This week, as Cardus launches its Canadian Religious Freedom Institute, Convivium publishes a column by Toronto Rabbi Chaim Strauchler that stands up for freedom of belief just as Allied soldiers stood up for Jewish comrades in a 1945 prisoner of war camp.
One morning in January 1945 at a POW camp in Germany, the Nazis announced that only the Jewish prisoners of war were to fall out after morning roll call.
"We're not going to do that," Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the highest-ranking Allied officer imprisoned at the Stalag IX-A camp, told his men. "Geneva Convention affords only name, rank and serial number, and so that's what we're going to do,” he replied, at the risk of losing his life. “All of us are falling out."
The 1,275 POWs who stepped out of their bunks did exactly that. When the camp commandant shouted at Edmonds, “You can’t all be Jewish,” he responded: “We are all Jews here.”
Rare is the opportunity to act heroically in defense of our most deeply held beliefs. This summer, the Jewish community in Canada has the opportunity to do something similarly heroic. We can defend the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression; we can be the defenders of equal protection of the law without discrimination, guaranteed to all Canadians by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
How can we do so? Allow me to explain.
The Canada Summer Jobs Program provides subsidies to employers across the country to create jobs for secondary and post-secondary school students. The positions include the typical jobs students tend to apply for in the summer – things like lifeguarding, lawn mowing, camp counseling, and burger flipping. The Summer Jobs program has been providing this valuable assistance, in one form or another, since the 1980s.
But late last year, the Liberal government in Ottawa changed the application process for the Summer Jobs Program. Now, all groups seeking federal funding are required to sign an attestation, too. In order to be a part of this program, employers must now acknowledge their support for a set of beliefs held by the government around hot-button issues like abortion and LGBT inclusion.
Most employers have signed the attestation, but some have not because doing so would go against their religious or personal beliefs. More than 1,400 applications have already been denied, compared to 126 in 2017.
It’s true that many Canadians agree with the government’s beliefs. Many Jews do, as well. However, as Canadians – and as Jews – we should not feel comfortable going along with the government’s required attestation. Because if we accept the government’ litmus tests, we participate in the exclusion of Canadians who do not share those beliefs, and that is unacceptable.
If 70 years ago, those POWs had allowed their Jewish friends to fall out alone, they would have been complicit in German discrimination. Similarly, if Jewish organizations accept government funding for summer jobs that is granted only to those who share the government’s beliefs, they too become complicit in discrimination.
Our students learn in school about bullies, victims, allies, and bystanders. We try to ingrain in them the idea that if bystanders do nothing, they contribute to the problem — by communicating to bullies that it is OK to carry on with their behaviour. Allies make it clear to others that they will not be involved in bullying.
Our government is not bad for wanting to distribute funds in ways that meet specific social objectives. Their intentions may be good, but their action – demanding that Canadians share their beliefs in order to receive funding – is a misuse of power, which will do great harm to our county. It is bullying.
We live in rapidly changing times. Beliefs that were widely held 10 years ago are now seen as wrongheaded, and vice versa. If we allow our government to discriminate against our friends based on their beliefs today, what will happen a decade from now? Will we fall on the wrong side of the new “right think?”
By not participating in a discriminatory process, Jewish organizations can do something heroic. By becoming allies to Canadians with “wrong” beliefs, we will make clear that our government should judge all of us based on the content of our character and actions, not by the form of our beliefs.
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