“It’s not the usual Holocaust Education Month theme,” said Bernie Farber of the keynote address he will deliver, November 9, the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, at the launch of Holocaust Education Month in Ottawa.
That’s because he will be “looking forward instead of backward” with a lecture entitled “The Shoah: Has Never Again Become Again and Again?”
“We understand where bigotry can lead to,” said Farber whose father was a Holocaust survivor. “If we aren’t going to be the canary in the mine, who will?” he asked. “This is the light we have to shine today. When Jews stop sounding the warning, we’ve lost the lessons of the Holocaust.
“I’ve spoken in Ottawa before and told my story, and it’s always important for Jews to tell our story; that’s what we are,” he said. “But, this time around, I want to do some future-gazing. What was the real meaning for us of the Shoah if, in modern day, the brutalities continue?”
Farber said he will discuss international strife and ethnic cleansing and will try to take a look at whether the concept of “never again” is actually possible.
“Canada will not be left out of this mix. Some people think we are immune … but we have our own genocide of First Nations people, and that will be interwoven in the theme of my address.”
Born in Ottawa in 1951, a first generation Canadian, Farber said he was brought up to embrace and advocate on behalf of those less fortunate.
“I always thought Canada was a beacon of hope. Yet, today, it seems we are taking a step backward instead of forward. Canada used to be a land of opportunity, but, today, this huge land seems to be closing in instead of opening. We are rejecting those less fortunate instead of embracing them.”
Farber is on the board of directors of JRAN, the Jewish Refugee Action Network, whose honorary chairs are Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg.
“It came into being because of what we see as Canada’s step backwards in rejecting Roma refugees and refugees from Sudan and other parts of Africa. We really wanted to revitalize the Jewish voice in social justice.”
Farber stressed he wants his audience to think about “the lessons we have learned, and why we seem to have turned our backs on those lessons.”
He said Canadian Jews must remain vigilant about anti-Semitism in this country, but “we have to be watchful for others, too.”
And it’s not just Jews being targeted for murder and destruction in the Middle East, he said. “No groups of human beings are unsusceptible.”
Farber’s father Max was a Polish Jew whose first wife, and their two children, as well as other family members, perished in the Holocaust. His mother Gert (née Coopersmith) came to Ottawa in the late-1920s with her family to get away from Russian pogroms and anti-Semitism.
Farber has stated his father’s experiences during the Holocaust have motivated him throughout his life.
“The pain my father endured during the war is what drove me to fight for social justice today,” he told journalist Alex Wooley for a profile in Carleton University Magazine (Winter 2004).
Farber was CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 2005 to 2011 and now serves as senior vice-president for government and external relations at Gemini Power Corporation, which helps First Nations reserves in northern and northwestern Ontario build sustainable industries. He is also CEO of the Paloma Foundation, which works with shelters for homeless youth in Toronto; is chair of the board of Ve’ahavta, a Canadian Jewish humanitarian organization; and writes a regular column for the Canadian Jewish News.
“We took, as a community, certain lessons from our experience, and Jews were at the forefront of advocacy,” he said. “We have to find our voice again. The Shoah compels us to find that voice.”
The Holocaust Education Month launch event with keynote speaker Bernie Farber will be held Sunday, November 9, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. For information about Holocaust Education Month events organized by the Shoah Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, contact Benita Siemiatycki at email@example.com or 613-798-4644.