Canadian Jewish Congress
CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS
The Canadian Jewish Congress is a unique organization. It has no parallel anywhere else in the Jewish world. Founded in 1919, it has been for much of its history the singular democratic voice of Canadian Jewry. Though it is a national organization, it has offices and affiliates in all of Canada's regions. And until the rise of the Federation movement – the local organizations that raise, collect, and allocate United Jewish Appeal funds – in the 1970s and 1980s, Congress stood unchallenged as the community's interlocutor with government and with the non-Jewish world. It was, until recently, the one forum where all the problems of Canadian Jewry – and for that matter, all of world Jewry – could be debated, where agendas were set, and where campaigns were organized.
It was largely because of the irresistible pressure of newly arrived immigrants, many of whom were allied with the trade union and Labor Zionist movements, that the Canadian Jewish Congress came into being. Since by 1919 these newcomers – the tens of thousands who had arrived as part of the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century – vastly outnumbered members of the so-called "establishment" who had come earlier, they wanted a voice in the direction of the community. Exhilarated by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the possibility of a Jewish state in Palestine, desperately concerned over the plight of their kin in war-ravaged Europe, and determined to find a way to open Canada's immigration doors that had slammed shut in 1914, these activists were convinced that creating a democratic, representative umbrella organization for Canadian Jewry would provide a panacea for all of their problems.
On March 2 and 3, 1919, over 25,000 Jews from coast to coast went to polling places in various synagogues and schools to elect delegates. And on March 16, 208 men and one woman from every part of Canada representing almost every point of view and ideology in the community met in Montreal to create what they hoped would be "the Parliament of Canadian Jewry." More than a debating society, these founding fathers and mother intended that the Canadian Jewish Congress would maintain Jewish unity, would assist in building a Jewish homeland in Palestine, would commit itself to the preservation of a Jewish – and Yiddish – heritage in the new world, would guarantee its continuity, and finally, would safeguard human rights and dignity while advancing a flourishing sense of Canadianism among its member organizations. And for most of its history that is precisely what the Congress did – or at least, tried to do.
However, Congress's first few years were disappointing. Indeed, aside from creating the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society which would deal with the critical immigration issues besetting the community – and would do so for the next three generations – Congress achieved nothing. Paralyzed by a lack of funds and a waning interest among most Jews, who were more concerned about earning a living in an economy on the verge of collapse, Congress limped along without wide community support and did not meet again until the rise of Nazi Germany mobilized the community once again.
In 1934 under the leadership of Sam *Jacobs, a Member of Parliament from Montreal, Congress reconvened. But it was not until four years later when, swallowing hard, Jewish trade unionists convinced Sam *Bronfman, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, to become president, that Congress was revivified. And none too soon. Canadian Jews now confronted a rapidly rising tide of domestic antisemitism and a federal government committed to doing whatever it could to prevent Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany from entering Canada.
Bronfman's first act was his most important. He hired an energetic young lawyer to take charge of Congress. Over the next 40 years, Saul *Hayes revolutionized Congress, providing it with the professional expertise and political leadership it so desperately needed. Meanwhile, Bronfman gave Congress credibility as well the funding it sorely lacked.
But despite its valiant efforts Congress was confounded by the situation it faced. It could do little to dissipate the anti-Jewish feelings sweeping the country, and even less to convince the federal Liberal government to open its gates to the desperate Jews of Europe. Nevertheless it persevered. Congress delegations met regularly with politicians and federal authorities to try to get the closed-door policy changed. And from time to time they were able to convince the government to allow in some refugees. Congress also formed coalitions with other groups to advance their agenda. With the respected League of Nations Society it created the United Jewish Refugee Agency to lobby on behalf of Jewish refugees. And with B'nai Brith it formed a Joint Public Relations Committee (jprc) to combat antisemitism. This committee functioned effectively until it was disbanded in the 1980s.
When war broke out in 1939, Congress, aware of the incorrect perception that Canadian Jews were not doing their share for Canada's war effort, aggressively urged all eligible Jews to enlist. To encourage Jewish participation it set up a Chaplains Committee to ensure that there were enough rabbis in the armed forces, and it created a War Efforts Committee to mobilize Canadian Jewry and to provide for the needs of Jewish servicemen and women across the country. It also joined with the American Joint Distribution Committee to provide whatever assistance was possible to an embattled European Jewish community. And throughout the war Congress lobbied vigorously – but in vain – to influence a hostile government to allow in the handful of Jews who had escaped the Nazis.
