Q-and-A with Justin Trudeau: standing against anti-Semitism – past and present

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Presidencia de la República Mexicana/CC BY 2.0)

Justin Trudeau has been Canada’s prime minister since 2015. Last May, he announced that Canada would apologize for refusing entry to the MS St. Louis, a ship that was carrying mostly Jewish refugees who were fleeing Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Of the more than 900 passengers, 254 perished in the Holocaust.

Trudeau’s apology is scheduled to take place in the House of Commons on Nov. 7. Jewish communal leaders and several survivors of the famed ship, including Ana Maria Gordon, the sole survivor who resides in Canada, will be in attendance.

The CJN interviewed Trudeau on Nov. 5.

Why did you feel that the time is right for Canada to apologize for the St. Louis?

The time would have always been right. Recognizing terrible mistakes of the past is something we need to do, to make sure that we’re taking responsibility for the very real hurt and pain these wrong decisions caused in the past, but also acknowledging and highlighting the lessons we need to learn from mistakes made in the past. Recognizing the consequences of refusing admission to passengers of the St. Louis, combined with recognizing the terrible anti-Semitism as evidenced by the “none is too many” policy of those years, is something that, unfortunately, is just as necessary and current today as it has ever been. The timing, coming on the heels of the terrible attack against Jews in Pittsburgh, means that it is a very real and very current thing to be discussing and leading reflection on.

The tragedy in Pittsburgh must have altered your apology. Apart from condemning anti-Semitism, will you be announcing any new policies to combat anti-Semitism?

Certainly, we couldn’t talk about the St. Louis and the lessons it taught us without putting it in a very tragic and current context. Having such a terrible, tragic event just south of the border in a synagogue is a reminder to everyone that violence against Jews is present and that Jews are more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other group.

It’s obvious the community’s feeling very vulnerable and worried. I think this is a moment to highlight that we heard and share their worries – a moment to also make sure that everyone understands that we’re not just talking about ancient history, we’re talking about something that, unfortunately, is still in the headlines today through terrible acts of violence – and that we have to be engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism in a very current and contemporary way, just as much as we ever have.

The Pittsburgh massacre showed how anti-Semitism is flourishing, especially online. Is there a role for government to play when it comes to online hatred and incitement?

We obviously have to come to terms with the realities of new technology and the license it gives people to find a forum for terrible and unacceptable things. But I think we also have to reflect on the bigger picture – on the kinds of polarization, the kind of intolerance that we’re seeing.

The fact that there have been acts of violence against multiple groups over the past years, in which, invariably, the Jewish community was among the first communities to step up and say, “This is wrong; we stand with our brothers and sisters of different faiths,” is really a reminder of how aware and deeply thoughtful and sensitive the Jewish community is to acts of intolerance. And I think it needs to lead to a larger reflection in society on how we accept intolerance, or how we accept hate – and how we should not be accepting either one of those.

Our community has appealed to the minister responsible for an increase in funding to the Security Infrastructure Program, to help houses of worship (and community buildings) defray the costs of armed guards or paid-duty police officers. Is that something you will consider in the coming weeks and months, as fears linger from the Pittsburgh shooting?

Yes, obviously, we’re working with the Jewish community. We doubled the funding for the Security Infrastructure Program in last year’s budget, with an additional $5 million over five years, and we’ll, of course, work with the Jewish community to respond, to listen to their suggestions and concerns about how we can do more. It will be very important that we make sure people feel safe in their communities and houses of worship.

But at the same time, you can’t only be reactive and protective that way. We have to look at a society in which hate is becoming more acceptable in certain quarters and intolerance is running rampant in many ways in certain areas – particularly online. We have to think about how we need to be defensive, but also how we need to reach out and counter some of the terrible rhetoric of division that is out there towards the Jewish community and also towards other communities.

Our readers have expressed concern over your government’s continued funding of UNRWA, the UN agency concerned with Palestinian refugees. The Liberals speak of many safeguards against the theft and diversion of those funds. What can you say to assure Canadian Jews that taxpayer dollars are not going to fund terrorism?

One of the things we have done is ensure that there’s more money for oversight, more money to ensure that money going to education and support of UNRWA is going to the right places. If you could imagine a world in which there was no money for UNRWA, where would the funding come from? It would be obvious that it would come from sources with less and less oversight. By being part of the machinery of funding of UNRWA, we are able to make sure that there’s an accountability, a transparency and a positive benefit, not just for Palestinians, but for stability in the region, which is something Canada will always support.

Under what circumstances would your government consider moving Canada’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem?

In the circumstance that there’s a two-state solution worked out between Israel and Palestinians that is agreed to and stabilized. This is not a decision that can be made unilaterally by third parties, or even by one of the two parties. We need a two-state solution that is worked on by both parties to secure peaceful, democratic states on both sides.

There has been chatter that Canada’s support for Israel might have cost this country a seat on the UN Security Council. Do you feel that’s still a sticking point?

It’s not even a reflection I have. We will always stand up in defence of Israel. We will always stand up in defence of human rights and values, and I think people need to know that if they’re voting for Canada to get a seat on the Security Council, they are voting for a country that will unequivocally stand in defence of democratic values, human rights and of our friends, including Israel.

Is there anything you would like to say to our readers?

Just how much I have been deeply affected by the terrible tragedy of the massacre in Pittsburgh at the synagogue and how much I am looking forward to a moment of bringing Canadians together to reflect on anti-Semitism this week in its historic facets, but also in the path forward and the work we have to do together. I know what might have been a solemn but positive moment of recognition of past errors has become a moment that will be tinged with sadness, given that we have such a recent example of the continued impacts of anti-Semitism. But it is going to be a really important time for us as a country to come together and reflect deeply on these difficult issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity. For more in our St. Louis apology series, please click here.