Last Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to Canada announced he was resigning over differences with the new government back home.
Ronen Hoffman has served only about a year in the role. He was appointed by the last government and, before that, had been a Yesh Atid party member of the Knesset under the leadership of former prime minister Yair Lapid. So, Hoffman was a political appointee, which makes his resignation significant but not the bombshell it would have been had he been a career diplomat.
Nevertheless, this was perhaps the most conspicuous example in Canada of ripples of response to what media around the world have taken to calling Israel’s “most right-wing government ever,” which was sworn into office under the once-and-then-again-and-now-again Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Dec. 29.
Having alienated, via policies or personality, a great number of potential allies on the centre and right, Netanyahu cobbled together a parliamentary coalition that includes some of the most extremist voices in Israeli society. As we mentioned in this space last issue, some of the approaches the new government seems bent on are not merely matters of policy but structural tampering with the fundamental tenets of Israeli democracy, including the courts, definitional foundations of citizenship, possible assaults on LGBTQ+ rights, as well as what appears to be a new bull-in-the-china-shop approach to governance and settlements in the West Bank.
In this issue of the paper alone, two separate Canadian organizations express concern about the impacts that perceptions of the new government in Israel will have on their work here.
Some Diaspora voices have been saying that this is the time for overseas allies to express in whatever ways possible to their Israeli counterparts, family and friends the impacts that certain policy approaches there will have on Jewish people here, and on relations between Jews in both places.
There is no doubt that the people who have made a cottage industry of attacking Israel in the past will continue to do so, using as fuel any evidence that the state of Israel is abandoning its commitments to human equality, democracy and pluralism. Haters gonna hate.
But there is another possibility, a conceivable glimmer of light shining through the cracks of Israeli-Diaspora relations.
There has always been a rhetorical disconnect between “anti-Zionism,” which by definition seeks the elimination of the Jewish state, and “criticism of Israel” or “criticism of particular policies,” which tends to be more nuanced. There has also been a casual accusation that pro-Israel voices are “uncritical” in their support for Israel, that there is a tendency to turn a blind eye toward things taking place in Israel that deserve condemnation.
Recent developments put these various positions in stark contrast.
There are now many issues and policies that probably the vast majority of Jews outside Israel (as well as inside Israel, as enormous protests in recent days have shown) find disagreeable, even abhorrent. For those who support Israel’s right to exist and for those who don’t, these issues and policies present an opportunity.
It is now especially necessary for supporters of Israel and allies to be absolutely clear that it is possible and reasonable to be emphatically, unequivocally supportive of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the form of the state of Israel while at the same time pointing at very specific policies with which we disagree vehemently.
There has often been far too much vagueness in this discussion, allowing people with unreasonable positions to appear reasonable, to allow people who would like to see Israel wiped off the map claim they are only criticizing “policy.” On the flip side, while there has always been a vibrant discourse among Diaspora Jews on events in Israel, critics have somehow been able to ignore that vibrancy and claim a monolithic Zionist hegemony of ideas. (This is, ironically, a conspiracy theory masquerading as a conspiracy theory.)
As this Israeli government proceeds with its agenda, and recognizing that Israeli voters have the final say, overseas Jews who for generations have supported and helped build the Jewish state have a right to express our opinions. We also have an obligation to be specific. There has perhaps never been a time when it has been easier to be clear: Israel has a right to exist. But efforts to chip away at the foundations of Israel’s judiciary, human rights and citizenship definitions are unacceptable, and it is right for Israelis and their overseas allies to say so in our loudest voices. Criticizing policies and being steadfast defenders of Israel have never been contradictory impulses. Now, more than ever, these are our obligations.
Grade 7 students at Vancouver Talmud Torah light memorial candles to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (screenshot)
Vancouver’s city hall, the Burrard Street Bridge and other landmarks around the city were lit in yellow light Jan. 27, as were buildings across the country, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The commemoration coincided with the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Yellow was chosen, said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, to reflect the colour of the candles of remembrance being lit globally to mark the day.
“Antisemitism is on the rise around the world,” the mayor said before reading a proclamation on behalf of city council. “Vancouver has the opportunity to join with the Jewish community and all of our residents and Canadians from all walks of life in demonstrating our commitment to stand against antisemitism, hate and genocide.”
