Brian Mulroney (1939-2024) was a steadfast supporter of Israel and the Jewish community

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney receiving the Theodor Herzl Award from the World Jewish Congress in November 2023. (Credit: World Jewish Congress)

Brian Mulroney experienced the political extremes. Elected with a healthy mandate in 1984, he became one of the most unpopular prime ministers in history. But those reading his recent obituaries must have concluded that history has been kind, for Mulroney is now recalled as a committed leader wholly dedicated to Canada and as an international statesman whose voice was heard and heeded.

One thing that has gone unchanged over the decades is the view that Mulroney was completely supportive of Israel and of Canada’s Jewish community, and that his support was sincere, not just for political reasons.

His attitude was based “on the belief that the Jews, having suffered horribly over generations, have found a permanent home in a tangible defined Israel, and that they alone must make value judgments in respect of their national security,” he wrote in his 1,000-page memoirs, released in 2007.

Support for Israel must “rest upon a moral foundation,” he reasoned in a 1983 speech.

When Mulroney announced he was stepping down as Conservative leader in the spring of 1993 amid record-low standing in the polls, he was nevertheless hailed as a prime minister who should be “fondly remembered,” then Canadian Jewish Congress president Irving Abella stated.

“He understood the needs of our community. He was very sensitive to them and he had a visceral attachment to Israel,” Abella noted. “On more than one occasion, he called Jewish leaders to offer encouragement. We’ve lost a good friend.”

Mulroney’s sensitivities to Jewish concerns extended to the presence in Canada of Nazi-era war criminals, an issue that seemed to embarrass him personally. Even as Opposition leader in 1983, he assured CJC that as prime minister, he would pursue the file.

“I took it with a large grain of salt,” said former CJC president Milton Harris in 1993, by then chair of Congress’s war crimes committee. “But he delivered.”

Indeed, barely five months into his first term, Mulroney established the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry to investigate claims that Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals, some of whom were still living freely in the country.

In his memoirs, Mulroney related that he received “a huge amount of abuse” for his decision from Tory supporters whose origins were eastern European. Fiercely anti-communist, these voters were furious that the Deschenes Commission would accept evidence from Soviet sources.

“While I was sympathetic,” Mulroney wrote, “I allowed the commission to continue for one important reason: to me, the idea of a people who had participated in the extermination of Jews living in my country was odious and unacceptable. They had to be exposed, and then they had to be expelled from Canada.”

His predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, opted not to pursue Nazi war criminals in Canada in favour of “social tranquility rather than simple justice.”

The commission delivered its report after almost two years of hearings. While it netted no convictions, it exposed the issue and proved that Nazis and their collaborators—as many as 3,000 of them—had made their way to Canada after the Second World War. It was Canada’s dirty little secret, in the words of one communal leader.

On Israel and Mideast policy, Mulroney had no problem flexing some muscle, clashing openly with his external affairs minister, former prime minister Joe Clark.

In the early days of the first intifada in Israel, Clark’s department conveyed Ottawa’s disapproval of Israel’s handling of the uprising to Israel’s ambassador in Ottawa. But Mulroney, clearly bristling, said Israel was using “restraint” and that it was the prime minister “who states the policy” of Canada.

Mulroney was blunt about his differences with Clark: “I was pro-Israel and he tended to take a pro-Arab position while at External Affairs.” Almost always, Mulroney prevailed.

For example, Clark, in 1991, said the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) should take part in post-Gulf War peace talks. But Mulroney tacked opposite, calling the PLO “substantially if not completely discredited.” Ottawa’s enthusiasm for the PLO’s leadership was “zero.”

Refreshingly, Mulroney didn’t mince words about then PLO leader Yasser Arafat. In his memoirs, he recounted a reception in 1990 in Moscow, where he spied Arafat walking his way. “I had no desire to meet the terrorist leader, although a meeting was clearly what he intended,” Mulroney flatly recounted. He never did meet with Arafat in his time as prime minister. “I was sensitive to his people’s rights and to the need for justice and fairness in all my dealings on the Middle East, but to me, he was still a terrorist.”

That view had not changed. As Opposition leader, Mulroney so opposed an address in Parliament by the PLO’s United Nations representative that he summoned the Israeli ambassador to Canada from his sickbed to issue joint denunciations.

It was also on Mulroney’s watch that Canada and Israel established the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Fund, a multi-million-dollar joint venture to expand R&D in high technology.

Even Mulroney’s well-known opposition to apartheid in South Africa hinged on his support for Jews and Israel. “I viewed apartheid with the same degree of disgust I attached to the Nazis – the authors of the most odious offence in modern history,” he stated. “My strong and unswerving support of Israel and the Jewish community in Canada was based on this view. In both those areas, I was resolved from the moment I became prime minister that any government I headed would speak and act in the finest traditions of Canada.”

Israel took notice of Mulroney. Shimon Peres, then Israeli prime minister, thanked his Canadian counterpart for stopping an anti-Israel motion at a meeting of the Francophonie Summit. Mulroney assured him that he would do it again, and encouraged Israel to reach out to moderate states.

Yitzhak Rabin, another former Israeli prime minister, commended Mulroney for defending Israel in a meeting the Canadian PM had with then U.S. president Bill Clinton. (Mulroney was the first foreign leader to meet Clinton and let the president know of his disapproval “when people start to lecture” Israel.)

During the first Gulf War, when Israel was hit with Iraqi missiles, Yitzhak Shamir, then the Israeli leader, also lauded Mulroney for Canada’s support. “It is good to feel that across the oceans, Israel has friends like you and the people of Canada.”

Mulroney was also comfortable in appointing Jews to his cabinet and high positions. Three came in quick succession: Stanley Hartt, Hugh Segal and Norman Spector all served as his chief of staff. Spector was later named Canada’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, “smashing the odious myth of dual loyalties that had prevented Jews from serving in that position for 40 years,” Mulroney would recall.

Sen. David Croll, who had been elected to Parliament in 1945, never made cabinet “for no apparent reason other than he was a Jew,” as Mulroney accurately put it, was elevated to the Privy Council on his 90th birthday.

The CJN spoke to Mulroney once for a 2019 obituary on Erminie Cohen, a Jewish activist on women’s issues, adoption and poverty from New Brunswick who the former prime minister had appointed to the Senate (Mulroney named two other Jewish senators in his time in office: Mira Spivak and Ron Ghitter).

Among the reasons Mulroney cited for Cohen’s naming to the upper chamber was that he was “determined to appoint leaders of the Jewish community (from) sometimes out-of-the-way places, not to focus on Toronto and Montreal.” Cohen “certainly struck me as someone who had made a major contribution in the Jewish community in the Maritimes and particularly in New Brunswick.”

As late as last November, Mulroney was honoured in New York with the World Jewish Congress Theodor Herzl Award. Antisemitism, he rued, would not be stamped out in his lifetime, nor in that of his children’s, but he urged those in attendance “to keep the faith in the trying days to come.”

All not too shabby for someone who never encountered Jews until he left his native Baie-Comeau, Que. for law school in 1960. There, he encountered two Jewish classmates, Michael Kastner and Israel (Sonny) Moss. He remained friends with both.