Justin Trudeau met privately with Jewish leaders in Toronto this week—but these rabbis left dissatisfied

Prime Minister Trudeau meets Jewish leaders
On Jan. 10, 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with 30 Jewish leaders in Toronto to discuss Canada's stance on Israel, domestic antisemitism and their voting record at the United Nations. (PMO photo)

For the first time since Oct. 7, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several Liberal Members of Parliament met with a large group of Canadian Jewish leaders in Toronto on Jan. 10 at Beth Tzedec synagogue. While the prime minister’s office and community guests had to keep the details secret ahead of time for security reasons, The CJN has learned what was discussed.

The group pressed the prime minister on what Canada’s position will be vis-a-vis the International Court of Justice hearings, beginning today, on genocide charges against Israel. Trudeau’s meeting in Toronto also came a month after Canada voted for a UN motion calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas—a policy change that has angered many Jewish Canadians, who see it as a betrayal of Canada’s longstanding support for Israel. The prime minister also discussed how the Jewish community is coping with the explosion of antisemitic public discourse, a surge in hate crimes and anti-Zionist protests.

Trudeau later released a statement on social media saying he listened to the community’s “pain and anger and grief,” and that he remains focused on combating antisemitism and keeping Canadian Jews safe. He also described his commitment to Canadian Jews, and also to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state as “unwavering”.

While the meeting was closed to the public and off the record, we at The CJN Daily spoke to several guests who were there—and who say the meeting didn’t make them feel better. On today’s episode, you’ll hear from host rabbis Steven Wernick and Robyn Fryer Bodzin, both from Beth Tzedec, and from audience member Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto congregation.

What we talked about:

  • Read the Prime Minister’s comments about his private meeting with Jewish leaders in Toronto, and see photos of who was there, on his X account.
  • How Canadian Jewish leaders were upset about Canada’s UN vote for a cease fire, in The CJN.
  • Hear Israel’s special envoy to combat antisemitism scold Canada for abstaining on a UN vote in support of Hamas, on The CJN Daily.

Transcript:

Ellin Bessner

We don’t have any sound of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s private meeting Wednesday with 30 Jewish community leaders in Toronto to start off today’s episode with, unfortunately, because the meeting was off the record and was closed to the public.

The PMO says there is no transcript being released of what was said and no recording either.

The meeting is significant though because it was the first of its kind since October 7th with such a large group who had the Prime Minister’s ear for an entire hour.

Many Canadian Jewish leaders feel disappointed in Canada’s recent stance on Israel since the Hamas attack on Israel and the Jewish state’s subsequent declaration of war.

They say it’s changed in the past three months from unwavering support to, in November, Trudeau asking Israel’s Prime Minister to act with “maximum restraint” in Gaza.

And then in December, Canada’s UN vote calling for a cease fire, which has been seen by many as a betrayal of Canada’s long-standing relationship with Israel.

Wednesday’s meeting also came on the eve of an International Court of Justice trial in The Hague where Israel is being accused by South Africa of genocide against the Palestinians. Canada hasn’t yet issued a position on this despite two prominent Canadian legal scholars describing the whole hearing as absurd.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin:

I can say that very few us we went up to there and say, ‘Yay, let’s take a selfie! Like no, none of us felt better walking out than we did walking in and we still pretty feel uncomfortable.

We just heard words, we did not hear actions.

Ellin Bessner:

I’m Ellin Bessner and this is what Jewish Canada sounds like for Thursday, January the 11th 2024. Welcome to the CJ N Daily, a podcast of The Canadian Jewish News sponsored by Metropia.

Although the Prime Minister’s office official itinerary did show he was holding a meeting with local Jewish community members at a synagogue Wednesday in Toronto, they didn’t publish the location or even the time, on purpose, for security reasons. And everyone who attended was sworn to secrecy, too.

