Head of New Canadian Council To Organize Grassroots Efforts

By Sheldon Gordon

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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TORONTO — One of the senior staffers at a Canadian Jewish agency refers to Hershell Ezrin as “Super Jew.” That’s because the 57-year-old, Toronto-born Ezrin holds a position of unprecedented bureaucratic power in the Jewish community, having last month been appointed chief executive officer of the newly created Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy.

The Council was set up at the behest of UIA Federations Canada, and in particular, a tight-knit group of its largest donors — including Larry Tanenbaum, co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, and Brent Belzberg, a venture capitalist. The machers now sit on the Council’s board.

The Council has doubled the community’s advocacy budget and appointed Ezrin to oversee the three traditional advocacy groups — the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee and the National Committee for Jewish Campus Life — which the prominent philanthropists thought needed more funding and clearer direction to present the case for Israel effectively and counter the rise in domestic antisemitism.

In Ezrin, the board has hired an apparatchik widely admired for his political savvy and communications skills. Ezrin boasts a diverse resume, having been a diplomat, civil servant, political adviser and public relations executive. Staffers credit him, after only a month on the job, with coordinating the “messaging” of the organizations, whose pro-Israel advocacy had often overlapped. But that’s just the beginning; Ezrin is brimming with ideas.

To improve public attitudes toward Israel, he told the Forward that he wants to bring more Canadian opinion-makers to the Middle East so that they can “decide for themselves what values Canadians and Israelis share.” While the Canada-Israel Committee has regularly led fact-finding trips for members of Parliament, Ezrin is including others. A recent junket comprised non-Jewish student leaders, including some Muslims.

Ezrin intends to use polling and other measurement techniques to judge how effective specific advocacy programs are at improving the image of Israel and Canadian Jewry. Some community sages, however, wonder whether a turnaround in public opinion about Israel is possible absent a change in Israeli policies. Additional resources can help in making Israel’s case, said Shira Herzog, former national executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee. “An individual with the talent and commitment of Hershell Ezrin can benefit the community,” she said. “Having said that, money and talent can’t do it all.”

In any event, Ezrin hopes to broaden the Jewish agenda beyond Israel and antisemitism. “One of the most serious challenges is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life [in the face of] substantial cutbacks in the amount of [government] resources given to social-service and educational institutions,” he said. He cited the blow to Jewish education delivered by the recently elected Ontario government when it repealed a tax credit for private-day-school tuition.

To mobilize Canadian Jewry’s lobbying clout, the Council is creating public affairs committees, consisting of grassroots groups with volunteers who will address Jewish issues with their local members of Parliament. The community’s initial response has been so enthusiastic, Ezrin said, that the Council may surpass its original target of 2,000 volunteers in the first year.

Mark Waldman, a Council board member who co-chairs the new initiative on public affairs committees, suggested that the groups might eventually morph into U.S.-style political action committees, aggregating donations for sympathetic candidates. Ezrin, however, warned that Canada’s new political finance law limits that possibility.

While based in New Delhi, India, on his first diplomatic posting, he served on the local Jewish welfare board. But it was later, as chief of staff to former Ontario premier David Peterson, that he built his reputation as a skilled political operator. “Hershell’s a brilliant man,” said Larry Zolf, a veteran political pundit. “He took Peterson from a nerd in opposition to premier of Ontario.”

Yet Ezrin’s appointment raised some eyebrows within the community. The UIA Federations’ big donors originally engaged a public relations firm to advise on improving community advocacy. Ezrin, the firm’s CEO, personally managed the project, proposed the Council structure and urged creation of the post that he was then hired to fill.

He adamantly denies, however, that his recommendations amounted to creating a new job for himself. “There was a professional search conducted,” he said. “I’m focused on doing the best job I can for the Jewish community, and I hope members of the community will see it the same way.”

Ezrin recognizes that having doubled the community’s advocacy budget, the big donors on the board will be expecting results. “The board is saying, ‘We’re giving you the tools that you think you need in order to be able to make a difference. Now show us.’” Said one community leader: “Hershell may or may not realize it, but these are the toughest clients he’s ever had.”

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