More than a century ago, in a speech to Jewish constituents in which he lauded the community’s spirit of activism, Winston Churchill remarked that “a Jew cannot be a good Englishman unless he is a good Jew.” Few Jewish Canadians exemplified this principle more fully than Herb Gray – a man who, as a proud Jew and an equally proud Canadian, had a profound impact on Canadian politics.
Gray’s passing on the seventh day of Passover was not only a tremendous loss for his wife, Sharon, and his children Jonathan and Elizabeth. It marked the departure of a founding father of Jewish Canadian activism.
Born in 1931 in the humble, industrial town of Windsor, Ontario, Gray was elected as a member of parliament at the young age of 31. His arrival on Parliament Hill was all the more remarkable given the era, one in which signs banning Jews from Toronto’s public parks had just been removed, and in which genteel expressions of anti-Semitism continued to plague social clubs and workplaces.
Never intimidated by barriers, Gray went on to become Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister, serving in a variety of posts that culminated in his 1997 appointment as deputy prime minister.
Retiring in 2002 as one of Canada’s longest-serving members of Parliament, Gray was among the few Canadians bestowed the honorific “right honorable” – a term typically reserved for prime ministers, governors-general, and chief justices of the Supreme Court.
Gray’s coming-of-age as a parliamentarian paralleled the political coming-of-age of Canada’s Jewish community. He left elected office at a time when Jewish Canadians had become confident of their place in Canada and deeply engaged in politics – many thanks to Gray’s mentorship and encouragement. Today, countless young Jews serve as volunteers, interns, staff, and even candidates, across the country. While many never had the good fortune of meeting Gray (and the youngest can’t remember his time in Ottawa), everyone owes a debt of gratitude to Gray and others who took the first steps into a world that was once unfamiliar and inaccessible to the Jewish community.
On a personal note, Gray was more than just a trailblazer. He was a counselor, a backer and a friend. Like everyone in elected life, he was a partisan; but he was foremost a public servant who always made a priority of supporting the nonpartisan institutions of the Jewish community. While he was a lifelong friend and champion of the State of Israel, he worked tirelessly on a range of causes for the benefit of all Canadians. In so doing, he earned the rare tribute and mark of good character in politics: the respect of colleagues across party lines.
May his memory be a blessing, just as Gray blessed Canada with a lifetime of public service.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada.