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Then-Liberal MP Irwin Cotler rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. Cotler, a former Liberal cabinet minster and long-time advocate for human rights, has been appointed Canada's first special envoy for Holocaust remembrance and combating anti-Semitism.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Former justice minister and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler has been named Canada’s first special envoy dedicated to preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment Wednesday, saying in a statement that the Holocaust was one of the darkest chapters in history and seventy-five years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, Jewish communities in Canada and abroad face rising antisemitism.

“As Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, Irwin Cotler will use his vast knowledge and experience to promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research as we continue working with partners in Canada and around the world to fight against hate and intolerance. Because antisemitism has no place in Canada – or anywhere else,” said Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. Cotler has devised lessons from the Holocaust for preventing and combatting mass atrocity, which he has written about extensively, and said they will frame his approach to his work.

The lessons include the danger of forgetting and the imperative of remembering, the danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide and the responsibility to protect, the danger of indifference, the responsibility to bring war criminals to justice, the importance of speaking truth to power, the responsibility to educate and the importance of protecting the vulnerable.

Mr. Cotler said what makes genocides in the past so horrific is that they were preventable, “and now with regard to the Uighurs in China, we know and are still not acting,” he said.

Mr. Cotler said he has been writing about these lessons for years and the ideas stem from his early childhood when his parents taught him about the pursuit of justice. Most of Mr. Cotler’s relatives on his father’s side were murdered in the Holocaust, he said.

“I look at this mandate that has been given to me now as hopefully an opportunity to combat injustice in the pursuit of justice,” Mr. Cotler told the Globe and Mail in an interview.

Mr. Cotler’s first responsibility is leading the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a conference where member countries will focus on a number of issues, among them, the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism.

Canada adopted IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism in June, 2019 and Mr. Cotler said the hope is that more countries do the same. The definition, according to IHRA’s website, is that antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) applauded Mr. Cotler’s appointment. Jeffrey R. Rosenthal, co-chair of the organization’s board of directors, said there is “no one more qualified” than Mr. Cotler to lead the fight against anti-Jewish racism on the international stage.

Joel Reitman, also a co-chair of CIJA’s board, called Mr. Cotler “a Canadian icon who has been tirelessly advocating for human rights for decades.”

B’nai Brith Canada also applauded the announcement, saying the organization has called for the position to be created for many years and that Mr. Cotler is an “excellent choice.”

Independent Jewish Voices Canada issued a statement saying that group is “deeply troubled” by the appointment, saying it further aligns the government with the IHRA definition of antisemitism and that the definition is being “weaponized” to portray supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic and shield Israel from criticism.

”Following Cotler’s appointment to this post, it is critical that provincial and municipal governments, university administrations, and other institutions take a firm stand against the IHRA definition now,” said Corey Balsam, IJV’s national coordinator. “Antisemitism must be fought, but it cannot be done at the expense of legitimate criticism and protest of Israeli human rights violations.”

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