Stewart was joined by councilors Sarah Kirby-Yung, Pete Fry and Adriane Carr.
Kirby-Yung spoke of calls from constituents who have had swastikas drawn on their sidewalks or who have come across antisemitic graffiti in local parks.
“I’ve seen firsthand, when you go to work out at the gym or community facility, the need to post security guards, to have them at schools and daycares, at synagogues during times of worship,” Kirby-Yung said. “It takes all of us individually to stand up to discrimination. We need to continue to work together, collectively with our Jewish community, to ensure safety and inclusion for everybody.”
The Vancouver event was sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Nico Slobinsky, Pacific regional director for CIJA, urged unity.
“Antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem, it affects us all,” he said. “Only by working together and standing up against antisemitism are we going to insulate all Canadians against the threat of hatred and racism in our society.”
Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, noted that education about the Holocaust is at the heart of her agency’s mission.
“This mission is perhaps more urgent than ever as globally and in our own backyard we are encountering a rising tide of Holocaust denial and distortion,” Krieger said. “The latter includes actions or statements that seek to minimize, misrepresent or excuse the Holocaust. These assaults on the memory of the most well-documented genocide in history should raise alarms for all citizens of our diverse society. Online or offline, intentional or not, distortion of the Holocaust perpetuates antisemitism, conspiracy theories, hate speech and distrust of democratic institutions, all of which have reached new heights during the pandemic. Around the world, opponents of public health invoke Nazi policies to systematically persecute and murder Jews and others in order to depict themselves as victims and their governments as persecutors. Such outrageous comparisons are clearly inappropriate and deeply offensive to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.”
Dr. Claude Romney, a child survivor from France, spoke of her father’s survival during 34 months in Auschwitz – an unimaginable expanse of time in a place where the average life expectancy was measured in days. (Romney’s experiences, and those of her father, Jacques Lewin, were featured in the April 7, 2017, issue of the Independent: jewishindependent.ca/marking-yom-hashoah.)
Prior to the streamed event, Grade 7 students at Vancouver Talmud Torah elementary school lit candles of remembrance. King David High School students Liam Greenberg and Sara Bauman ended the ceremony with a musical presentation.
Earlier, another ceremony was livestreamed from the National Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa. Emceed by Lawrence Greenspon, co-chair of the National Holocaust Memorial Committee, the event featured ambassadors and Canadian elected officials and was presented by CIJA, the National Capital Commission, the embassy of Israel in Canada and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of CIJA, said the day of remembrance is intended to be as much “prospective as it is retrospective.”
“As we remember, we also reaffirm our resolve to combat the hatred that still plagues our world today, perhaps more so than at any time since those dark days of the Shoah,” he said. “There is an urgent imperative to sound an alarm and refuse to let its ring be silenced. Hate is no longer simmering in dark corners, relegated to the discredited margins of civil society. It has, in many respects, increasingly asserted itself in the mainstream public square. It has become normalized.
“Countering hate speech is both a necessary and essential imperative to preventing hate crime,” he said. “So let us resolve, collectively here today and across this great country, to give special meaning to our remembrance by fulfilling the pledge, ‘never again.’”
Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, told the audience that his grandmother’s entire family was murdered in the Shoah. He denounced the misuse of that history.
“Any claim, inference or comparison to the Holocaust that is not in fact the Holocaust only acts as a distortion to the truth of what happened to the victims,” he said. “Invoking any element of the Holocaust in order to advance one’s social or political agenda must be called out as a form of distortion and, indeed, denial.”
Germany’s ambassador to Canada, Sabine Sparwasser, noted that, in addition to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it was also recently the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was devised.
“No country has a greater responsibility to learn from the past and to protect the future than Germany,” she said. “Remembrance is the only option. This sacred duty is the legacy of those who were murdered and of those who survived the horrors of the Shoah and whose voices have gradually disappeared. The greatest danger of all begins with forgetting, of no longer remembering what we inflict upon one another when we tolerate antisemitism, racism and hatred in our midst.”
