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Former prime minister Brian Mulroney speaks during an interview in Montreal, on Oct. 25, 2022.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney delivered a passionate rebuke to antisemitism Thursday, saying hatred of Jews must be confronted by governments and citizens, to stamp out what he called “this noxious social cancer.”

Speaking to the World Jewish Congress in New York, Mr. Mulroney said people should be able to criticize Israel strongly and defend the right of Palestinians to a viable homeland without being called antisemitic.

But he warned antisemitism has been on the rise, especially in the midst of Israel’s war with the militant group Hamas, and is being fuelled by people who use Israel as way to spread hate against all Jews.

“Contemporary antisemitism has added the state of Israel to its list of targets. Israel has become the new Jew,” he said. “Stripped of its intellectual pretensions, of the cloak of human rights, these ritual denunciations of Israel with which we have become all too familiar are a pernicious form of racism.”

He denounced Hamas for its “murderous rampage” against Israelis on Oct. 7, and for putting the lives of the Gaza Strip’s two million Palestinians in mortal danger in “a deliberate, nihilistic attempt to set the Middle East on fire.”

“Hamas is using them to pay the price while they scurry about safely in tunnels, demonstrating to the world that they care no more for the lives of Palestinians than for the Jews they slaughtered,” he said.

The World Jewish Congress honoured Mr. Mulroney with the Theodor Herzl Award, making him the only Canadian prime minister to receive the accolade. U.S. President Joe Biden, former president Ronald Reagan and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger are among the many past recipients of the award, which commemorates Mr. Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist and political activist who was the father of modern political Zionism.

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Brian Mulroney with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder in New York on November 9.Shahar Azran/World Jewish Congress

In his speech, Mr. Mulroney said a worldwide rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions is a testament to deeply rooted antisemitism, which he said has resurfaced more than 80 years after the Holocaust killed two of out of every three European Jews. After that mass murder, he continued, firewalls were thrown up that largely kept antisemitism in check.

“But those firewalls, weakened by the passage of time and willful neglect, have been breached. Cloaked in the armour of free speech, fuelled by hate and stoked by the oxygen of the internet and social media, those fires now burn out of control,” he said.

He pointed to a 2018 survey commissioned by the Azrieli Foundation, a Toronto-based charity, which found that 22 per cent of Canadian young adults hadn’t heard about the Holocaust, or weren’t sure they had heard of it. Meanwhile, 54 per cent of all adults said they were unaware that six million Jews had been killed, and 57 per cent said people now seem to care less about the Holocaust than they used to.

“No child comes into this world a hater. Hatred is learned,” Mr. Mulroney said. “Our children must be taught why this soul-devouring virus cannot be countenanced and why it must be eradicated.”

The former prime minister, who set up the Deschênes commission of inquiry on Nazi war criminals and named Norman Spector as Canada’s first Jewish envoy to Israel over the objections of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said schools should be required to educate students about the Holocaust, and should develop programs to tackle antisemitism.

Mr. Mulroney recalled when prime minister Mackenzie King, who expressed racist views about Jews in his diaries, shut the door to Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War.

“To this day, I cannot watch footage of the faces of Jewish mothers, fathers, children consigned to the gas chambers without, as a Canadian, feeling a great sense of sorrow, loss and guilt,” he said.

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