It’s time to bring back Canadian Jewish Congress

Members of the Canadian Jewish Congress met on the stage of
Members of the Canadian Jewish Congress met on the stage of "His Majesty's Theatre" on Guy Street in Montreal on June 20, 1946. The Israeli flag and a flag with the Canadian Coat of Arms are suspended from the ceiling. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

In the recent federal election, we witnessed the continuation of a trend that has been apparent within Canada’s Jewish community for the past several years: division between the left and the right.

Division isn’t a bad thing when it is accompanied by meaningful and respectful dialogue. The problem today is that our community is in the midst of a dialogue of the deaf. There is very little overlap between the policy priorities, general worldviews and public pronouncements of the Canadian Jewish left and right.

Our community is in need of a political institution that can unite Jewish Canadians from across the spectrum. Instead of polarization and cacophony, we need a vehicle that truly reflects our community’s diversity. That is why we are calling for the re-establishment of an elected Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

For most of its history, the CJC was a truly democratic and representative organization. Just like Canada itself, the organization was a parliamentary democracy formed of several regional components. Each region was allocated a certain number of representatives based on the size of their local Jewish population.

Every three years, elections would be held, in which every member of the Jewish community – above the age of 18 and in good standing with their local United Jewish Appeal – would vote for their representatives on the CJC executive. The executive was, in effect, the Canadian Jewish community’s parliament.

In its heyday, the executive boasted nearly 160 individuals. On a triennial cycle, it would meet in a plenary session to vote for the CJC’s officers, which included a president, a chair and sitting representative officers of each region. This smaller group of officers ran the day-to-day affairs of the CJC, while ultimately remaining accountable to the executive.

Later on in its history, after the CJC was incorporated into the umbrella organization that would eventually become known as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), its democratic component largely faded away. This was an unfortunate development, as it gave grounds for many to criticize the organization as being too focused on progressive causes and not enough on Israel- and Jewish-specific issues.

Similarly, many progressive and centrist Jews believe today that their community’s leading advocacy organizations are too Israel-centric and thus unrepresentative of the political diversity of Canadian Jewry. This is why the re-establishment of an elected, democratic CJC is so important. We need to build a Jewish community in which all feel welcome.

If we fail to bring our community’s present-day polarization to an end, there could be significant long-term consequences. Growing numbers of Jewish Canadians will feel increasingly alienated from their community’s leadership and institutions, an alienation they may pass on to the next generation. Some may end up feeling the divide so strongly that they will fail to give their children a Jewish education.

In much of the Diaspora, preserving and nourishing Jewish identity is one of our community’s paramount and most difficult challenges. Community is one of the bedrocks of Jewish life. We cannot let our personal ideological preferences get in the way of building a Canadian Jewish community that will remain strong, welcoming and forward-looking over the long term.

Do not misunderstand our position: the work that CIJA does on Israel-related and other issues is professional, important and needs to continue. The connection between Canadian Jewry and Israel is strong, and we need an organization that will help to ensure that the Canada-Israel friendship remains a durable one.

But ultimately, for the sake of the long-term health of the Canadian Jewish community, we need to establish an advocacy organization that is democratic, multi-faceted and representative of our community’s many voices and passions. Our community can band together to tackle domestic and international issues, in accordance with both spiritual and secular values. Our love for Israel and our devotion to other causes need not be mutually exclusive.

The choice with which our community is presented is clear. If both left-leaning and right-leaning Jewish Canadians continue to place ideology over unity, then public perception of our community will worsen, and the pillars that support it will weaken. We need to recognize and embrace our community’s diversity of opinion, and channel that diversity into something rich and positive with the help of a truly representative institution.

We need to bring back an elected, democratic Canadian Jewish Congress. 

Zach Paikin is a columnist for The Hill Times. James Gutman is a Jewish educator and community organizer.