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Professor Irwin Cotler poses for a portrait in the basement of his home on Sep. 3, 2020.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment Wednesday, saying in a statement that the Holocaust was one of the darkest chapters in history and that, 75 years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Jewish communities in Canada and abroad are facing rising anti-Semitism.

“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,” Mr. Trudeau said.

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Mr. Cotler has devised lessons from the Holocaust for preventing and combatting mass atrocities and said they will frame his approach to his work. They include the danger of forgetting and the imperative of remembering; the threat 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.

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

He said he has been writing about these lessons for years and that 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 killed 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,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

His first responsibility will be leading the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a conference where member countries will focus on a number of issues, including the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.

Canada adopted that working definition in June, 2019, and Mr. Cotler said the hope is that more countries do the same. According to the IHRA website, anti-Semitism 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 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.

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Joel Reitman, also a co-chair of the CIJA 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 creation of the position for many years and that Mr. Cotler is an “excellent choice.”

But Independent Jewish Voices Canada issued a statement saying it is “deeply troubled” by the appointment, arguing that it further aligns the government with the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism and that the definition is being “weaponized” to portray supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic and to 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, the group’s national co-ordinator. “Anti-Semitism 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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