To Bert Raphael, a respected Toronto lawyer who specialized in personal injury and disabilities, the law was about protecting society’s most vulnerable members.
“When you get right down to it, it all comes down to individual rights,” Raphael told The CJN in a 1987 interview. “It’s what a person is entitled to under the law, whether it’s a big case or a parking ticket. I tend to worry about people’s human rights when they don’t have any.”
That ethos served as a natural lead-in for his decades of Jewish activism in a variety of organizations and causes, notably the campaign for Soviet Jewry, the pursuit of Nazi war criminals in Canada and dignity for the developmentally challenged.
Raphael died in Toronto Nov. 15 at age 83 after a fall at his home.
He and his wife, Marilyn, were well known for their work with Reena, which promotes “dignity, individuality, independence, personal growth and community inclusion for people with developmental disabilities within a framework of Jewish culture and values,” according to its website. Their daughter, Sheree, became a Reena client in the mid-1970s. Marilyn served as Reena’s chair, and Bert was a board member. In 1992, Reena established the Bert and Marilyn Raphael Advocacy Fund.
“He was always a straight shooter, always advocating for people who couldn’t advocate for themselves,” said Reena’s chief financial officer, Sol Fleising, a longtime friend. “A champion of the underdog, really. If we called him, we didn’t have to explain ourselves. He knew the background from a personal point of view. Just a tremendous person.”
Raphael defended Israel and Jews every chance he could as an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer. In 2001, however, he ran into trouble when the Canadian Alliance, which would later be folded into the Conservative party, threatened legal action if he didn’t withdraw a letter he wrote to the Toronto Star calling on leader Stockwell Day to reassure the Jewish community that prominent Holocaust deniers hadn’t infiltrated the party. The party later backed off the threat.
The eldest of four boys born to Russian-Polish immigrant parents in Hamilton, Raphael loved to tell the story of how he searched for an articling job after graduating from Osgoode Hall law school in 1960. Most blue-chip Toronto firms didn’t hire Jews. He was told to try Eddie Goodman’s firm. “We just hired someone from Hamilton,” was the reply Raphael said he got. “Sorry, kid.”
In 1987, Goodman chaired a State of Israel Bonds dinner in Raphael’s honour.
In 1972, just after the Canada-Soviet hockey summit, Raphael and a group of lawyers from Montreal and Toronto travelled to Moscow and Leningrad, officially as part of a legal conference, but really to meet with Jewish Refuseniks and deliver prayer books and religious items. It was a frightening time. “We were followed everywhere. We had to switch taxis constantly to try and lose the KGB’s tail,” Raphael recalled in 2007. The Canadians would communicate with Refuseniks by writing on a plastic toy tablet that could be erased immediately. Knowing their hotel room was bugged, they talked on park benches.
Raphael and Sam Filer, who later became a judge, along with former Canadian Supreme Court justice Emmett Hall and Ontario’s first ombudsman, Arthur Maloney, went on to found Canadian Lawyers and Jurists for Soviet Jewry, which grew to hundreds of members. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the group morphed into Canadian Lawyers and Jurists for World Jewry.
In 1980, they advocated a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, prompting a letter to the Globe and Mail from an irate official at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa complaining “people like Jimmy Carter and Bert Raphael” were harming superpower relations.
In 1985, he chaired Canadian Jewish Congress’ Nazi war crimes committee, but was let go for “unauthorized” statements to the press in which he’d said, following a meeting with the justice minister, that Ottawa would soon act on the file. He was vindicated when the Deschenes Commission of Inquiry was announced two weeks later, and he represented B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights before the commission.
He then founded the Jewish Civil Rights Educational Foundation of Canada. He also founded State of Israel Bonds’ legal division and was active in the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. In 1985-86, he served as president of the prestigious Advocates’ Society.
Raphael is survived by his wife, Marilyn, three brothers, three children and five grandchildren.