Irwin Cotler, who advocated for Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, awarded Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor

Irwin Cotler, recipient of the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor, greets Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Sept. 6, 2023. [Credit: Eliyahu Freedman]

Irwin Cotler, the former minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, was awarded Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor, Sept. 6 at Beit Hanassi, the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. 

“It is a reflection for me of the cases and causes that I have the privilege of being involved with,” Cotler said in an interview with The CJN, as he sat on the President’s lawn, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. “To the extent that [my prize] highlights these cases it is a good thing” he said, adding that “the struggle [for justice] is not over.”

Among those present at the award ceremony was his daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former MK with the Blue and White party.  

“I am feeling delighted at the recognition of my father for his tremendous work advancing human rights and doing so while making it very clear that it is synonymous with upholding the right of the State of Israel” she said.

The ceremony was hosted by President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal, who awarded prizes to 13 people who were selected for having made “an extraordinary contribution to the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and all humanity.”

Presidential medals, Israel’s highest civilian honour comparable to the Order of Canada, were an initiative of former president Shimon Peres. Other honorees included beloved musician Chava Alberstein and Moroccan statesman André Azoulay. 

“You have been privileged to do good, to bring about change, and to make a dramatic contribution to the State of Israel, to the Jewish people, for all humanity” Herzog said in his opening remarks to the ceremony, which was broadcast live on Israeli television.

“Thank you, dear recipients, not only for your wonderful contribution, but also for the ray of light that you represent in these difficult days, when polarization and division are so prevalent,” concluded the Israeli president, who is currently trying to broker a new round of negotiations between the Netanyahu-led coalition and opposition parties over proposed judicial reforms. 

Cotler made sure to credit others for his lifelong pursuit of justice, beginning with his late parents and Elie Wiesel, in a short video screened at the awards ceremony. “It begins with my first teachers, my parents of blessed memory. My father would speak to me as he put it “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” or ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’ is equal to all the other commandments combined. This, he said, must be your moral compass. This you must teach to your children.”

These words were etched onto the framed certificate signed by the president, which was presented alongside the medal.

Cotler added that “it was my mother who when hearing my father saying this would say if you want to preserve justice, then you have to understand, you have to feel the injustice around you in and about your community and combat the injustice… Otherwise the pursuit of justice is a theoretical abstraction.”

Cotler, 83, emeritus law professor at McGill University, was appointed Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism in 2020. He also heads the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which he founded in Montreal. His life’s work was the subject of a recent documentary film, called First to Stand

Two social justice campaigns most defined his career as an advocate: the successful struggle to free Soviet Jewry and release Natan Sharansky from prison, and the battle to end South African apartheid and liberate Nelson Mandela. 

Cotler used the opportunity upon winning the prize to advocate for a current political prisoner he seeks to assist.

“As I am speaking to you, a few days ago Vladimir Kara-Murza who is the embodiment for human rights and democracy in Russia today… was arrested and detained and charged with treason and sentenced for 25 years in prison. For what? For telling the truth. And he is a looking glass into both domestic repression in Russia and external aggression in Ukraine. We need to come to his support and advocate on his behalf—he recently became Canada’s honorary citizen after two houses of Parliament unanimously adopted and supported him.

“We need to advocate so that he is released from prison so that the causes for which he fought can be the causes around which we continue to fight.”