What do you do when your most strongly held beliefs come into conflict with your deepest loyalties?
Defending the free-speech rights of hatemonger and Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel both epitomized the career of Alan Borovoy, Canada’s best-known defender of civil rights, and confronted this very question. In a new memoir, Mr. Borovoy writes poignantly of his deep conflict with the Jewish community in this ultimate conflict between free speech and hate speech.
His roots in this community were deep. This was where Mr. Borovoy, famous as a human-rights champion after he became General Cousel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, first began to ply his trade as an activist. Having studied at the University of Toronto, he recounts, in his new memoir At the Barricades, his anger at the development of communism as a destructive force. It was during this time that political schisms most dominated the Canadian Jewish scene.
He recounts his verbal battles with young communists on campus while struggling in his own mind with the vehemence of the burgeoning McCarthyist anti-communist movement: “For me, the challenge had become how to achieve a responsible anti-Communism that avoided the pitfalls of the American hysteria.”
It was always this balance that Mr. Borovoy fought to attain. His skills were honed as an executive member of the Toronto Jewish Youth Council in 1951, the same year I was born. It’s not hard to understand the level of commitment he had to the community. Very often these issues – the struggle for civil liberties and the defence of the Jewish community -- were in consonance but when they parted ways Alan Borovoy, true to his principles, never faltered.
Mr. Borovoy recalls his time as editor of a Jewish university newspaper where, despite his opposition to communism, he advocated strongly in favour of a letter written by a communist sympathizer. The establishment came down on him like a ton of bricks but he held strong.
It was this stubborn adherence to civil-liberties values that would intersect his life in the next six decades. And his decision to support the free expression of hatemonger Ernst Zundel was perhaps his most profound test.
Mr. Borovoy was quick and sure in labeling this Holocaust denier a “repugnant individual” whose denial of the Jewish genocide provoked unbridled anger within Canadian Jewry. “The very repugnance of Ernst Zundel and his message effectively guaranteed that any CCLA effort to oppose legal censorship in this case would ignite a firestorm of controversy,” Mr. Borovoy writes. “And that of course is exactly what happened.”
Alan Borovoy carried on despite the fractures his position caused both personally and between the CCLA and the Canadian Jewish Congress (I was an executive in the CJC during this period). He still had a deep and abiding respect for the CJC, and in fact he continued to sit as a respected member of the CJC’s community-relations committee.
He lamented the hurt his position caused Holocaust survivors but found a way to put some balm on the pain. As recounts, Mr. Borovoy, as a guest on an open-line radio program, was confronted with a caller—none other than Ernst Zundel himself. Mr. Borovoy immediately seized the opportunity and announced on-air: “While I feel obliged to defend Mr. Zundel’s legal rights, I have no comparable obligation to treat him with respect.”
In the end, though, the scab that formed as a resultof Mr. Borovoy’s Zundel defence never fully healed. As his tenure continued with the CJC, Mr. Borovoy became, by his own admission, the “minority voice” of the organization.
Throughout all this, Mr. Borovoy was there to speak to us on issues of government privacy, the war on terrorism, racism and discrimination and free speech, and he always shone his light in the darkest of corners. His new book tells the story of a man of principle, who never compromised his principles, even under the most stressful of circumstances.
Bernie Farber, a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, writes on human and civil rights matters. He is currently senior vice-president of Gemini Power Corp.