Other speakers included Ahmed Hussen, minister of housing and diversity and inclusion; the American ambassador to Canada, David L. Cohen; Mayor Jim Watson of Ottawa; Andrea Freedman, president and executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa; and Dr. Agnes Klein, a survivor of the Holocaust.
Governor General of Canada Mary Simon welcomed Ronen Hoffman as Israel’s new ambassador to Canada during a formal presentation ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Dec. 7, 2021. (photo from Government of Canada)
Israel’s new ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, is a hockey dad. Plus, he wants to fight terrorism and antisemitism, strengthen research and development projects between the two countries, and forge ties with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He also needs to remember to wear his winter coat when he leaves for work.
Hoffman, 58, arrived in Ottawa in the week of Hanukkah to take up his new duties. The diplomatic post had been vacant for two years, since Nimrod Barkan stepped down in November 2019. With the instability in Israeli politics – until Naftali Bennett’s government took office in June 2021 – and the COVID pandemic hampering international travel, Hoffman wasn’t able to arrive until just a few weeks ago.
Hoffman was born to a farming family in Afula, in the Jezreel Valley. He hasn’t been to Canada since he was in his 20s, when he did some traveling after the army while working as a shaliach (emissary) to a Jewish summer camp in Atlanta, Ga. Hoffman was an aide to former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was on the team negotiating the unsuccessful peace talks with Syria.
After earning his doctorate in 1999, Hoffman was elected to the Knesset in 2013 as a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. He did a stint as co-chair of the Israel-Canada Parliamentary Friendship Group. This is his first posting as an ambassador. He is a father of three; his partner is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute.
On Hoffman’s first Christmas in wintry Ottawa, he made a TikTok video showing him walking through Lansdowne Park, trying out his snowball throwing technique and doing some tobogganing. (He didn’t wear winter boots, though.)
CJN: Describe what it was like when you presented your credentials to Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, Mary Simon, on Dec. 7, 2021.
RH: Well, I have to say that it was a very moving and a wonderful ceremony. I went there with my family, which is here with me, my partner and my 4-year-old son, Tomer, and my team from the embassy. There were three other ambassadors that also presented: the ambassadors of the United States, Spain and Sri Lanka. It was an opportunity for us to get a little bond together and speak to each other. And, of course, meeting the governor general and her spouse and the people. I’m very happy that we had an opportunity to really do it, not through Zoom or through the internet, but really do it there, face to face.
CJN: Did you wear or bring or do anything that meant something meaningful to you?
RH: Yes. Can you see the little lapel pin on my jacket? Can you see these Canadian and Israeli flags here? Around it, we have an orange pin, in solidarity with the Indigenous people, also. It was just a little gesture, and I feel that’s part of what I’m going to do here. I would like to educate myself more on the First Nations communities here. I feel that there is a common ground for us to stand on, all of us, as the Jewish people, who for us the state of Israel is, in essence, a return of the Jewish people to our indigenous homeland and traditions and culture. My goal is to build bridges of dialogue, cooperation, collaboration with communities, and we really wanted to show that we care.
CJN: Would you say that you’re planning to reach out to the Assembly of First Nations and all the Indigenous groups … to try to meet them?
RH: Absolutely. I’m the Israeli ambassador to Canada, not only to Ottawa and not only to a specific province. It’s a big and wonderful and beautiful country with lovely people. And so, of course, I intend to travel throughout the country and meet as many people as I can and community members and heads of communities. It would be an important part of what I’m going to do here.
CJN: Let’s move on a little bit towards your agenda. You’re coming to Canada seven months after the war between Hamas and Israel, where Canada’s Jewish community experienced an unprecedented level of antisemitism not seen since the Second World War. First of all, were you surprised when you heard about what the Canadian Jewish community was feeling? And what is your mandate to deal with this here in Canada?
RH: I can’t say that I was surprised because, before I became an ambassador, I’ve been a lecturer. And, as a lecturer, I met with many delegations from the Jewish communities of North America, including Canada, who came to Israel. I heard a lot before the conflict in May about challenges and opportunities of the Jewish communities here, vis-à-vis other communities and vis-à-vis other minorities and governments. I’m aware of the antisemitism and I agree with you that the wave around the conflict in May has been a tremendous one, one that has been very significant when you compare it to previous waves.
