Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise today to speak in support of Bill S-232, a bill that would establish Jewish heritage month here in Canada.
As is always the case with these heritage month proposals, there is far more to be said than can be covered in 10 minutes, but that is especially true, given the length and breadth of Jewish history. Jews are one of the oldest people groups with a relatively continuous identity.
The impact of Jews on the world is, I think, most evident in what we call the Abrahamic faiths. The world's major Abrahamic faiths, which all come from a Jewish root, claim a majority of the world's population as adherents, and in many of these cases seeking a deeper understanding of faith leads individual adherents to actually seek a deeper understanding of that faith's Jewish roots.
Sometimes we speak of faith or religion as if it were a distinct and separate domain of activity, but the reality is that religion is often very much intertwined with other aspects of life. Through the spread of all of the Abrahamic faiths, Jewish cultural, social, and political ideas have also been spread throughout the world. Jewish ideas are at the root of many if not most modern polities and cultures.
Jewish religious theologizing puts its particular emphasis on reason, logic, and debate. The Jewish intellectual tradition, through Jewish religion but also quite directly, clearly infuses all aspects of western religious and intellectual life.
Of course, much can be said about the contributions that Jews have made to the full range of domains of life, natural and social sciences and the arts, as well as the other domains mentioned.
Recognizing the breadth of Jewish history and the impact across cultures and domains, I would like to focus the lion's share of my remarks today on 20th-century Jewish history and the history of my own family.
When I was in Israel last year, as we approached the Holocaust museum, our tour guide told us that Jews are a post-traumatic people. The Jewish community as a whole and individual communities and families in particular live in the shadow of a terrible genocide, the Shoah, in which six million European Jews were killed. That overall number is important, but it is not just a number, it is a collection of individual stories and experiences, experiences of horrors that are unimaginable to many of us.
As most members here know, my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. She grew up in the Munster area of Germany. She had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. She was never caught by the Nazis. She hid out on farms, away from her family. After the war, she caught up with her father in South America.
My grandmother rarely spoke directly about the horrors she experienced. This is likely typical of many victims of this sort of trauma, but I think it also reflected the mentality of her generation, a generation that was every bit as hopeful and idealistic as my own, but also that did not put a major emphasis on sharing their own experiences. In some ways they were too busy building the future to tell stories about their past. My grandparents would tell us certain things about their lives that they thought would be useful or helpful, and they would not tell us things that they thought were not useful or helpful. They did not feel a need to be known or understood.
Still, some stories came out in different ways. After my grandmother died, my uncle shared a story about a time when, as a child, he and a number of other boys in the neighbourhood were wrestling. He said to the other boy in the offhanded and unserious way that children sometimes do, “I'm going to bash your face in”. My grandmother apparently froze and grabbed him. “Don't ever say that again”, she said, “I saw a man bash another man's face in”.
Last week I spoke at a film screening here on the Hill about the use of rape as a weapon of war. The Nazis created forced brothels during the war, 10 at concentration camps between 1942 and 1945. There was a concern that because of my grandmother's age and complexion, if she were picked up, she would be sent to one of these brothels. Her mother prepared her for that possibility by laying out how she could maximize her chances of survival. Can members think of something so terrible, a mother trying to prepare her young teenage daughter for how to survive the possibility of sexual slavery?
Many Holocaust survivors were reluctant to share their stories, but remembering them and telling their stories is important for a proper understanding of the past and for all of us as we think about how we build a better future. I salute all of those, including my grandmother, who had the courage to share their stories, even in limited or private ways.
What does it mean to say that European Jews and perhaps in some sense all Jews are a post-traumatic people? Living in the shadow of such a terrible event has psychological impacts on victims and on their descendants. It also leaves people with a deeper appreciation of the reality of evil and the need for a strong and consistent response to it.
The descendants of Holocaust survivors are often called second-, third-, or fourth-generation Holocaust survivors themselves, and more is starting to be written and studied about the impacts of these events generations later. In this vein, I would like to quote from a 2015 article in The Guardian, which states:
Trauma research about the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent generations varies; some studies conclude there is no effect of trauma two generations on, while others claim that breast milk of survivors was affected by stress hormones that impacted on the physiology of the next generation. Some in the field of epigenetics say the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust are very pronounced and that the atrocities altered the DNA of victims' descendants, so that they have different stress hormone profiles to their peers.
Psychologist Ruth Barnett, whose Jewish father fled Germany for Shanghai, narrowly escaping the Holocaust, says she has witnessed inherited trauma in some of her clients.
“Constantly talking about events like the gas chambers to grandchildren is a way that traumatized people try to get rid of it... But unless it is processed properly, they make even more anxiety for themselves and other generations.”
My grandmother died of cancer about 10 years ago. As Holocaust survivors die, it is important to remember that the impact of the Holocaust remains, and we must remember these events and ensure that they never happen again.
As I said, these events have left many in the Jewish community with a deeper appreciation of the reality of evil and the need for a strong and consistent response to it. While fighting for the rights of Jews throughout the world, Jewish people and organizations have been and continue to be at the forefront of the fight for the rights and dignity of all people. One prominent example of this is Canada's Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, or CIJA, which actively encourages its members to be involved in the fight for international human rights and which assists other ethnocultural communities involved in human rights advocacy.
As a Christian myself, I would like to particularly note the advocacy of CIJA for Christians facing persecution around the world. Its website notes, “Experts say Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. CIJA and Rabbis across the country are calling on Canada to take decisive action to help Christians in the Middle East and Africa.” This is notable, in part, because many past acts of anti-Semitism were committed by those claiming, falsely, in my judgment, but claiming nonetheless, to be motivated by their Christian faith. The present eagerness of the Jewish community here and elsewhere to advocate for the Christian community in spite of that history is a great testament to the commitment of this community to standing up for universal human rights.
I would add, parenthetically, that it is high time we heed CIJA's call and finally take action on these issues. Today, many countries in the Middle East, which had long-standing Christian and Jewish communities, have lost their Jewish communities and are now rapidly losing their Christian communities. A strong presence in Asia and Africa are also part of Jewish heritage, but many of those communities have now disappeared.
Of course, a key part of the Jewish story in the 20th and 21st centuries was the creation and continuing vibrancy of the Jewish state of Israel. In the state of Israel as well, we see the impact of the Holocaust. Because of the experience of the Holocaust, Israelis will wisely never give up the means to protect themselves. Israel will always choose survival over popularity, and it would be mad to do otherwise, but Israel has not just survived, it has thrived. It has prospered, inspired the world, and has provided safe harbour for Jews, but also for Bahá’is and other persecuted communities who cannot safely live anywhere else. It has protected the fundamental rights and dignity of all its people.
Resilience shines brightly through Jewish heritage. There have been successive attempts at extermination, and yet these people now survive and thrive, and continue to give their rich gifts to the world. May God continue to bless Israel and the Jewish people.