Behind the scenes of Justin Trudeau’s private meeting with rabbis in Vancouver on March 27

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver and Federation's security committee chair at Temple Shalom Synagogue on March 27, 2024. Local MP Taleeb Noormohamed (gesturing) arranged the meeting. (PMO photo)

A Vancouver rabbi being contacted by his local Liberal MP was one of the catalysts for the pile of amendments made to a controversial NDP motion on the Middle East—one which originally could have seen Canada unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom, a Reform Jewish congregation, told The Canadian Jewish News that he is being credited with some of the wording which the Liberals brought forward, which made major changes to the NDP’s non-binding motion.

The amended wording was eventually passed in the House of Commons, late in the evening of March 18.

Nine days later, Rabbi Moskovitz hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his synagogue for a private briefing. It was attended by four members of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, staff from the Prime Minister’s Office, a Jewish security expert—and Taleeb Noormohamed, the MP for Vancouver Granville who called the rabbi two weeks prior.

“Taleeb reached out and asked me what I thought of the motion and I told him in clear and stark terms that I thought the motion was abhorrent and that it endangered Israel, rewarded Hamas terrorists, and would embolden others in the region against Israel and would actually be a huge impediment to a lasting and sustainable peace,” Rabbi Moskovitz said in an interview with The CJN Daily.

According to Moskovitz, when the MP revealed that between 80 and 100 Liberal MPs were predicted to vote in favour of the motion, the rabbi implored the politician to make sure that at least two sections of the original NDP motion be amended: recognition of the unilateral Palestinian state should be cancelled, and a new section must be added to insist that Hamas lays down its arms.

“Taleeb was the first to reach out to the NDP MP Heather McPherson [who originatedthe motion] to consider making amendments, [and] that was reported in the Globe and Mail,” Rabbi Moskovitz said. “He told me that it was the language that we discussed, that was the catalyst to get this done when the motion passed.”

Although three Liberal MPs—and all of the Conservatives—voted against the motion, it passed by 204-117. For his part, Noormohamed told The CJN on Thursday he didn’t specify to Moskovitz the number of Liberals who would be supporting the original motion, just that it would be a lot.

The final motion did not mention Canada unilaterally recognizing Palestine. Instead, it reiterated longstanding Canadian policy that such a move could come only after a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, with guarantees of safety and security for both peoples.

Noormohamed, the first Muslim MP to be elected from British Columbia, arranged a follow-up meeting with the prime minister while Trudeau was in Vancouver to make a pre-budget announcement on housing, and also to attend an Iftar dinner with local Muslims.

Susie Tendler
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Rabbi Susie Tendler of Beth Tikvah in Vancouver on March 27, 2024. (PMO photo)

Hiding school uniforms and identies

Over a 40-minute meeting in the Temple Sholom boardroom, the rabbis took turns describing the current feelings of “isolation” being experienced by Jews in the province since Oct. 7.

Rabbi Susie Tendler of Beth Tikvah, a Conservative congregation in Richmond B.C., shared how her own children and other day school students were advised to not wear their uniforms on public transit due to safety concerns. King David High School‘s physical education classes were held indoors for a while, she said, and, eventually when students began wearing their uniforms to run outdoors, they were advised to wear hoodies to cover up the logo.

“As a parent and a rabbi, it really struck me that our children—in Canada, in this day and age–were counselled to hide their identities in order to stay safe,” Rabbi Tendler told The CJN after the meeting. ”It is very challenging to instil pride when you are also hiding your identity.”

She also recounted one of her congregation members was swarmed on the SkyTrain by people wearing keffiyehs and masks who were chanting “From the River to the Sea”. The woman and her friends were sworn at, the rabbi said, called “genocide supporters” and fucking Jew.” (The rabbi did not use the expletive when recounting the story.)

Rabbi Philip Bregman, emeritus rabbi at Temple Sholom, who heads an interfaith organization called The Other People, described being verbally attacked by a member of the public during a recent outreach visit by his group in Kelowna. 

