TORONTO — The Canadian Islamic Congress is criticizing the appointment of two prominent Jewish men to important federal posts, describing them as “bad news” for Muslims.
The Islamic Congress, the most prominent organization claiming to represent Canada’s 750,000-person Muslim community, is objecting to the appointments of Leo Kolber, 76, and Jonathan Schneiderman, 43. Kolber, a former senator and a longtime adviser to the Bronfman family, was named recently to chair a federal advisory panel on national security. In August 2004, Schneiderman, who earlier served as a regional president of B’nai Brith Canada, was tapped to be an adviser to Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew.
Mohamed Elmasry, the Cairo-born president of the Islamic Congress, told reporters that both men are “strong pro-Israel voices” whose appointments have made Canadian Muslims nervous. The criticisms were the latest in a series of statements by Islamic Congress leaders that have outraged the Jewish community. The organization is believed to have about 50,000 members.
“With the Muslim community’s vulnerability to negative attention since 9/11… there is understandable nervousness at the news that two of Canada’s most active supporters of Israeli domestic and foreign policy will now have key voices in Canadian security and foreign policy decisions,” Elmasry said. Kolber dismissed the criticism, telling the Forward: “You just have to look at the source.” He declined further comment, saying he was waiting to be briefed on his duties on the advisory panel.
Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, slammed Elmasry: “He is effectively saying that Jews ought to be automatically excluded from holding positions within government… because of a supposed inherent bias against all Muslims. It is time for those in the Muslim community for whom Elmasry claims to speak [to] stand up and say this individual does not represent them.”
“What is it precisely that makes these individuals unsuitable?” asked Len Rudner, national director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “Is it because they are, in the characterization of Mr. Elmasry, pro-Israel? Or is it because they are Jewish?”
Leo Adler, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of national affairs, suggested that the public try to have Elmasry dismissed from his post at University of Warerloo, where he is a computer-engineering professor. Claiming that his objections had nothing to do with religion, Elmasry insisted that his organization would oppose non-Jews who have “strong pro-Israeli track records.”
The Muslim leader issued his criticisms even though, in addition to Kolber, the Canadian government also named to the federal advisory panel two prominent Arab Canadian professors who were born in the Middle East. As for Schneiderman, his new job at the Foreign Ministry focuses on Canadian-American relations and not on Middle East policy.
Kolber, who was a longtime adviser to late liquor baron and Jewish philanthropist Samuel Bronfman and to his sons, Edgar Sr. and Charles, has been a strong supporter of Israel since its founding and has been a close friend of Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres for five decades. Kolber’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren reside in Israel.
Despite such ties, Kolber has been publicly critical of Israel. At a 2003 B’nai Brith dinner honoring him, he criticized Israeli reprisals against Palestinian civilians. He also condemned Jerusalem for supporting settlement construction and for deciding to construct the West Bank security fence.
Alex Swan, spokesman for Propaganda Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, defended the choice. It was Swan who had appointed Kolber.
“The suggestion that Muslims should be concerned is groundless, and that kind of language is not helpful at a time when we’re trying to promote dialogue between communities,” Swan said.
Elmasry previously accused Jewish organizations of not doing enough to fight Canada’s post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation, which Muslim groups saw as a threat to civil liberties. His most provocative comments came during a television program in October 2004 when he said that all Israeli adults were legitimate targets for Palestinian suicide bombers, since “from 18 on, they are part of the soldiers, even if they have civilian clothes.”
The statement triggered such uproar, including criticism from other Muslim groups, that Elmasry later apologized and offered his resignation. However, the Islamic Congress declined to accept it, saying in a news release that “one unintentional mistake does not wipe out an exemplary record of more than 30 years.”
Elmasry is not the only Islamic Congress leader to offend the Jewish community. In early 2004, Wahida Valiente, the organization’s vice president, wrote an article stating that “the Jewish idea of being ‘chosen’ not only institutionalized racism, but also set a terrible precedent for human history in general, where racial superiority claims became the norm, the divisive standard by which all others, those not like us, were to be judged and treated.”
After the Canadian Jewish Congress protested, Valiente sent the organization a letter acknowledging that her interpretation of the term “chosen people” was “inconsistent with its meaning in the scriptures of the Old Testament.”
At the time, Ed Morgan, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that his organization would continue to work with Canada’s other Muslim and Arab organizations but not with the Islamic Congress.