Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will issue a formal apology in the House of Commons on Nov. 7 over the federal government’s decision in 1939 to turn away the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying 907 German Jews.
The ship was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers were killed during the Holocaust.
The apology will take place just before the anniversary of Kristallnacht and around the start of Holocaust Education Week in Toronto, said Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, an executive member of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus (CRC), an organization affiliated with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Trudeau first announced the date of his apology in a telephone meeting with dozens of members of the CRC on Sept. 6.
“I was very pleased to hear that this would occur and immediately put a mark in my calendar, so I would be alert that day,” said Rabbi Frydman-Kohl. Trudeau “called it a moral failure and said that we have to learn from moral failures.”
Trudeau “sees this in relation to continuing issues over refugees and the need for people to find shelter,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl added.
The prime minister later released a statement announcing the apology.
“When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis, we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community,” the statement read.
“It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story and continue to fight against anti-Semitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: ‘Never again,’ ” Trudeau said.
Jewish groups praised the announcement.
“CIJA has been advocating for this for some time and we welcome the decision and look forward to working with the government in advance of the apology,” said CIJA’s Martin Sampson in a statement to The CJN. “We are grateful that the prime minister participated in a constructive, frank and open discussion with members of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus … and chose that venue to make this important announcement.”
Avi Benlolo, the president and CEO of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, extolled the announcement as “an important acknowledgment by the prime minister” and said that, “As anti-Semitism has once more risen in Canada, this provides an additional opportunity for the government to address contemporary issues. By recognizing such wrongs committed in the past, we can move toward creating a Canada that is truly dedicated to standing up for tolerance, acceptance and diversity.”
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl noted that the issue of anti-Semitism also came up in the telephone meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes.
The prime minister first raised it by noting that anti-Semitism is unacceptable in a diverse society like Canada’s.
The prime minister stated that the rate of anti-Semitism is too high, with 17 per cent of all reported hate crimes targeting Jews.
Trudeau also spoke about his visit to Auschwitz, in the company of survivor Nate Leipciger, and how it demonstrated the necessity for society to show compassion and empathy.
On the conference call, the rabbis asked the prime minister whether the government would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which includes the deligitimization of Israel and applying double standards to the behaviour of Israel.
“He said he’d review the definition with cabinet and caucus,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl stated.
The rabbis also raised Iran and holding it accountable for its belligerence, according to Rabbi Frydman-Kohl.
Trudeau said that when he took office, he hoped to improve the relationship with Iran through dialogue, and that remains his long-term goal. But he recognizes that Iran continues to sponsor terrorism and violates the human rights of its own citizens, and said that Canada would vote to condemn Iran at the United Nations, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said.
The CRC also held a half-hour meeting with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh earlier in the day and have scheduled another confrence call with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Sept. 12.