I think that, as Israeli diplomats, my role as an Israeli ambassador to Canada is to help and to coordinate, to cooperate and to join forces in the combat of antisemitism and anti-Zionism and anti-Israel [sentiments]. They’re all connected to each other. Sometimes, some of the people would say, ‘Oh, some of these activists just want to show some criticism towards the government of Israel.’ It’s not that. It’s much deeper than that. Maybe now it’s not hidden anymore. They’re actually against the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. This is antisemitism. And I think that the Jewish communities here in Canada are not alone in facing this threat and challenge: the Israelis, your brothers and sisters and families, we all face the same kind of challenge in this respect. So, of course, part of my mandate is to work hand in hand with the leaders of the Jewish communities here, and try to find ways to combat it together.
CJN: It’s a big part of your mandate. But it wasn’t number one on the list. Your number one priority for your mandate is?
RH: It is to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Canada, which have very close relations, a very close friendship, and we have shared and we still share common values and common interests. And, like Canada, Israel is committed to human rights, to justice, to the rule of law. We are liberal democracies. We also have shared interests, for example, to combat terrorism, global terrorism, to help to create more stability in our areas, in our regions and to work together vis-à-vis opportunities and challenges. That is, I would say, my number one goal here: to continue and to strengthen those bilateral relations and the close friendship that Israel has with Canada.
CJN: What concerns does the Israeli government have about Canada’s decision during the May hostilities with Hamas to give money – about $25 million – to agencies such as UNRWA that have had a very problematic history when it comes to anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and Jew-hatred materials? How does Israel feel about that?
RH: We face some organizations, international and Palestinian organizations, that call themselves organizations that care for human rights, and they kind of hide behind that high language and terms that we are all committed to. But, actually, they are terror organizations. Our concern is that our friends around the world, including Canada, would be with us, looking at those organizations, exposing the lies and getting to see exactly what they’re doing. This is a concern in our mission and a real objective as part of our diplomatic work.
CJN: OK, so back to your mandate and what you’re here for. In a news release when you presented your credentials to the governor general, you said that you want to help with start-ups, and harness Israeli know-how to help Canada solve problems. Is there any area in particular that you want to focus on? We just finished re-upping the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, which was re-signed under a previous Trudeau government. What more is there to do?
RH: There’s a lot to do. Look, Israel and Canada are closely working on finalizing a research and development agreement to mutually invest in know-how in joint research projects, and innovation in several fields, such as food tech, health tech, environment, energy and climate security. And then, of course, letting start-ups and the industrial ecosystem get to know each other and to develop ties and relations. We’re working on it. And I’m optimistic here. I think that we could really enlarge our relationship and find and create more joint projects on innovation. This is, again, one of the first high priorities on my agenda.
CJN: Would you say that there’s a date when they are expecting to sign it? In 2022 or 2023?
RH: There is no specific date. But, as an ambassador, I’m going to push and I’m going to try to do it as soon as possible. And it’s just one specific agreement – I have some ideas for other agreements, as well, to start MOUs [memoranda of understanding]. Every agreement or project starts with dialogue, right? So, my idea is to create more dialogue between government to government, meaning some of the ministries in Israel that are relevant to innovation, hopefully, would speak in a structured dialogue process to some of the ministries here in Canada – for example, the ministries of energy and ministries of environment, agriculture and others. And so, we’ll set a set of several bilateral dialogues that eventually, I hope, would produce new agreements.
CJN: A lot of the research work is done at the university level, though, and that brings us to the problem where a lot of Canadian universities have faced the boycott, divestment and sanctions issue, with clubs or groups of academics trying to have the BDS policies adopted. How can the Israeli ambassador and the Israeli embassy negotiate this minefield to bring about your MOUs and this cooperation?
RH: Well, I think that there are at least two ways to go about it. One is to differentiate between the political talks around campuses and the industry of lies, and cooperate in joint research: start new projects with universities, connect universities here to universities in Israel and work together on tikkun olam, of doing something that the world would be able to benefit from. We have so many other scholars and researchers who we should work with. We should fight and combat against this BDS and all these things, but, at the same time, cooperate with our friends.
CJN: I know you were involved with Canadian parliamentarians before. How does that prepare you for this job?
