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Toronto gala features Salman Rushdie, Elie Wiesel, Brian Mulroney

Dave Gordon - Thursday, 3 June, 2010
From Jewish Independent
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 It sounds like a joke: a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian walk into a synagogue. This time, however, it was true, when Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, renowned novelist Salman Rushdie and former prime minister Brian Mulroney took the stage last month at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue to informally, and intellectually, shmooze on world issues.

The evening’s Spirit of Hope event was coordinated by the Canadian Friends of Simon Weisenthal Centre, an organization that speaks out against bigotry and antisemitism and voices concern on threats against world Jewry.

With Mulroney as moderator, Rushdie and Wiesel covered the gamut of general sujets-du-jour, from antisemitism, the threat of Iran and the lessons of the Holocaust, to the squelching of free speech.

In his opening address, Mulroney painted a dismal picture of early 20th-century antisemitism in Canada. “Canadians talk proudly of our tolerance and fair-mindedness.... But these virtues, such as they are, are of fairly recent vintage. The truth is we have little to be smug about,” he said.

As examples, Mulroney spoke about the 1933 Toronto Christie Pits riot when antisemites terrorized a Jewish baseball team in an all-night street brawl. The following year, in Montreal, the interns at Notre Dame Hospital went on strike to protest the hiring of a Jew. But antisemitism wasn’t just a hatred shared among thugs and select groups – it went all the way up to the highest governmental level.

Two years before the Second World War, Mulroney said, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s diary records his disdain for Jews on several occasions. Sharing an example, Mulroney told of King’s visit to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler, where he recorded favorable impressions of that meeting in his diary, depicting Hitler in near-angelic terms. Additionally, it was on King’s watch that Canada’s doors were shut to Jews who were fleeing from Nazi persecution.

“But times change and incremental progress continues to be made,” said Mulroney. “The Jews of Israel have already emerged as a valorous people who have made the deserts bloom, and the Jews of Canada have found a home whose future is immeasurably brighter and whose values have been powerfully enriched because of their presence and their contribution to Canada and to all mankind.”

Wiesel, author of the bestselling Holocaust novella, Night, among many other works of fiction and non-fiction, was asked by Mulroney to talk about the lessons he took with him on a recent visit to Buchenwald with U.S. President Obama.

“Do not to give evil a second chance,” Wiesel said. “The moment evil unmasks its designs, we must do something about it.”

Wiesel was conflicted, however, about whether there had been much progress in the fight against hatred and antisemitism in the past six decades. “We defeated the worst enemy of mankind, Hitler, [and] for the first time in 2,000 years, the only ancient people that survived antiquity went back to its ancestral homeland to build a new state. How can one not justify and celebrate hope? More than two million Russian Jews could leave Russia ... those people could have been lost had there not been a [Jewish] state.”

On the other hand, Wiesel said, there remain serious dangers and equally serious political threats. “There are so many dangerous antisemites.... Gilad Shalit, for four years, he lives in terror, a prisoner of terror, and where is the world? Why doesn’t the world rally against this? Why don’t we hear from our friends and allies? Why don’t they speak up? Israel is prepared to free so many prisoners in exchange for terrorists.”

Antisemitism, he concluded, is “the most stupid of all hatreds.” According to Wiesel, Jews are hated for the most absurd reasons: they “are too rich or too poor, too successful or not successful enough, not enough nationalistic or too nationalistic....”

The well-known author of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie knows all too well about being the target of hatred. Published 20 years ago, that novel spurred Iranian mullahs to issue a death fatwa against him for, what Rushdie has described as “loose allusions” to Islam in the book. “Such an instruction [fatwa] devalues the value of life, that mine was to be easily forfeited if there was certain offence taken.”

His infamous book, Rushdie said, contains “no prophet named Mohammed, no city named Mecca nor a religion named Islam.” Rather, the protagonist suffers from a sort of delirium, he explained, dreaming about a manufactured religion. “This is what we in the trade call ‘fiction,’” quipped Rushdie, to a chuckling audience. “The people attacking me said that I did something so bad, that normal defences, like freedom of speech, did not apply because I crossed all known boundaries.... I could see that this was a problem that was going to spread across the world.”

In fact, while in Germany after the 9/11 attacks, people approached him to tell him that they finally understood the threat of radical Islam. Rushdie said he laments the fact that it had to take nearly 3,000 murdered for those people to have clarity on the issue.

The conversation turned to the situation in present-day Iran, with Rushdie voicing strong concerns over a military strike to neutralize the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities.

“There would be nothing else to unite the Iranian people ... to put it bluntly, if there were an attack by Israel on Iranian nuclear stations. It seems there would be a 100 percent chance of a reprisal attack on the United States. I’m 100 percent certain. If you want to avoid Armageddon ... it may not be what you want to hear, but you cannot do it.”

It is only a matter of time, moreover, before the people of Iran rise up against the Iranian regime, Rushdie suggested. “[Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is by no means the real power in the country,” he said, alluding to the radical coterie that controls governmental affairs. “What was once a religious dictatorship is now a military dictatorship.... It is increasingly difficult to know how to deal with them.”

Wiesel was fairly diplomatic in his response to the threat from Iran. “Who am I to tell Israel or the United States what to do in order to survive?” he said. “What is the solution? I don’t know,” but he suggested continued economic pressure and a “hope for the best.”


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