At the end of the war, Congress turned its full attention to the survivors. It sent a small delegation to Europe to meet with the pathetically small number of Jews still alive to find any who had relatives in Canada who could sponsor survivors. At the same time, while it was shipping vast amounts of money and supplies, Congress hired some dedicated men and women to provide succor and hope to Jews in the various displaced persons camps spotted all over Europe. And while Canada still refused to accept Jewish refugees – and would not until 1947 – Saul Hayes was able to use an obscure Cabinet decision made in 1941 to persuade officials to allow in more than 1,000 Jewish orphans. Congress also accepted responsibility for finding them homes, schools, or jobs, and families who would adopt them. Congress also devised an arrangement to bring in badly needed garment workers which the government grudgingly approved, though at the last minute it limited the number it was prepared to accept. Throughout this period and especially after 1948, Congress was deeply involved in arranging for homes and jobs for the more than 30,000 survivors who arrived over the next 10 years.
As the pervasive antisemitism began to recede following the war, restrictions and quotas in housing, jobs, and universities still continued. Congress decided it was an opportune moment to launch an all-out offensive against remaining discriminatory practices in Canada. Young activists in the jprc and the Jewish Labour Committee devised a masterful – and very aggressive – public relations and education campaign which, by the end of the 1950s, resulted in legislation barring discrimination in housing and employment. This was, perhaps, Congress' greatest success.
The period from 1938 through the 1960s were heady years for the Canadian Jewish Congress. Ably led by Saul Hayes and Sam Bronfman, Congress played the key role in the life of every Canadian Jew. Jewish organizations of almost every political and religious stripe were affiliated to it. No one doubted that when the cjc spoke, it spoke on behalf of all Canadian Jewry. And its triennial plenary was the most important event in the Jewish calendar. There, not only were officers elected, but community leaders and rank and file delegates met to determine their future.
Following the 1960s, once the status of the Jewish community seemed secure, Congress turned its energies to other causes. It became the primary advocate for the State of Israel in Canada and confronted the enemies of the Jewish state, particularly in the period just before and after the Six-Day War in 1967. It took the lead in campaigning for Soviet Jewry and formed committees to lobby on behalf of Jews in Arab lands and for Ethiopian Jews determined to immigrate to Israel.
Domestically, while it still continued the apparently never-ending struggle against the remnants of antisemitism, it devoted much of its energy to Holocaust remembrance, to providing sustenance and support to small Jewish communities throughout the country, to ensuring the survival of the Yiddish language and to a whole series of social justice matters impacting immigrants, visible minorities, aboriginals, women, and the disabled. Also, largely because of Congress's lobbying, the federal government introduced anti-hate legislation. Sadly, despite the unceasing efforts of cjc leaders and members, attempts to persuade government officials to prosecute Nazi war criminals in Canada met with little success.
By the late 1970s the paramountcy of Congress in the Jewish community began to recede as federations, especially those in Toronto and Montreal, which oversaw community funding through the United Israel Appeal, increasingly dictated the community social and political agenda as well. Congress's budgets were reduced and many of its responsibilities were assumed by local communities. By the beginning of the new century, with the creation of a new body, the Council of Israel and Jewish Affairs, much of the cjc's authority and influence had been stripped away though it still remained the primary advocacy voice on domestic issues and on combating antisemitism.
The Canadian Jewish Congress began as an organization for Canadian Jews. It soon became not just an organization of Canadian Jews but also for all Canadians who needed its help. Throughout its history it has been in the forefront of the battles for human rights, equity, immigration reform, and civility. It was a pioneer in the creation of multiculturalism, and while it defended freedom of speech, it also led the fight for freedom from hate speech. It has been and to some extent still is a forum for conflicting visions, but is ultimately one voice – a voice that has steadfastly done battle against antisemitism and racism, supported the rights of persecuted minorities, fought for the freedom of oppressed Jews wherever they might be; a voice that speaks as the advocate, conscience and soul of Canadian Jewry.
[Irving Abella (2nd ed.)]