Source: Toronto Star, 5-23-09
PHOTO FROM CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS CHARITIES COMMITTEE NATIONAL ARCHIVES Delegates at the first Canadian Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in March 1919. The umbrella organization will be celebrating its 90th anniversary next weekend.
Founded in 1919 with the intention of helping a persecuted minority, the Canadian Jewish Congress has monitored and fought discrimination across the country, including signs posted in the late 1930s that told Jews they were “not allowed” or “scram while the going is good.”
Critics say Canadian Jewish Congress has clout in top circles, but not in community. The outsiders are now the establishment.
Founded in 1919 as a place where a persecuted minority, barred from the halls of power, could find strength in collective action, the Canadian Jewish Congress has evolved over the years into the epitome of political power.
Its 90th anniversary celebration next weekend is evidence enough of that.
“We have a brand name that is the most significant ethnocultural organization in Canada,” boasts CJC chief executive Bernie Farber. “If you go outside and say, Canadian Jewish Congress, people know the name.”
The name certainly resonates in the halls of power.
In fact, not many groups can attract a political lineup like the CJC has for its 90th anniversary plenary and celebration May 31, including Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the NDP’s Jack Layton. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also expected to be there to collect a human rights award.
But can the CJC, as it approaches the 100-year mark, maintain its direct line to the most powerful people in the country?
Some, like historian Gerald Tulchinsky, are not so sure, saying the group is failing to resonate among increasing numbers of the Jewish community – particularly the young and those who question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“The Canadian Jewish community is much more divided than it was 60, 70 or 90 years ago,” says Tulchinsky, a professor at Queen’s University and author of several books on Jewish history in Canada.
But for the time being, few politicians would dare ignore an organization like the CJC, which Farber says has more clout in the halls of power than most minority groups even though it represents only 360,000 people across the country.
“We have come to a point in the 21st century where at least in the halls of government, and I think very much in the mainstream of Canadian life, we are viewed as part and parcel of Canadian polity,” Farber says.
That influence, Farber says, comes from a willingness to speak out on human rights issues affecting all minorities, not just the Jewish community.
The CJC, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations across Canada, also gets strength by being a forum for discussion within the Jewish community, where differences are hammered out so that a united Jewish voice can be presented.
“We can be a community of 360,000 opinions, but Congress is the table where all those opinions have been able to come together over 90 years,” Farber says.
In recent years, however, that table has proved too small for the disparate voices within the Jewish community – especially when it comes to Middle East politics, an issue on which the CJC tends to take a hard line.
“They seem to be spending more time in relation to Israel than in relation to anything else,” says Abraham Arnold, who has been active in the CJC for more than 50 years. Arnold, a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Jewish community and human rights work, laments what he sees as the evolution of the group from a messy grassroots organization to a “top-down” group that does not encourage the same level of debate he remembers from past, raucous plenary meetings.
While obviously gaining in influence in the halls of power by putting forward an increasingly strong and singular voice, Arnold says, such gains come at the cost of waning influence at the grassroots level and an increasingly tenuous connection to its roots. “They wanted to be more than a Zionist organization in 1919,” he says.
Toronto artist Reena Katz has noticed a similar shift, one that has thrown the 33-year-old into the middle of a controversy.
Two weeks ago, the Koffler Centre for the Arts, affiliated to the CJC as an agency of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, withdrew its association with Katz’s latest exhibit because of her association with Israeli Apartheid Week, an international movement opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“I’ve been blacklisted,” says Katz, who uses her art to explore historic Jewish culture in Toronto.
Her father, retired librarian Bernard Katz, says his daughter’s experiences are only the latest in a recent history of the CJC becoming more resistant to opposing voices.
Katz agrees with his daughter that the CJC “has become the establishment,” pointing out that its most prominent members are not activists and agitators, but business people and philanthropists.
Tulchinsky says that while the founding purpose of the CJC was to help Jews in other countries and Jewish immigrants to Canada, it has in recent years concentrated more and more on Mideast politics.
“Back in the old days, the congress had a very, very strong concern for alleviating the distress of Jews in Eastern Europe,” he says. “Now, their focus is very heavily on Israel, where Jews who are under distress are to go.”