On March 19, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) would have celebrated its 100th anniversary as one of the most storied, respected and courageous Jewish human rights organizations in the world. However, in 2011, Jewish community leaders, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it would be better to develop a new entity that would advocate for issues affecting both the Canadian Jewish community and Canada-Israel relations. Thus, the services of both the fabled CJC and the more recent Canada Israel Committee would no longer be needed.
It was, many felt, an inglorious end to a glorious time in Canadian Jewish history. While numerous pundits, academics and Jews debated the need to fix something that arguably wasn’t broken, others were taken aback when communal leaders chose to forgo the name “Canadian Jewish Congress,” for a new nomenclature that, while acknowledging our commitment to the Jewish community and Israel, lost any connection to Canada in its name. Thus, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs was born.
Full disclosure: as many readers will know, I had the honour of working for the CJC for almost 30 years, becoming its CEO in 2006.
Before I left, I implored decision-makers to keep the CJC name. As I was quoted in Allan Levine’s brilliant history of Jewish Canada, Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience, “Congress had more cachet outside of the Jewish community than inside,” and thus getting rid of the name would be a “huge error in judgment.”
Alas, no amount of persuasion would work and the illustrious CJC was relegated to the history books. Yet this was not the first time the CJC was effectively disbanded.
In 1919, over 25,000 Canadian Jews voted for delegates to represent them at a convention in Montreal, which would see the creation of the first group to represent their views on a national level.
However, before the fledgling organization could do anything, it needed a name. As Levine explains:
“Suggestions included the Canadian Jewish Committee, the Jewish Canadian Congress and the Congress of Canadian Jews. Ultimately, delegates to the inaugural convention decided to go with the ‘Canadian Jewish Congress’ because that moniker … captured the essence of what this organization was to symbolize: Jews in Canada who put ‘Canada’ ahead of being ‘Jewish.’ ”
This new CJC wanted people to know that Jews were Canadian and would do everything in their power to honour, enhance and embrace their Canadianism.
The CJC did its job, but eventually went dormant. Yet with anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant feelings reaching an unprecedented peak in the early 1930s, the congress was reconvened in 1934 and would remain strong until its final dissolution decades later.
The CJC undertook much, though its own history tells us that it was unable to move the “None is too many” policy that restricted Jewish immigration during the Holocaust – though not for a lack of trying. Then-president Sam Bronfman tried everything, but sadly, with Jew hatred simmering in the halls of power, his efforts were for naught.
In the postwar years, much changed. The CJC was at the forefront in the battle for Soviet Jewry, the establishment of anti-hate laws and the push for human and civil rights laws in this country. Indeed, many new immigrant communities that arrived in Canada used the CJC as an example for their own development.
And yet, as the years progressed, internal divisions and external politics combined with a misplaced desire for change, which resulted in the end of the CJC.
It reminds me of the lyrics to an old Joni Mitchell song: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Happy 100th CJC.