Historic Canadian Jewish Congress To Be Merged Into New Communal Group

Facing Financial Difficulties, the Congress Will Join New Jewish Organization With Focus on Defending Israel

Storied Past: The late Sam Bronfman, founder of the
Seagram’s dynasty, led the Congress in its efforts to help
European refugees in the 1930s and after the war.
Getty Images
Storied Past: The late Sam Bronfman, founder of the Seagram’s dynasty, led the Congress in its efforts to help European refugees in the 1930s and after the war.

By Sheldon Gordon

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
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The Canadian Jewish Congress, which has functioned as Canadian Jewry’s primary advocacy group since 1919, is being merged into a larger super-agency that is expected to put greater emphasis on Israel advocacy.

The congress, which faced severe financial problems recently, will be combined with community bodies that lobby on behalf of Israel and that co-ordinate Jewish activities on campus — two areas outside the group’s current mandate. A reorganizing committee that includes some of Canada’s wealthiest Jewish families has been orchestrating the merger for the past eight months.

The new entity, known so far as only Newco, is expected to be approved soon by UIA Federations Canada, the umbrella body of Jewish federations in major Canadian cities, though earlier timelines for approval of the merger blueprint have been missed in the face of an uproar by CJC loyalists.

Critics of the proposed restructuring complain that the merger will put an end to the congress’s tradition of selecting leadership representative of its grassroots in favor of a more American-style mode of Jewish leadership, based on wealth. They also worry that elements of the congress’s domestic agenda — such as defending human rights and promoting social justice —will be downgraded in favor of Israel advocacy.

“Congress, as the entity it’s been, won’t be there anymore,” said Frank Bialystok, chair of CJC’s Ontario region. “We’re not happy, but we accept this. But we’re concerned about the diminution of our social action and human rights agenda.”

“I’ve heard that, but I don’t agree,” said Moshe Ronen, a former CJC president who now chairs the Canada-Israel Committee, the country’s major pro-Israel lobby. Ronen, who is a member of the reorganizing committee, said, “I think that given the complexity of challenges facing the community, this merger makes the most sense. The issues have become more blended. One advocacy agency will be able to deal with them better.”

The congress has been the community’s foremost defender since Eastern European Jews began immigrating to Canada in large numbers in the early 20th century. Under the control of the late Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Seagram distillery dynasty, CJC lobbied the federal government to admit Jewish refugees to Canada — unsuccessfully in the 1930s, and more effectively in the postwar years.

As the community gained greater acceptance within Canada, CJC fought for human rights legislation and was a leading promoter of Canada’s adoption of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. It campaigned, alongside B’nai Brith Canada, to have Nazi war criminals living in Canada brought to justice.

Bernie Farber, a 25-year veteran of CJC and currently its CEO, is credited with having worked effectively with the police and human rights commissions to virtually eliminate the white supremacist movement in Ontario. More recently, CJC has aligned itself with the struggle of Native peoples to improve their socioeconomic conditions.

“The ‘myth’ of [the] congress has been real, especially in the non-Jewish world,” said Morton Weinfeld, chair of ethnic studies at McGill University. “Many minority groups in Canada have sought to emulate the Canadian Jewish Congress, even if it’s just by using the word ‘congress’ in their name.”

But within the Jewish world, the group is viewed differently, Weinfeld said. “To the average Jew on the street, the Jewish Congress hasn’t meant that much,” he said. “To the machers [big shots], though, it has meant quite a bit. But all the machers know that the power in the community has been slipping away to the federations.”

Seven years ago, the UIA Federations Canada made this official. The federations’ wealthiest donors effectively seized control of the CJC and the Canada-Israel Committee through an umbrella body, promising in return to substantially boost the two groups’ advocacy budgets. The money never materialized. “In fact, our budget has been slashed,” one CJC source said.

The reorganizing committee is once again talking up the possibility of more funding for advocacy. “A stronger, more identifiable advocacy agency will increase the opportunities for fundraising,” Ronen said. Alluding to the fact that the National Federation of Jewish Student Life has the mandate to operate on campuses in Canada, he said, “The public is confused. They see Congress isn’t active on campus, and they ask why not. There are potential donors who are new to advocacy but could be interested in donating to specific projects.”

But former CJC president Keith Landy worries that the immediate outlook is for more staff cuts that will decimate the Jewish civil service. “It’s fine for the community’s leaders to be able to call Cabinet ministers, but after they’ve hung up the phone, someone has to write the brief,” he said. He and other CJC loyalists view the restructuring as driven primarily by a resource crunch. The reorganizing committee denies this, though it has said that some layoffs will follow the merger.

Steven Cummings, the Montreal real estate mogul who heads the reorganizing committee, did not respond to the Forward’s interview requests. Barbara Bank, CJC vice president and its official spokeswoman on the restructuring issue, was also unavailable for comment.

But Ronen says the fears of CJC loyalists that community advocacy will lose its broad-based leadership are overblown. “I believe there should be grassroots opportunities,” he said. “Governance is a very serious issue for the reorganizing committee.”

CJC sympathizers fear that the new super-agency will make Israel advocacy the overarching priority of the community. They note that the reorganizing committee last December appointed the Canada-Israel Committee’s chief lobbyist to be the first CEO of the new unified entity.

“Since the Durban Conference in 2001, attacks on Israel have been seen as the ‘new anti-Semitism,’” said Landy, a Toronto lawyer. “But anti-Semitism shows itself in many forms. Obviously, Israel is very important, but we’re part of a greater Canadian reality.” Ronen, for his part, said that the issues threatening the community have become intertwined. “Israel is being used as a frame through which to attack the Jewish community,” he said.

Like a Cheshire cat that gradually vanishes except for its smile, what survives of the CJC tradition may be only its name. “Congress has submitted briefs to the reorganizing committee, and part of those briefs addresses retention of the name,” Bialystok said. “Canadian Jewish Congress is a brand — a very strong and positive brand.”

Contact Sheldon Gordon at feedback@forward.com


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