On July 1, 2010 on its Human Rights Walkway, the City Côte Saint-Luc honoured those who spoke out and fought for Jews oppressed in the former Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia.
“This year, instead of honouring a specific person, we are honouring a group a people—essentially a movement—that succeeded in pressuring foreign governments mistreating their Jewish residents,” Mayor Anthony Housefather said. “Many of the people involved in these movements were from Côte Saint-Luc or the Montreal area.”
To help mark the event, Côte Saint-Luc has produced a 20-minute mini-documentary called “Human Rights Activists for Oppressed Jews in Foreign Lands”. The video features interviews with Irwin Cotler and Stan Cytrynbaum. Professor Cotler, who today is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, discusses his involvement, including serving as the legal counsel for political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Montreal lawyer Stan Cytrynbaum provides a personal account of how the first learned about Ethiopian Jews and later helped create a movement in Canada to draw attention to their plight and advocate for their rescue. The video is available at CoteSaintLuc.org.
“Our mini-documentary is meant to educate young people about these events and to inspire them to join or create human rights movements of their own,” said Councillor Mike Cohen, who is the co-chairperson of this event with Councillor Glenn J. Nashen. “The video is part of a growing library of videos produced in-house by the city’s Public Affairs and Communications Department.”
The Human Rights Walkway was inaugurated in 2000 and is dedicated to men and women who, through their actions, have promoted and defended human rights. This will be the tenth plaque unveiled on the walkway, which is located at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park, 6975 Mackle Rd.
“Many of the past honourees have been people who put their lives on the line in many parts of the world,” Councillor Nashen said. “By selecting a movement of people—many of them local—we wanted to highlight the fact anyone, anywhere can help those in need, even from the safety and comfort of our suburban homes in Canada. Professor Cotler, Stan Cytrynbaum, and Judy Feld Carr—an unassuming former music teacher and grandmother of 10 who was responsible for the rescue of 3,228 Jews from Syria over 28 years—are three examples of a movement that helped rescue hundreds of thousands of people.”
Human Rights Activists for Oppressed Jews in Foreign Lands
Throughout history, many rulers and nations have oppressed their Jewish populations or sought to eliminate them entirely through expulsion—such as in England in 1290 and Spain in 1492—or by mass killings—such as the First Crusade, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, and the Shoah.More rare have been cases where Jews were denied the right to leave a country or were unable to leave because of a humanitarian disaster.In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, many Jewish Canadians helped create a grassroots campaign to help Jews escape from three countries—the Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia. The activists were inspired by the Jewish concept to heal the world (Tikkun olam) and by a desire to never again allow governments to persecute Jews.
In the Soviet Union, many Jews applied for exit visas to leave the country, especially after 1967. Many were refused permission to emigrate and came to be called “refuseniks” because of this refusal from Soviet authorities. Jews in Canada and elsewhere began protests at Soviet consulates. Many travelled to the Soviet Union to meet the refusniks or offer legal counsel.
This activism took place in the shadow of the Shoah, which was not a distant memory. Protests in front of Soviet consulates were a statement of what should have happened 30 years earlier in front of German embassies and consulates.
By putting the international spotlight on the treatment of the refusniks, Jewish activists helped pressure Soviet leaders to allow Soviet Jews to leave. In 1990, Gorbachev-era reforms took hold and more than 213,000 Jews emigrated—refused no more. This was the start of the largest Jewish exodus in history—more than 1 million Soviet Jews.
Jewish activists also helped draw attention to the plight of the Jewish community in Syria, who were prevented from leaving the country. Those Jews who were permitted to travel for business purposes could not travel with family members because the Syrian government feared that they would flee. Activists lobbied western governments to pressure Syria to grant exit visas. Others helped bribe Syrian officials to smuggle families out. By 1995, all Syrian Jews who wanted to leave had left with only 250 Jews remaining in Damascus.
For centuries, the world Jewish community was not aware of the existence of Jews in Ethiopia, who had been so long cut off from Jews elsewhere. Threats from the military government and famine compelled Jewish activists to work of their behalf. Eventually, the State of Israel airlifted 14,324 Ethiopian Jews to safety. Some also settled in Canada.
The Human rights activists for oppressed Jews in foreign lands were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things through collective action and an unwavering belief in freedom.