Indeed, the only reason we learned that it happened and where, was because later in the afternoon, long after Trudeau had left the building and met with Toronto’s chief of police, The prime minister himself posted photos of him shaking hands with a rabbi and hugging other Jewish leaders at Beth Tzdex synagogue where according to reports, he also spent an hour sitting down for a frank fireside chat and a question and answer session led by Rabbi Stephen Wernick in the daily chapel.

So what happened?

Rabbi Wernick says he recited a traditional blessing for the head of government and even joked about that movie, Fiddler on the Roof scene where they have a special blessing for the Czar to keep the tsar far away from them.

But then things got serious.Wernick told me they asked the Prime Minister to do more about the spike of anti-semitism including the blockade every weekend of a Jewish neighbourhood at Avenue Road and the 401. And they criticized what Wernick called Canada’s “absurd silence on the genocide question” because he says, not saying anything when Israel is accused of genocide will lead to violence against Jews or worse here on Canadian streets.

Now Wernick was traveling last night, so I only spoke to him by phone but he and his colleague, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin did meet with Trudeau alone for 15 minutes before the general session.

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin joins me now from Toronto.

So now are you allowed to discuss what happened how this all happened?

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin: Yeah.

It was an off the record conversation.

Rabbi Wernick and myself have been working on creating relationships with pro-Israel MPs in the Liberal government.

And so a few things happened behind the scene that I can’t share.

And a meeting was set up with about 30 community members, a number of elected officials who are tremendous friends to the Jewish community, not all Jewish themselves.

The first meeting that took place was myself and Rabbi Wernick and the Prime Minister. We spoke about our dissatisfaction, we spoke about the feeling of abandonment.

We spoke about hearing of people wanting to take off Mezuzahs.

We spoke about having even our people living by Avenue Road and 401. How that’s impacting their lives.

I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of people in that community banded together and they have their own extra personal security going around the neighbourhood now that they’re paying for, out of their own pockets.

And you know, we spoke about what’s going to happen at the I CJ.

He spoke positively.

Ellin: For our listeners, the International Court of Justice, which is meeting Thursday and Friday in The Hague because South Africa took Israel to the court complaining that Israel is doing genocide.

Fryer Bodzin:

We spoke about the hostages and we also spoke about retired justice Rosalie Abella’s fantastic piece in the newspaper, she’s a member of our community as well. And he also believed that it was fantastic.

That was about 15 minutes.

And then there was the larger meeting. There were questions from Rabbi Wernick that the Prime Minister answered.

And then there were questions from the floor that were about the hostages, were about antisemitism, were about Hamas, were about ceasefire, were about when you cease fire.

Ellin Bessner: You mean that the government’s called for a cease fire, which is something that the Jewish community is opposed to. Yeah, a lot of the Jewish community is opposed to.

Fryer Bodzin:

Right.

So again, because it was off the record, I can’t share what the issues were that we discussed. His understanding of the day that Canada voted for cease fire at the UN was a whole lot different than most of the people in the room.

Some of you might recall that earlier in the day, there was a long statement put out by Canada and Australia and New Zealand. He explained it. Ellin, you can maybe explain this better for your listeners that that was basically the Rashi to the UN vote.

Ellin Bessner: That was basically like, so the commentary, all the rest is in the Rashi, all the rest is in the details, right?

Do we know what Canada’s (position) is going to be on this International Court of Justice? So far we haven’t heard a word.

Fryer Bodzin:

He said that Canada will not share their own words but will write something together with G7 with the rest of the G7 leaders.

I personally find that dissatisfactory. Never assume, but there were others in the room who found that to be dissatisfactory as well.

Ellin Bessner

Did he talk about UNRWA? Was UNRWA brought up? Canadian funding

Fryer Bodzin:

Canadian funding the UNRWA was brought up. Bringing in immigrants was brought up.

Ellin Bessner: From Gaza as opposed to Israelis.