RH: As a member of Knesset (2013-2015), I then chaired – from the Israeli side, of course – the Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Association with Canada, and it enabled me to meet some members of the Canadian Parliament … and host them in Israel. When they came in a delegation, it helped me to understand the political system here, better, I would say. But now, when I’m here, I have to tell you that I have so much more to learn. I knew a little bit, but I have to say I’m fascinated by the political system here and by the structure and by the Constitution and the history of it. It’s different than the political system that we have in Israel. We have a multi-political party system based on coalition. We have small political parties who have been and still are the king-makers. The power of veto in our political system, it’s different. We have a prime minister and a president, but we don’t belong to any other group of countries like the Commonwealth. It’s fascinating.
CJN: Had you ever been to Canada at all before this time?
RH: When I was a student, I was sent by the Jewish Agency to be shaliach to a JCC summer camp here in North America, in Atlanta, Ga. And, every summer after the camp, we still had the visa, that would enable us to travel for a few more weeks. So, for a few summers, I remember that, after finishing the camp, I came here to Canada and I traveled, mainly in the west, I have to say, in the Rockies and in Vancouver and British Columbia, but I remember being in Toronto and Niagara Falls.
When I was a kid, I grew up in kind of an outdoor atmosphere. My father was a farmer and I was educated with a love and appreciation for the environment and for the outdoors. I remember when I first came to Canada as a traveler, the nature, the environment, the outdoors impressed me so much. And now, as an ambassador, again, this is another thing I would like to do, to learn from you in Canada – how to appreciate the environment and the outdoors. I think that Israel can contribute, but also can learn from Canada at many levels and many aspects.
Son plays hockey
CJN: So, let’s pivot to some more fun things. I was told to ask you about your son in hockey. That is a door opener to anybody in Canada – just mention that and they’ll greet you with open arms! Are you allowed to tell me? Will your son kill you? (He now plays on the Columbia University men’s hockey team in New York.)
RH: Well, he will kill me anyway, but I’m going to tell you! I have three children. Eitan is my oldest: he’s 26 now, he’s a student at Columbia University in New York. My daughter, Tamara, is 24, and she’s also a student at Columbia University in New York. And my little son, Tomer, is 4 years old and he is here in Ottawa with me.
When Eitan, my oldest, was in elementary school in Israel, hockey just started to be introduced to Israel by friends who immigrated from Russia. But since, in Israel … there was only one [ice arena at the time,] in Metula, in the north [founded with the financial help of Canadians] … they started with roller hockey. My son started when he was in the first grade, or second, and, at some point, they started to build ice arenas for ice hockey. So, he moved from roller hockey to ice hockey.
By the time when he was 16 or 17, he was the captain of the youth national team and they were part of hockey in the Europe leagues and they competed there. And, at some point, they became number two in Europe – the Israelis who had no hockey in our tradition. I was very proud then.
And now, of course, he’s in New York … and, hopefully, he could come here. We will go together to hockey games, and he will explain to me what it’s all about, because that’s another thing I need to learn, right?
CJN: But if you are a hockey dad, you would know all this stuff, like going to the arenas with your thermos of coffee and being cold. Right? You never did that?
RH: Of course I did it. I went with him to Europe. I accompanied him and, yeah, well, I know how it feels, but I still need some explanation. The teams and who’s against who. I still need to learn.
CJN: And the European rinks are different. But what number did he wear in Israel?
CJN: Any particular reason?
RH: I don’t know how it started, but it was 88 and his last name, because I’m proud of him saying our last name. Under the number 88, Hoffman.
CJN: OK. So, unfortunately, Israel is not going to be in the hockey part of the Beijing Winter Olympics. They didn’t make it, but they’re number 34 overall in the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation] rankings. Are you a hockey fan at all?
RH: Not a hockey fan, for sure. But now is my opportunity; now it is my opportunity to become a real hockey fan.
CJN: All right. What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you since you came to Canada as an ambassador?
RH: OK, look, it’s not that funny, but whenever I leave home and get into the car to go somewhere, I’m still forgetting to take my coat…. I’m still used to going out with almost just a T-shirt, but it’s taking me longer than I expected to get used to winter.