Rabbi Bregman also told Trudeau about the B.C. Teachers’ Federation passing an anti-Israel motion at its March convention, which urged the education ministry to amend the classroom curriculum so that it would now include modules about the Nakba—which is the word Palestinians refer to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence—and also to teach about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. 

When one of Rabbi Bregman’s congregation members, a teacher who was at the event, objected and tried to amend the wording to include condemnation of Hamas and the terror attacks on Israel of Oct. 7, she was told by her colleagues in the teachers’ union that this would not be tolerated. 

“My concern is not just about tolerance, it’s about fear and intimidation of Jews and Zionists in our public sector institutions,” Rabbi Bregman told Trudeau. 

Security costs balloon to $100,000 per month

Aside from the four senior rabbis from the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver who were at the meeting, Jason Murray also shared the situation from where he sits, as the chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s community security advisory committee.

Murray disclosed that before Oct. 7, Jewish institutions in Vancouver were spending about $6,000 to $7,000 per month on physical security measures at schools, community centres, the Jewish seniors’ home, camps, family services agencies and synagogues.

But since Oct. 7, that figure has ballooned to about $100,000 per month, mostly for outside security personnel.

Ottawa has paid for some of the hardware to fortify the buildings over the years, but he said the community had to recently raise hundreds of thousands of dollars on its own.

“The need is not going away,” Murray told Trudeau. “We might not yet have had firebombing or bullet holes or angry disruptions outside our community buildings, like we’ve seen in Montreal and Toronto, [but] we have little doubt that time will come.”

Jason Murray (far left) and Rabbi Philip Bregman (gesturing) met with Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed (second from right) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plus other members of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver at Temple Shalom Synagogue on March 27, 2024. (PMO photo)

Trudeau: hate and racism not tolerated

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to provide a read-out of the contents of the meeting. And, despite our request, The CJN did not receive any confirmation of the rabbi’s version of events from Trudeau’s communications team. 

Trudeau’s social media post on March 28 showed a photo of him sitting at the Temple Sholom library boardroom table listening to rabbis Andrew Rosenblatt of Schara Tzedeck and to Susie Tendler:

According to Rabbi Moscovitz, that mirrors the empathy that Trudeau expressed at the meeting—empathy with the fear and danger that he said he knows that the Jews of Canada are experiencing. The rabbis described the impact of the continuous protests by anti-Israel groups on the streets, at university campuses, online and at Jewish social and cultural events after Oct. 7. 

At the start of 2024, theatres in both Victoria and Vancouver moved to cancel productions of The Runner due to pushback from local groups opposed to its depiction of living with terrorism in Israel

Reports of antisemitic incidents in Vancouver have risen by 62 percent over last year, according to Vancouver police in their most recent briefing on Jan. 16, 2024. The police had to staff 80 protests linked to the Israel-Hamas war since Oct. 7, at a cost of $2.5 million in overtime shifts, which was half the overtime budget for the whole year.

“[Trudeau] talked about how it was unacceptable to him that Canadian Jews were being harassed, intimidated and threatened in the way that we described and that he knew it to be true,” Rabbi Moskovitz said. 

The prime minister told the group he was personally frustrated on March 3 when Toronto police could not secure the venue for Canada’s scheduled gala dinner with Italy’s prime minister, Georgia Meloni, due to Palestinian protests. The event was cancelled at the last minute and the resulting negative publicity was an international embarrassment.

According to Rabbi Moskovitz, Trudeau promised to follow up on the Vancouver group’s three main asks: renew and expand the permanent federal Security Infrastructure Program grants to include security guards stationed at Jewish buildings in light of Oct. 7; encourage provincial attorney’s general to prosecute protesters who intimidate Jews and use hate speech; add the Samidoun organization to Canada’s list of designated terrorist entities, because of its strong ties to the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which already is on the terrorist list here since 2003.

“He made verbal commitments to meet all three of our requests, and then his staff requested that we follow up in writing, which we’ve done,” Rabbi Moscovitz confirmed to The CJN Daily.

Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met on Wednesday March 27, 2024, with (from left) Taleeb Noormohamed, Liberal MP for Vancouver Grenville; Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom; Rabbi Philip Bregman (facing away from the camera) and others. (PMO photo)

Rabbis criticized for meeting Trudeau

Several of the rabbis acknowledge they received criticism from community members for even agreeing to meet Trudeau, just days after all but three members of his Liberal government voted for an NDP motion on Israel-Palestine that many feel is rewarding terrorism. 

“Some have suggested that we should not have taken the meeting, that the motion, even with the Liberal amendments, [and] even though it was non-binding, that to speak to the prime minister after this was somehow a reward for him and a betrayal or breaking ranks with our Jewish community,” Rabbi Moskovitz said. “I understand their sentiments.”

However, the rabbi said he felt that it was a chance to get face time with the prime minister.

“We had a message about safety and security for Canadian Jews. It’s an important message and the prime minister needs to hear it,” he said.

Other community members were glad the meeting took place, according to Rabbi Bregman.

“I got comments ‘Give them Hell’,” Rabbi Bregman told The CJN, especially after photos of the meeting were released by MP Taleeb Noormohamed which showed an animated Rabbi Bregman seated opposite Trudeau and gesturing forcefully.

“People need to tell [him] what’s up,” Rabbi Bregman added. “I don’t know if anything will happen but at least we’ll have it on record that we spoke. We made it clear what the situation is out here, not only in Vancouver but in other parts of the province.”

Rabbi Tendler also heard from her members who are feeling disillusioned and disappointed with the Canadian government’s policies since Oct. 7, such as resuming funding for UNRWA, calling for a humanitarian ceasefire while the hostages are still being held in captivity including voting in December 2023 in support of a non-binding UN resolution, and blocking future export permits for arms sales to Israel while the Jewish state is in the midst of a war.

“Still, I believe that we can all appreciate and garner hope from opportunities to express our sentiments, fears and thoughts,” Rabbi Tendler said in an email to The CJN. “It certainly is better than the alternative of not being heard and not offering to be part of the solution.”

Words should match his deeds

While domestic security concerns were top of the list during the meeting, the rabbis also say Trudeau repeated Canada’s position on the Israeli government’s pledge to send the IDF on a major ground invasion of the southern Gazan city of Rafah, likely after Ramadan. That is where the remaining hostages are believed to be held, and where the remnants of Hamas’s leadership is thought to be hiding. However, the city is also believed to be sheltering over 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, according to UNRWA. Canada believes an attack would be “catastrophic” according to Melanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, because the refugees have nowhere else to go.

“The PM said he understood that Israel has to neutralize Hamas and get its hostages back,” said Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, of Schara Tzedeck synagogue, an Orthodox congregation. However, according to the rabbi, Trudeau seemed to say that Canada is taking its cue on Rafah from the position of the U.S. government and the Biden administration.

“If the Americans think that Rafah is a bad idea, [I am] relying on them,” Rosenblatt quoted what Trudeau told them. 

Canada has already issued a formal statement on Rafah, back in February, together with New Zealand and Australia, calling on Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider any invasion of the southern Gaza stronghold. 

This wasn’t the first time since Oct. 7 that Trudeau met privately with Jewish leaders in Vancouver. During the prime minister’s swing through the city in December 2023, Trudeau’s office had arranged for him to attend a round-table discussion between local rabbis and members of the city’s Muslim community.

That meeting almost didn’t happen, Rabbi Moskovitz admitted, due to the anger in the Jewish community at the time over Canada’s vote at the UN in New York on Dec. 12 calling for a unilateral ceasefire. The meeting did go ahead two days later, but only on the condition that Trudeau would agree to explain Canada’s surprising vote, he said. 

As for this latest tete-a-tete with Trudeau, Rabbi Moskovitz said he felt the prime minister was genuinely sympathetic to the Jewish community’s concerns, even if political considerations must also be considered.

“Now more than ever, especially after this [Parliamentary] motion which I thought would embolden antisemites in Canada, the prime minister needed to act and to put an end to the violence and the threats of violence that we were seeing increasing every day,” he said.

“The PM often says the right thing, but his words have yet to match his deeds and we need law enforcement to do its job. We need to stop rewarding the bullies and we need him to lead on this.”