After nearly ten years in office, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was finally defeated last November by Justin Trudeau. The election was largely decided on domestic issues and was in no small measure the inevitable result of voter restlessness after Harper’s Conservatives were in power for so long. But outside of Canada, Harper was notable for one thing. He was Israel’s best and most articulate friend on the world stage. But after winning, Trudeau reassured Prime Minister Netanyahu that Canada would continue to be Israel’s friend but said, “there would be a shift in tone.” What the shift meant, no one at the time knew for sure, but this week we got something of an explanation.
The answer came partially in the form of a policy shift but also in a statement about the Holocaust. By embracing the opportunity to not only lift sanctions on Iran but also to join the gold rush of Western nations seeking to profit from business with the Islamist state, Trudeau made it clear that Canada was now fully aligned with a European view of the Middle East.
But the following day Trudeau gave us an even more in-depth understanding of his views. By issuing a statement on International Holocaust Memorial Day that made no mention of Jews as the victims of the Nazis as well as articulating no connection between the need for remembrance and the preservation of Israel, Trudeau gave us a penetrating insight into his views about both history and the current crisis.
Trudeau’s willingness to join the embrace of Iran is no surprise. Europe is clamoring for greater ties with Tehran, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is being feted everywhere as he conducts a triumphal post-sanctions victory tour of the continent. To resist the urge to jump in and get Canada’s share of the booty would have been too much to ask for any leader other than one that was deeply committed not only to an alliance with Israel but to the principle of isolating the world’s leading state sponsor of international terrorism. Trudeau is not such a person.
But while Trudeau’s defenders may dismiss criticisms of his Holocaust statement as nit-picking or consider any linkage of it to policy choices as unfair, there is a lesson to be learned from his behavior.
As Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet, it may be that what Trudeau was doing in his memorial statement was not so much an attempt to expunge the Jews from their history as an effort to appropriate it to draw universal lessons. There is nothing unique in such an approach. The motivations of both historians and activists who take such an approach is to educate the world about the dangers of intolerance by treating the Holocaust as a generic instance of prejudice. In doing so, they hope to capture the attention of those who might otherwise ignore a story that focused only on anti-Semitism.
But such good intentions are meaningless when placed alongside the fact that, contrary to the universalizers, the Holocaust’s specifically Jewish content is not stranded in history. Anti-Semitism is not only alive and well; it is growing in its reach and intensity as Jew-hatred pours out of the Islamic world into the West. In particular, hatred for Israel and unfair criticisms of its policies has become the cover for expressions of traditional anti-Semitism, especially with outrageous comparisons of its measures of self-defense to the Nazis. In this manner, Jew hatred has moved back from the margins of society where it had been pushed in the aftermath of World War II and into mainstream thought. That is especially true outside of the United States. Israel is not only the focus of anti-Semites, their attempt to link it with the Nazis
Thus, by stripping the Holocaust of its Jewish focus, Trudeau hasn’t so much universalized its lessons, as he has become an enabler of those who wish to memorialize dead Jews while endangering live ones. That he should do so the day after seeking to enrich a regime that continues to deny the Holocaust while plotting a new one is no coincidence.
Yesterday, I noted the disconnect between the eloquent rhetoric of President Obama when he commemorated the Holocaust this week. The president rightly drew a straight line between the need to defend Israel and stand up against anti-Semitism and such memorials. While there is a glaring gap between his words and some of his actions, we may at least be comforted by the thought that he thought it necessary to articulate the principles for which the West ought to stand.
But that was too much for Trudeau and, in doing so, he illustrated the awful drift toward the marginalization of Jews in much of the West even as anti-Semites grow more brazen. Canada is a small country and doesn’t count for much in either the international community or the global economy. But under Harper, it at least achieved the distinction of being a leader in terms of moral clarity. A few months ago, Canada had a leader who understood the moral imperative of solidarity with the Jewish people at a time of growing anti-Semitism. Now its leader is one who is not only prepared to erase the Jews from the history of the Holocaust but sees no problem with enriching contemporary anti-Semites. That is something that should sadden and shame Canadians, as well as those that wish them well.