Posted Thu, Sep 16, 2010

At the conclusion of the constitutional convention in the United States in 1787, someone approached Benjamin Franklin and asked what kind of post-revolution government America would have in place of colonial monarchy. “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

Franklin understood that self-governing societies require much hard work to preserve, let alone to prosper. Although the founding fathers were skeptical about too much power residing in the hands of the people, Franklin knew that the success of such a radical experiment-maintaining the newly-minted republic, that is-rested on an enlightened citizenry that was fully committed to participating in the great debates of the day. In the absence of a royal court, it was up to the citizens to develop and maintain what another brilliant American statesman, Abraham Lincoln, later called, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Jews throughout history have understood this message. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiled Jews in Babylon in which he said, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”

Now, if the Babylonian exiles were bidden to integrate into the society to which they had been forcibly taken and to make productive homes there, imagine what the imperative must be for those of us who happily inhabit our place of residence.

In the Jewish text Pirke Avot, “Sayings of the Fathers”, the great sage Hillel tells us, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Now, most commentators would suggest that this admonition was aimed at maintaining connection within the local Jewish community, for all of the readily-understood reasons why we pray, celebrate, mourn and generally live out our faith in a supportive collectivity. This fits nicely with Hillel’s other, more iconic, observation that, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But remember that Hillel goes on to say, “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel is telling us that we cannot be so wrapped up in attending to our own needs, to be so insular in other words, that we pay no heed to the concerns of others around us, and ignore the needs of humanity where we live and beyond.

In this way, we can interpret the wisdom of community connectedness to extend to the secular milieu in which the Jewish community lives. Jeremiah’s message that the community will prosper in lockstep with the welfare of the city is thus married to Franklin’s insight that successful governance will flow from active civic participation and engagement.

From my CJC perch here in Ottawa, I ponder these matters from the perspective of the Jewish community of Canada. In essence, I believe, there needs to be a dynamic interaction between the interests of a minority community and those of the nation-at-large in which it lives. As Canadian society affords our community the opportunity to flourish, we have a concomitant obligation to be aware of, and to participate in, debates on the larger issues of national scope and significance.

Of course, given issues of resources and mandates among different communal organizations, we cannot be all things, to all people, all the time. But we must be careful not to construe our obligation to civic engagement too narrowly or parochially.

I often remind myself of the story of a cruise ship on which a fire breaks out. One passenger begins to shriek in panic. A second passenger grabs him and says, “What’s the big deal. Is this your boat?”

Here’s what I take from this: As a Jewish community living in Canada we need to be clear about just which “boats” are, indeed, ours. At the same time, we need always to be aware that helping save someone else’s boat can be of benefit to us as well. And as an important community in a nation of communities, we need to remind ourselves that there are times to show concern about someone else’s boat even if there is no readily-apparent self-interest at stake.

In my experience, it is clear that a community not heard from at least some time on national issues, or that only gets involved in their own particular agenda, runs the very real risk of losing credibility and becoming marginalized, both in general and on those topics of which it has special concern. While always sticking to our core agenda, we must be visible and vocal on correlated issues and, from time to time, on matters that may not obviously fit within the four corners of our mission statement. From a practical perspective, such collaborative efforts can help move the advocacy yardsticks while building the foundations of useful partnerships.

Thus, for example, we have always linked our core work toward eliminating antisemitism to a broader human rights agenda to combat all forms of racism and discrimination. By the same token, we applied the imperative of zachor regarding the Shoah to underpin our advocacy on Darfur and the push for justice against war criminals and enablers from contemporary conflicts as well as those of our primary concern from World War Two.

This approach also leads us in my view to examine where the organized Jewish community in Canada can make a useful contribution to issues of social justice. Jewish advocacy on issues like poverty and homelessness, whether at the local federation level or in Ottawa and provincial capitals across the country, benefits not only our own community but Canadian society at large.

Such efforts serve the best of Jewish traditions, flowing from scripture, prophetic writings, commentaries and texts. I think it is appropriate to ponder this as we approach Yom Kippur and consider the profound haftorah from Isaiah that we read during the morning Torah service.

The fast the great prophet has chosen, he says, is not merely to afflict our souls or bow down our heads “like bulrushes”. Rather, the meaningful fast he seeks is to, “loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free….to deal your bread to the hungry…bring the poor that are cast out to your house” and clothe the naked. If, Isaiah suggests, you connect your fast to pursuing justice and performing good deeds, to “tikkun olam” or “repair of the world”, then when you call on the Lord, the Lord will say, “Hineni—here I am.”

Thus, we are impelled to reveal the divine within each of us through our deeds and actions; striving toward the unattainable—that is, the holiness of God—but making the effort just the same through the pursuit of justice and righteousness.

And, as Hillel asks finally, “If not now—when?”

By: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.