Fryer Bodzin:

Yeah, his response both to us in a smaller meeting and in the larger meeting, one of his responses was, ‘it’s not just Palestinians from Gaza who are antisemitic, that this is a larger problem’.

Ellin Bessner:

But the people who are worried about this. That they’re gonna allow terrorists to come in, too.

That’s actually newsworthy that Canada is not taking its own position on the International Court of Justice.

Fryer Bodzin

We also commented to him that last week when he tweeted at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, that’s not making a statement, you know? Today during the day, he showed pictures that no one who was in attendance showed because we, you know, today he showed it right away of our meetings today, he posted right away about his meeting with Toronto Police chief Myron Denkiew who I know is a definite friend of the Jewish community.

But when he wants to say something, that would have a larger impact that might be controversial, 4:30 on a Friday afternoon is not the time to do it if you want the Jewish community to feel that they are protected and cared about in Canada, a multicultural country right back to the meetings.

Ellin Bessner:

So there were 30 community leaders. Were there any people from the Rabbinical Council of Toronto?

Fryer Bodzin:

There were Orthodox rabbis, Conservative rabbis, Reconstructionist rabbis and Reform rabbis.

Ellin Bessner:

So nobody from the Va’ad was there.  And Jewish leaders,–was anyone yelling at him or very upset? Was there any controversy?

Fryer Bodzin:

One person was very emotional when that person spoke. And that is the person that if you saw Trudeau’s post, that he’s hugging a person:  that is that person.

Ellin Bessner:

And what was so emotional?

What were they talking about.

Fryer Bodzin:

Their personal experience of antisemitism or being Jewish in Toronto right now.

Ellin Bessner: OK. So what’s next? What happens next?

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin:

That is the best question. What’s next is we, all the entire Jewish community, needs to continue to advocate and to engage in high level advocacy on our behalf for our community here and for the State of Israel.

Both Rabbi Wernick and myself believe it is important to get involved at the grassroots level and at the leadership level. And as the rabbis of that side of congregation, we know it was a privilege to hold this meeting in our community in the largest congregation.

I just wished I would have spent the rest of the day on more of a high.

Ellin Bessner:

Conservative rabbis Wernick and Fryer Bodzin have met the Prime Minister before in Ottawa a few times.

It was the first time Rabbi Daniel Korobkin had met the PM.

Korobkin is spiritual leader of the orthodox synagogue known as the BAYT in Thornhill.

And the Prime Minister’s office released a photo of the two of them shaking hands. Korobkin joins me now.

So I literally was on the phone today with the Prime Minister’s office saying, ‘When can we get an interview?” and they go ‘Oh next time he’s in Toronto.” And then I see his posting and I was like, really, really?

So I feel like I have to do catch up. Can you tell us how this all came about?

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin:

Well, I got a call from Rabbi Steven Wernick and he said that this is extremely confidential and that the Prime Minister was not sure whether he wanted the public to even know that he was meeting with the Jewish community. 

But that he felt that it was important to meet and this was initiated by the Prime Minister’s office.

And Rabbi Wernick was able to get representatives from CIJA from UJA and you know, from some rabbis in the community and we sat with the Prime Minister in the Beit Midrash at Beth Tzedec this morning.

What I don’t feel I can share with you, I think you’d have to really speak with Rabbi Wernick and find out from him.  He did tell us that the Prime Minister did not want to be quoted. Everything was off the record.

But what I can tell you and I do so with some level of hesitation because I don’t want anything to be seen by the Prime Minister’s Office as being in affront, because I think that right now the Jewish community needs as many friends as we can get, even if we’re not always happy with the friends that we make, because we wish that they would do more.

But we still need to maintain friendships, especially with the number one person in government right now, which is the Prime Minister.

But I do feel that there was an air of caution and disappointment and hurt coming into the meeting and I don’t believe that much of that dissipated by the end of the meeting. In other words, I think that, well, most people I think appreciated the gesture. There wasn’t really much of substance that resulted from it other than expressions of sympathy, understanding and a desire to remain connected to us as the Jewish community.

