On the scene

World Jewish Congress gala honors former Canadian PM for Israel advocacy, combating antisemitism

WJC President Ronald Lauder stresses importance of recognizing allies amid increasing attacks on Jews, Jewish institutions, says Oct. 7 attacks reinforce ‘vital need to remember and educate’

Marking 85 years since Kristallnacht and amid an ongoing surge of antisemitism worldwide in the wake of Israel’s war with Hamas, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder told some 250 attendees at the organization’s gala dinner on Thursday that Jews today are “not alone.” 

“As we solemnly commemorate 85 years since Kristallnacht, the shadows of the past remind us of the urgent imperative to preserve history, especially as Jewish communities worldwide confront a resurgence of antisemitism following the wave of terror carried out against Israel by Hamas,” Lauder said.

“This attack, claiming over 1,400 Jewish lives, stands as the most devastating since the Holocaust, reinforcing the vital need to remember and educate,” he continued. “In doing so, we ensure that the phrase ‘Never Again’ transcends mere words, becoming a steadfast commitment to safeguarding Jewish lives and dignity everywhere.”

The event, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, recognized Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada, for his advocacy work for Israel and opposition to antisemitism. 

“His fight against antisemitism is a most articulate and enduring passion,” Lauder said while presenting Mulroney with WJC’s top honor, the Theodor Herzl Award. “None of us could imagine that Israel would be attacked, not just by Hamas but by the rest of the world. It makes our friends that much more important.”

WJC spokesperson Cory Weiss told eJewishPhilanthropy at the event that the program, originally planned before Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack in Israel, had to be altered “to account for the impact of the rise of antisemitism and attacks on communities.”

“Recognizing the importance of rallying to support Israel, WJC has reoriented each gathering we’ve had to rally the governments in support of Israel and call for the release of every hostage held by Hamas,” Weiss told eJP. 

Weiss noted that other events WJC has adapted since Oct. 7 include a meeting next week of Jewish parliamentarians in D.C. that is now on conflict response plans. An executive committee meeting previously scheduled in Zagreb, Croatia, on Holocaust restitution turned into an emergency meeting of more than 40 Jewish communities, Weiss said.

In his keynote address, Mulroney, Canada’s premier from 1984-1993, said that “in my dreams, antisemitism is no more,” calling it a “scourge that must be eradicated.”

He added that the global rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions — resurfacing 85 years after Kristallnacht is a testament to how deeply rooted antisemitism is.

“Canadians and Americans share an incontrovertible truth,” Mulroney continued. “We are all children of immigrants. We have been ennobled and enriched by every culture and religion that thrives in the rich soil of our freedom.” 

But Canada’s history has dark spots as well, Mulroney noted, pointing to former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1937 in Nazi Germany and King’s ensuing praise for Hitler. 

“There come times in a nation’s history when the failure to do the right thing has consequences so great that its footfalls haunt us through history. This was such a time, a time when Canada’s heritage and promise were dishonored,” Mulroney said. “The prime minister sets both the agenda and the tone in Ottawa. Is it any wonder then that Canada’s doors were slammed shut to Jewish immigrants before and during the war? Or that, when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada, a senior immigration official famously replied: ‘None is too many.’ Or that a shipload of desperate Jews were denied entry and instead sailed back to Europe on a voyage of the damned.”

Mulroney said that because of the positive experiences he had with the Jewish community while growing up in Quebec, he pledged that he would “do what [he] could to lift some of the stain from our national character left from that time in the 1930s when we abandoned the Jewish people at the very time in their history that they most needed our protection.”

Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, was also honored at the event. He was presented with the eighth WJC Teddy Kollek Award for the Advancement of Jewish Culture.

“His voice of ‘truth and common sense’ has advanced the fight against antisemitism and anti-Israel bias,” Lauder said of Stephens, who previously worked as foreign-affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal and as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post

“The reaction to the murder of Jews is euphoria,” Stephens said in his speech. “This is a road back to Kristallnacht.” He added that the replacement for “rotted-out” institutions should be “a new ecosystem of thought, creativity and culture.”

Previous recipients of the annual Herzl Award since its establishment in 2012 include Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; Pfizer chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla; U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.; Nikki Haley; then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Lord Jacob Rothschild and Baron David de Rothschild on behalf of the Rothschild family; Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell; President Joe Biden; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Elie and Marion Wiesel; and former Israeli President Shimon Peres. 

Actor Kirk Douglas, violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns are among past recipients of the Teddy Kollek Award.