Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for a decision to close Canada’s doors to Jewish refugees almost 80 years ago must include a bold statement against modern anti-Semitism or the carefully orchestrated event will be a failure, Canadian Jewish leaders say.
Trudeau is to apologize next week for a 1939 decision to reject an asylum request from more than 900 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis ocean liner, which resulted in more than 250 of them dying at the hands of the Nazis.
The apology has been months in the making and was scheduled before a gunman killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue – the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
The shooting has sparked countrywide vigils and forced a re-examination of the prime minister’s plans. Trudeau’s office says the text of the apology will be changed to reflect the Pittsburgh killings.
Steve McDonald, the director of policy with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his group hopes the apology will spur wider talk about how to address anti-Semitism “regardless of our background.”
Trudeau mentioned that idea in a letter to Jewish leaders on the weekend. He wrote about speaking out against anti-Semitism and said he would “call on Canadians to do the same.”
The latest figures on hate crimes from Statistics Canada show the Jewish population was the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016.
“It is not enough to apologize for the past. There must be a pathway forward to deal with these incidents of anti-Semitism,” said Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada.
B’nai Brith and other groups have provided the Liberals with ideas on how to tackle hate speech, including messages targeting Jews. Trudeau could rely on those as part of what Yael Halevi-Wise suggested would be a way to deal with extreme hate speech that often spills over into violence.
“This apology, it doesn’t mean anything unless there is a commitment to protecting the living,” said Halevi-Wise, the chair of the Jewish studies department at McGill University.
At least five surviving passengers from the MS St. Louis are to be in the House of Commons to witness the apology and Trudeau’s office said the prime minister will meet with those who make it to the capital.
Robert Krakow, a filmmaker who made a documentary about the MS St. Louis incident, said the survivors are more than 80 years old – the eldest over 90 – meaning they were all children when the St. Louis neared Canada in 1939.
A group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government to let the St. Louis dock in Halifax but Frederick Blair – director of the immigration branch of the federal Department of Mines and Resources at the time – refused to allow it entry.
The ship had already been turned away from Cuba and the United States. It was forced back to Germany and the passengers scattered in Europe, leading to the deaths of 254 in the Holocaust.
Hitler also used the incident to push his plans for the mass murder of millions of Jews, Krakow said.
The U.S. State Department apologized in 2012 for the role of American officials in the incident, but Krakow said the Canadian apology appears to be receiving more attention.
Quebec Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who called for the apology two years ago, said the Canadian apology was supposed to address the anti-Semitism Canadian Jews faced around the Second World War, with the St. Louis case being the most visible example.
Housefather said he expects Trudeau to use the killings in Pittsburgh as an example of why anti-Semitism remains an issue that “we need to tackle with force today.”
On Tuesday, a statement signed by Jewish and Muslim Liberal MPs – including four of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers – said parliamentarians needed to “unequivocally” denounce racism, noting, “our words matter.”
With files from Stephanie Levitz