And a repeated refrain that Canada stands with Israel.

Ellin Bessner: 

There was a nice picture that his office released of you shaking hands with him.

Korobkin:

Yeah. Yes. No one asked permission of [me] for that picture.

But the truth of the matter is that, you know, as the leader of our country–a country to which Jews have to express loyalty to, every single Shabbat: we say a prayer for the King and for the Prime Minister. And we ask God to grant them wisdom and the proper jurisprudence and ability to lead the country.

And I felt that as the Prime Minister of our country, to which I have tremendous gratitude that he deserved the respect.

And that, and that was the reason why I went over to him and shook his hand and I said, ‘Thank you for engaging with us’.

Ellin Bessner: 

Hey, could you say what you asked?

Korobkin: I did not ask anything myself.

I had planned to ask a question, but I there were too many people asking questions. I can tell you what I would have asked.

I had already formulated the question in my mind, which is that over the last four years–and I think The CJN reported on this–the Canadian government has funded UNRWA to the tune of close to $100 million and just recently added another #3 million over the summer for its emergency campaign.

And there’s clear evidence that UNRWA has colluded in the past with Hamas, continues to collude wherever our soldiers have gone they’ve discovered evidence of UN on wrappers, insignias on ammunition, on bombs and the like. We know that there was a teacher for an URWA school that was clearly collaborating with Hamas.

If I had had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister a question, I would have asked him does Canada plan on continuing its support for UNWRA in light of all of this evidence. Unfortunately, that question was not asked at this session.

Ellin Bessner: 

Yeah, that’s the question I’m hoping to ask if I ever get a chance to speak to him, too.

How surprised were you that this gesture was coming now, on the eve of the International Court of Justice hearings and Canada’s taking a position on that, or not?

Korobkin:

Yeah. Yeah. I’m not sure, you know, why this was timed. What comes across to me–and this is just my impression, it’s the impression of one human being–is that everything that the Prime Minister does is with extreme calculus for political expediency.

And so, I would imagine that this was no exception.

Ellin Bessner:

Hey, this is the first time you’ve personally met him this since October 7th or ever?

Korobkin:

I think it’s the first time I’ve actually ever met him.

I will tell you that, based on what I had seen of him in the past, I was not impressed with his intellect but seeing him in action, I actually felt that I had not given him enough credit.

He is a smart man.

But he’s also very calculated.

Ellin Bessner: 

Did anybody get heated?

Korobkin: 

There was one speaker who was very emotional and I think she expressed her passion appropriately. I think everyone was, you know, I’m an American originally, so I’m always scared that I’m going to be the hothead in the audience.

I was very impressed by how everyone kept their composure and was extremely respectful even when expressing disapproval.

And we just have to continue supporting the State of Israel knowing that we are in the right, knowing that we do have friends who are supportive of us and even politicians who will sometimes be supportive of Israel, even at their own political expense.

We have to be appreciative of those politicians and we also have to make sure that we don’t cower in fear and that we step out boldly and do what’s right regardless of the consequences.

Music

Ellin Bessner: 

And that’s what Jewish Canada sounds like for this episode of the CJN Daily, sponsored by Metropia. Integrity Community Quality and Customer Care.

One more fact about the private meeting with Trudeau: he did get a gift while he was there. The synagogue gave him a pair of socks to add to his famous collection of men’s hosiery.

These socks depict the Zionist movement’s founder, Theodore Herzl playing hockey.

The socks come from our CJN Treasure Trove contributor David Matlow’s collection.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the Canadian government’s position.

Write to us at [email protected]. And, we will be following the International Court of Justice hearings on Israel and genocide.

Stay tuned for a special episode on that next week.

Thanks for listening to The CJN Daily.

Credits:

The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here. Hear why The CJN is important to me.