Irwin Cotler: Canada's special envoy for combating antisemitism

This article does not do justice to the remarkable achievements of this man.

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s new Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s new Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The government of Canada on November 25 announced the appointment of Irwin Cotler – human rights expert, emeritus professor of law, long-time parliamentarian, former minister of justice and attorney-general – as its first “Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.” The position covers both domestic and international antisemitism, and features Holocaust education at every level. It also includes the mandate to head the Canadian delegation to the plenary of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA (pronounced eera).
Theoretically Prof. Cotler is retired, having been a member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1999 to 2015, both in government and opposition, serving on committees such as International Human Rights, Foreign Affairs and International Development, and Justice and Human Rights. He was the only long-standing male member of the Women’s Caucus for 15 years.
He has written several books, numerous papers and articles, has taught law and still works as a human rights lawyer defending political prisoners. Five years ago, he founded the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, named in honor of the exemplary righteous gentile whose fate remains a mystery. In the beginning of July 2020, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed this new position with him, but Cotler held off accepting just then, because he wanted to concentrate on his work at the Wallenberg Centre.
Although still its chairperson, he is now willing to accept the new position for at least a year, at no salary. When the appointment was announced, the 10-day IHRA plenary was about to begin; the Canadian delegates he was to head were already participating. He immediately joined them at the virtual meetings, hosted in Leipsic, Germany, where they began daily at 12:30 p.m. in order to accommodate international time zones. The plenary ended on December 3.
Among his immediate priorities, Cotler is addressing Holocaust denial and distortion together with enhancing the adoption and implementation of the IHRA work definition of antisemitism. This first part of the definition reads as follows: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Accompanying the statement and forming an integral part of it are 11 indicators of antisemitism. The definition is meant to be a working tool, not legally binding, and is gradually being adopted by governments, parliaments and communities at all levels, in efforts to combat this oldest hatred, which irrationally metastasizes wherever it infects.
Cotler maintains there are two elements to antisemitism: The classical element is not granting Jews equal rights with the persons they live among; the second, modern element, is not allowing the Jewish people or the Jewish state equal rights to exist and to self-determination.
Cotler had been a delegate to the Stockholm Forum 20 years ago which founded the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, although Canada did not become a member of IHRA until 2009. To join, a country submits an application signed usually by the minister of foreign affairs or of education. It then becomes an observer country, subject to approval by the plenary, but participates in working groups. The country establishes a Holocaust Memorial Day, and commits to Holocaust education at a senior political level. Its archives for the years 1933-1950 must be open for research, with assurance that there will be academic, educational and public access to the examination of those years of the country’s history. There are presently 34 member countries, one liaison and seven observers. The European Community recently released its first-ever handbook on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Cotler has been described as a Zionist and activist for Middle East rapprochement. He is a passionate champion of human rights. In his practice as a human rights lawyer, he has defended political prisoners and dissidents such as Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov and Jacobo Timerman. He has also defended Arabs against their various governments and Israelis against theirs.
As a defender of the helpless against the powerful, Cotler is tireless. Two of his current clients are Iranian women, imprisoned and being tortured by their government in Iran, where being female is not an exemption from being whipped. Together with colleagues, he compiled a four-page open letter to the Ayatollah Khomeini, the first sentence of which reads: “We write to you regarding the case against Nasrin Sotoudeh to demonstrate the ways in which her conviction and sentence of 38 years and 148 lashes, as punishment for her work as human rights lawyer, blatantly violates the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and international law.”
The letter is dated December 2. Six days later, Queens University conferred an honorary doctorate in law on Nasrin Soutoudeh in a special ceremony for her work as a human rights lawyer on behalf of the vulnerable in Iranian society. Cotler accepted the degree on her behalf as her international legal counsel and delivered the convocation address.
Cotler told me that the plight of women is the most important human rights issue in Iran and a looking-glass into “the criminalization of innocence in Iran.” He commended the efforts of Iranian-born journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, who began White Wednesdays, the leading Iranian women’s rights movement where Iranian women send photos to her website, quietly protesting their bondage.
When Trudeau made the announcement endorsing his selection of Cotler and his support of IHRA, he said he appointed a special envoy “because antisemitism has no place in Canada or anywhere else.”
Cotler had also cofounded the Inter-parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, and Canada had adopted the Ottawa Parliamentary Protocol to Combat Antisemitism – which presaged the IHRA definition of antisemitism – at an inter-parliamentary conference that he chaired in Canada in 2010.
Cotler said that he supported Canada’s opposition to 17 of 18 anti-Israel UN resolutions and thought that Canada should have opposed all 18, on the one resolution that Canada did support, the prime minister said that they would have to “agree to disagree.”
At a lecture in Winnipeg in 2015, Cotler spoke about a bipartisan report prepared by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs entitled “Recognizing Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.” The government’s six-page non-partisan report expounds on the fact of a second refugee population created by the Arab-Jewish conflict.
I reminded him of this, and he remarked that if the plight of the Jewish refugees from 1947 through the 1950s were widely known, misunderstandings of the situation in the area could be clarified.
This article does not do justice to the remarkable achievements of this man. Is anyone out there writing his biography? Knesset watchers should keep their eye on Michal Cotler-Wunsh, one of Cotler’s daughters; she’s had a role model par excellence.
His outstanding characteristic is his total lack of fear. He looks evil right in the eye. Combined with that, as was Raoul Wallenberg, he is burdened with the desire to help every oppressed person within his reach and beyond, and he has the discernment to see which they are. On the occasion of the 2020 World Holocaust Forum, Cotler wrote a list of 13 lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, 13 ways to be watchful and wary. On January 22, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, his list was published in The Jerusalem Post. Some of the lessons are actions and efforts we must make, some are ominous signs we must address, but all of the lessons require diligence.
Cotler never tires of reminding us that of the 1.3 million people who were deported to Auschwitz, 1.1 million were Jews. He wants us to appreciate that “while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews and antisemitism is the bloodied canary in the mineshaft of global evil today.”
In his year’s end message posted on the website of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Cotler wrote, “2020 was a year like no other, full of unprecedented challenges, setbacks to global freedom and democracy and consistent infringement on human rights. But, it also comes with the promise of better times ahead.
“As we can learn from the teachings of the great sage Maimonides, the world is divided into half evil and half good; therefore one good deed by any one person can switch the ledger from evil to good.”
Special Envoy Irwin Cotler has certainly taken this admonition to heart. ■