Liberal MP Anthony Housefather talks about his new role as special adviser on Jewish community relations

Social media posting from July 8, 2024.

Anthony Housefather, MP for the Mount Royal riding of Montreal, was named special adviser on Jewish community relations and antisemitism, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced on July 5.  

The appointment had been first publicly mentioned on April 7, not long after Housefather said he was considering leaving the Liberals over their policies toward Israel and Palestine.

Citing unnamed inside sources, CBC News then reported on June 21 that the appointment was delayed due to caucus divisions over the Israel-Hamas war, and a lack of clarity over how the role would differ from that of Deborah Lyons, the special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism. (Neither the PMO nor Housefather commented on the story.)

But the role was ultimately confirmed after a stressful two weeks for both the MP and the party.

Flyers targeting Housefather as a neo-Nazi and calling for him to leave Canada were posted in several parts of Montreal. On June 24, Liberal candidate Leslie Church lost a byelection for the first time in over 30 years in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s—whose Jewish population of around 15 percent was strategically courted by Conservative candidate Don Stewart.

While the timing of the formal announcement of Housefather’s new position wasn’t directly connected to these events, they “are clear indications to the government that there’s a problem where the Jewish community feels uneasy, where the Jewish community feels that we’re not doing enough, where the Jewish community feels that all levels of government are not doing enough,” he said in an interview with The CJN.

“The Jewish community, I think today is very frustrated, very unhappy. It’s not just in Canada, but throughout the world, because no level of government in Canada and no government in the world has perfectly dealt, or even dealt with antisemitism to a level that we’re satisfied with. And Jewish communities don’t care, I think, what the Constitution says, and that it’s this level or that level (of government). They just want somebody to do something.”

In his new position, the 54-year-old Housefather—who was first elected federally in 2015, after more than 20 years in Montreal-area politics—will work closely with Deborah Lyons, who was appointed just a week after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The attacks, which killed 1,200 people in Israel and triggered a war in Gaza that has killed tens of thousands, also ignited an unprecedented wave of antisemitic protests and attacks in Canada.

Housefather’s advantage is that he has more access to MPs and cabinet ministers than Lyons does. As parliamentary secretary to the chair of the Treasury Board, for example, he is pushing to have grants from all government departments conditional on accepting the government’s anti-racism policy, which includes the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

On some issues, such as improving the climate on university campuses for Jewish students, Housefather admits neither the federal government nor Lyons can tackle problems that are in the realm of provincial and municipal governments.

“We’ll work together on trying to convince universities because neither of us has the power to make them do it. We can only use moral suasion.”

One of his priorities is to make Jewish Canadian students “feel 10 percent safer, 15 percent safer, 20 percent safer,” when they go back to campus in the fall.

That goal is proving to be especially challenging in his Montreal home, where a pro-Palestinian encampment remains at McGill University, despite legal efforts to have it dismantled.

“I, for the life of me, do not understand why the Montreal police are not doing this, why the mayor of Montreal is not calling for this to be done, and I will do my best to exercise moral suasion on this. I had a meeting last week with Deep Saini, the president of McGill.  He’s very much overcome by the way that Jews on his campus feel unsafe. I mean, he would love to see the encampment removed.

“One of the biggest problems we’re having on campuses is that the Jewish community feels that university rules are not being applied equally to these pro-Palestinian encampments as they would be applied to another group if they set up an encampment.”

In the meantime, Housefather has other equally pressing issues on the agenda, starting with the case of Birju Dattani recently appointed as the next head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has opposed the appointment, citing social media posts and comments from Dattani that it claims are anti-Israel and antisemitic.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has said Dattani, the first Muslim appointed to the position, is the victim of a “witch hunt.”

While there have been calls for the House Justice Committee, which Housefather sits on, to investigate the claims, he says at this point an outside trusted observer needs to examine Dattani’s history and the government’s own vetting process.

“An independent investigation is required to convince everybody, across the board in Canada that it’s not a witch hunt, that this is serious.

“Jewish community organizations have already said that they don’t have confidence in Mr. Dattani, and I’ve said, based on what I have so far understood, I do not have confidence in Mr. Dattani.”

Housefather is also currently working on getting “bubble” legislation passed, which would limit protests outside the doors of schools, houses of worship and religious institutions. Similar restrictions were approved during the pandemic to protect hospitals from anti-vaccination protests.

He also wants to see Samidoun, an international pro-Palestinian organization with a Canadian branch based in Vancouver, designated as a terrorist group.

While Housefather has been at odds with some of his government’s stances on Israel and the position it has taken on some United Nations votes, he insists that fighting antisemitism has to remain a non-partisan issue.

“I’ve always said we need friends in both parties that could come to power, and in all other parties, you always need strong Jewish voices in both the Liberal and Conservative parties, and hopefully in other parties, too,” he said. “I want to live in a situation where Canadian Jews do not feel compelled to vote because they’re scared of antisemitism.”