Ya’ara Saks is settling into Parliament Hill after a very virtual year

(Credit: @YaaraSaks)

Just days after she first rose to speak in the physical House of Commons, after a year on the electronic Liberal backbench, Ya’ara Saks was named to the job of parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

The appointment makes sense, as Saks, 48, has worked in the social services field in Toronto—specifically related to mental health and trauma—before she made the jump into politics and won a by-election in the York Centre riding in October 2020. She also ran a yoga business.

Saks, who replaced former Jewish MP Michael Levitt, will be working with Karina Gould, who happens to be the only Jewish cabinet minister in the new 44th Parliament. (Levitt stepped down from politics to head the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.)

“As we move forward for everyone, it’s essential that society reflects one that’s inclusive, with opportunity for all starting with our youngest Canadians and their families,” Saks posted on social media in a statement accompanied by photo of herself hugging her two daughters.

The appointment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came on the heels of Saks co-organizing the annual “Hanukkah on the Hill” menorah lighting ceremony with Jewish colleague Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Mount Royal.

After last year’s Hanukkah event, Saks received an antisemitic death threat. Clearly rattled, the new MP asked for extra security in her North York community. Subsequently, with a spike in incidents across country, and a deluge of anti-Israel rhetoric, Saks pushed the prime minister to convene a national emergency summit on antisemitism. It was held in July.

At the Dec. 1 holiday celebration, which they decided to hold in a hybrid fashion—partly in person but mostly by Zoom—Saks was encouraged when over 400 people, including political leaders from all parties, joined from around North America and even Australia.

“Hanukkah candles are the light that Judaism brings into the world when we are unafraid to announce our identity in public and to live by our values, our principles, and fight when necessary alongside our friends for our freedom,” Saks told the audience. “We cannot and should not have to do this alone—and it’s clear by tonight that we aren’t.”

First 100 days

As one of six Jewish Liberal MPs elected in September, Saks knows the eyes of the community are on the Trudeau government to keep its promises on combatting antisemitism, including online hate. The prime minister repeated his support for Canada’s Jewish community during his speech to the menorah-lighting event, which Saks organized. He pledged to make 2022 the year of a National Action Plan on the file.

“We made a very firm commitment that within the first 100 days [of the new Parliament] that we would address the online hate legislation and I’m really eager to get to work on that,” Saks said. “I don’t think this is a partisan issue, this is something that requires an all-House approach to addressing this because it affects so many of us, our constituents in our communities.”

She pointed to her efforts coming out of July’s emergency antisemitism summit for $340,000 in federal funding to go to Toronto’s UJA Federation to do a study on online hate.

“I am absolutey committed to this work,” she said.

Stance on the Middle East

Saks attended McGill University in Montreal and Hebrew University in Israel. She worked for a time in the Jerusalem mayor’s office. She’s proud of her involvement during that period in projects to improve relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

As someone who supports diversity, and inclusion and human rights, Saks felt it was important for Canada to provide $25 million in funding to the Palestinians in the aftermath of May’s hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

Most of the money went towards emergency relief in Gaza and the West Bank, including some to UNRWA, the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which has a history of employing personnel who espouse antisemitic views and teach problematic educational material.

Of the total, $5 million was to go to agencies which focus on peace building initiatives. Saks pointed out that she lobbied for this personally.

“We have to remind ourselves there are people behind all of this. There are human beings. There are Israelis whose homes have been bombed by rockets. And there are Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed as well. They live under a regime that doesn’t serve them,” Saks told The CJN in May.

“And we have to do our best as an international community not to abandon them, because if we do—and we only leave it to Hamas to support them—I shudder to think we’ll ever get anywhere forward.”

Bibles and mezuzah

Due to the pandemic, Saks was not able to physically go to Ottawa during the previous Parliament, and represented her constituents while virtually working from home.

After the opening of Parliament on Nov. 22, which she attended in person, Saks was excited to actually take possession of her office on the Hill.

For her second swearing-in ceremony, Saks brought her personal Jewish prayer book that she used as a student at Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto, and also one of her daughters’ bibles from Netivot HaTorah elementary school in Vaughan, Ont. The MP also planned to affix a mezuzah that one of her daughters had made to her Ottawa office door.

“I think that it’s really important that we emphasize that Judaism isn’t this kind of ‘out there’ thing, it’s very personal to each and every one of us in how we identify and how we shape our lives,” Saks told The CJN Daily.

“You know, whether it’s a Hanukkah party in the office or these personal touches, it’s not always about the Canadiana, it’s about really who we are and what we bring to Parliament as ourselves.”

Saks posed for photos in her office with a group of colleagues beside a large menorah, taken during another candle-lighting ceremony for the second day of Hanukkah.

Among them was newly minted Liberal MP Jenica Atwin—who used to be the Green Party MP from Fredericton, N.B. Atwin joined the Liberals this summer shortly after posting on social media that Israel was an apartheid state. Her posts also called on then Green leader Annamie Paul to take a tougher stance on Israel’s retaliation for rocket attacks.

(She later walked back some of her posts, pledging to learn more about the Middle East.)

LISTEN AND WATCH: The CJN Daily interviews with Melissa Lantsman and Ya’ara Saks