themselves as Liberals, indeed I would argue, even social justice advocates. Yet even for Frank Dimant that quote seemed a rather strange assertion.

Let's parse Frank's words. He insinuates that there is something "new" about Canadian Jews taking an interest in Aboriginal issues, child poverty and social housing. I'm surprised Frank thinks this is new. In fact, these matters have been part of the "Jewish agenda" here in Canada ever since Jews began to immigrate here more than 100 years ago. Indeed, they have always been part of the Jewish social conscience.

And truth be told, it's not even "new" to B'nai Brith Canada. Following in the footsteps of the former Canadian Jewish Congress, (CJC) which in 2006 brought 20 First Nations chiefs to Israel, and a year later offered 15 First Nations women leaders an opportunity to study at the Golda Meir centre in Haifa, B'nai Brith also reached out to our First Nations people. Stated Frank Dimant on offering its "137 years experience in this country" to build bridges with Canada's Aboriginal groups just two months ago:

Because we are a financially modest organization we will be in a position to relate to the challenges of the communities and creatively work together in partnership with the government to bring about new infrastructure and educational programming

B'nai Brith should be commended for seeing the value begun by CJC in reaching out to First Nations and choosing to do the same even if it is by Frank's standards, a "Liberal" agenda item.

As for child poverty, this too is hardly new for Jewish social justice organizations and it's not new to B'nai Brith Canada either. As far back as 1995 B'nai Brith's Rubin Freedman presented its position on eradicating child poverty to a Parliamentary Commission and again like CJC was involved in a number of national campaigns to fight this scourge including "The Campaign Against Child Poverty."

In terms of health care, "B'nai Brith has actually partnered with the federal government in trying to help fight Alzheimer's disease and "Liberal agenda" or not, such actions should be applauded.

And as for social housing another "agenda" item identified as "Liberal" by Frank Dimant, well here too B'nai Brith has actually shown some fine leadership. In describing its work on affordable housing for senior citizens in Toronto to the Community Care network, B'nai Brith wrote:

As an outgrowth of our ongoing historic commitment to serve the needs of the community, B'nai Brith Canada established an Affordable Housing Program in 1979. Its mission is to provide and maintain affordable, attractive, secure, and welcoming housing to low to moderate income residents.

During my close to 30 years service with Canadian Jewish Congress, I stand proudly by the fact that we engaged and embraced issues that our own tradition demanded of us. Just a few short weeks ago Jews the world over celebrated Passover. There is a well known verse written in the Passover text that says:

"Let all who are hungry come in and eat, let all who are needy come in and make Passover."

In many ways this simple verse sums up the responsibility we as Jews have for one another. Explains Rabbi Tom Mayer of Aish HaTorah:

The message is that we cannot have true personal freedom unless we care about other people... Why is caring about other people so crucial to our own sense of freedom? Because we cannot get out of our ego unless we care about other people. A person has to get outside himself and realize that the welfare of others is part of his own happiness and freedom.

So in the end many will not be surprised to read that I respectfully disagree with Frank Dimant. And yes, like my friend MP Irwin Cotler, I count myself as a Jewish Liberal and human rights activist. We both support and love the State of Israel, but we also know that as Jews, believing in social justice is not just a "Liberal" value. Indeed you don't have to be Jewish or Conservative or Liberal or NDP or at all politically affiliated to fight child poverty, to work towards affordable housing and to seek a healthy community for all.