MONTREAL — The horrific massacre in Pakistan and the deadly hostage-taking in Australia are a reminder to everyone that “extreme jihadism” is something the State of Israel has lived with throughout its history, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during a visit to Montreal’s Federation CJA on Dec. 16.
“Thank God we have Israel in that often very dark, very difficult part of the world, showing us its beacon of light,” said Harper, who with his wife Laureen, lit the first candle of Chanukah.
More than 300 invited guests, representing a cross-section of the Jewish community, attended the event, held under strict security.
Harper recalled that, as a boy, his father at Christmas time always reminded him to remember “our Jewish compatriots and neighbours.”
Harper said his first trip to Israel last January remains one of the “moments of light” of his year, while the deaths of two members of the Canadian armed forces by killers apparently motivated by Islamic extremism were among the darkest.
The occasion served once again as an opportunity for the community to thank Harper for his steadfast support of Israel.
“We have no greater ally than the prime minister,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, spiritual leader of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, who introduced Harper.
Among the defenders of freedom and human rights, so cherished by Jews, Harper has stood out in the world, he said.
“When you speak up for women’s rights at La Francophonie in Senegal, you speak for us. When you speak up for democracy around the world, you speak for us. And when you defend the State of Israel, you speak for us,” Rabbi Poupko said.
The Harpers were assisted in lighting the shamash on the silver menorah by Chabad’s Rabbi Shalom Chriqui.
Federation president Susan Laxer underscored the Jewish community’s more than 250-year history in Quebec and Canada, and its contributions to the country.
“Prime Minister Harper’s presence today is a profound demonstration of solidarity and respect for our community’s important place in Canadian and Quebec society,” she said.
Laxer related Chanukah’s message of a small minority’s resistance in ancient times to forced assimilation to present-day local concerns.
“Recent events here in Quebec underscore the importance of preserving the place of Jewish religion and culture in Quebec society and continuing to move forward in the name of our particularism; whether it is regarding Bill 60 [the former Parti Québécois government’s proposed secular values charter], Bill 10 [the current government’s planned health reform], the BDS movement [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel] or anti-Semitism in general,” Laxer said.
“In doing so, we value and protect not only our religious rights and freedoms, but also the rights and freedoms of all others.”
Laxer praised Harper’s “powerful example of moral fortitude and integrity… You expressed your beliefs – unequivocally and unapologetically – and succeeded in making topics of international debate perfectly clear.”
David Cape, incoming national chair of the federation’s advocacy arm, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, called Harper “an extraordinary friend of the Jewish community and Israel, who has brought the Canada-Israel relationship to unparalleled heights” and is “standing taller than leaders of the most powerful countries” in defence of democratic principles.
“We are living in a pivotal time, with the rise of global anti-Semitism, continued Iranian nuclear aspirations, and Islamist terrorism threatening people who cherish freedom and peace, including minorities across the Middle East,” he said.
The half-hour program also included the singing of Chanukah songs by the Akiva School choir in Hebrew, French and English.
Young twins Nathan and Samuel Bensimon recited the brachot over the candles, and led the singing of Hatikvah. Sarah Diamond sang O Canada at the outset.
Following the formal program, the Harpers stayed on to allow a long line of audience members to have their photos taken with them.
In his formal statement issued on Chanukah, Harper said the festival is “an opportunity for all Canadians to reflect on the meaning of faith, freedom and the triumph of good over evil, and to pay tribute to the tremendous contributions of Canada’s Jewish community in all areas of endeavour.”