Address by Minister Baird to American Jewish Committee

May 14, 2014 - Washington, D.C.

Check Against Delivery

It’s a privilege to be speaking to so many distinguished guests and a pleasure to be here with so many friends.

I’m honoured to say I can count Hillary [Clinton] among those friends. And it was very kind of her to be my warm-up act… Seriously, though, Hillary and I are from different sides of the political aisle, but I struggled to find reasons to disagree with her when we were counterparts.

I came to have huge respect for her strength and her leadership. That’s partly, of course, because of the uniquely close relationship between Canada and the United States.

Our countries are close in the literal sense—I flew from our capital to yours last night in 90 minutes—but our countries are not just two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that happen to fit together.

Our bonds are deep, emotional and historical. And we are bound by common values and common interests.

We are each other’s biggest trading partners—not least from sharing in a North American boom in the energy sector. That’s a boom, by the way, that we are keen to continue with the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the prosperity and security that would come with it.

And time and time again, Canada and the United States have stood shoulder to shoulder on global issues. Standing against Russia’s provocations in Ukraine is a very real example of that at the moment.

So in some ways my diplomatic relationship with Hillary was always going to be one of the easiest ones to manage. But even so, I was grateful for her personal leadership on a number of issues—especially on the Jewish state. She is not just a great friend of Canada, but I can tell you from having worked with her that she is a great friend of Israel.

I’m also grateful to the AJC [American Jewish Committee] for its leadership. The AJC has been working tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish community—both in the United States and around the world—since long before politicians like me were born.

And you will no doubt be doing it for generations to come. Thank you for what you are doing.

I’d like to speak today not just about Canada’s position on the importance of the Jewish state, which I hope is very clear, but also about some of my recent experiences and travels as Foreign Affairs Minister, the values that inform Canada’s position and some of the challenges we face regionally and internationally in fighting threats to Israel and the wider Jewish community.

Canada has been a home to Jews for more than 250 years. Today there are nearly 350,000 Canadians who share your heritage and faith.

They are proud Canadians, and they are deeply rooted in our national life.

This was brought home to me when I had the honour to emcee a dinner for the Jewish National Fund of Canada in Toronto a few months ago.

This wasn’t a regular dinner party. There were more than 4,000 members of the local community there, in one room, having a kosher dinner together and raising money for public causes.

That event is just one example of the positive role Jews play in Canada. And you see the same thing here and in every country where Jews have found a home.

It’s been said many times before, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves that the Jewish people have been through some extraordinary hardships and come out of them achieving extraordinary things.

A few weeks ago, I was in Latvia and I had the very sobering experience of walking through Rumbula Forest. For those who haven’t heard of this forest—it is also a mass grave. Some 25,000 Jews were sent there to be shot by the Nazis.

I have to tell you, walking through this site—the very ground where such an unfathomable evil had occurred, reflecting upon the innocent blood that had been spilled—was one of the most emotional things I’ve done in a long time.

Later that day, the Latvian president and I stopped to plant a tree on the site as part of a nationwide tree-planting campaign there. Planting trees is symbolic of what the Jewish community as a whole has been doing ever since the terrible stain on human history that was the Holocaust.

On the same trip that covered Latvia, I had the opportunity to tour the Sinai region with the Canadian commander of the Multinational Force and Observers holding the ground between Egypt and Israel.

By helicopter we tracked the border south from the sea. And I could see very clearly the contrast between the dusty, barren land in Sinai and the meticulously cultivated land in Israel. It was a striking reminder of how much can be accomplished and the barren legacy that terrorism leaves behind.

Israel is a truly special nation. Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper put it well in his powerful speech at the Knesset in January:

“I believe the story of Israel is a great example to the world. It is a story of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society.”

That extraordinary society stands in stark contrast to many other nations in that region—and Canada stands with Israel in its pursuit of freedom, peace and security.

We believe a two-state solution is a key part of that pursuit.

The Middle East peace process is as sensitive as it is important, and I have great admiration for the way Secretary [of State John] Kerry has invested considerable personal time and effort into this important initiative. His courage, commitment and conviction on this are to be applauded.

Believe me, our support for Israel hasn’t always won us popularity contests at the United Nations. But we will not apologize for the positions we take, because we stand for what is right.

I look forward to the day when Israeli and Palestinian children can live side by side in peace and security in a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.

I also believe that dialogue is a virtue and must be pursued. But there can be no constructive discussion with anyone wedded to Israel’s destruction.

There can be no bargaining over Israel’s existence and no accommodation for anti-Semitism in any of its toxic forms.

Which brings me to Iran. It is now almost a year since the clerical regime in Iran installed a new president, Hassan Rouhani. His style stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of his predecessor. Which isn’t especially hard.

All of us, who have long despaired about the Iranian regime, want to believe that Iran is genuinely committed to positive change.

But we do not have the luxury of being naive, nor do the Iranian people, who have suffered for far too long under the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Human rights, particularly executions, are actually getting worse under his watch and at the hands of Iran’s so-called “Minister of Murder.”

Kind words, a smile and a charm offensive are not a substitute for real action, nor are they an effective mask to disguise the old hatred. That’s why I’m deeply skeptical about Iran’s intentions.

A nuclear Iran is a threat to Canada, it is a threat to Israel and our allies, and it would unwind decades of work on preventing nuclear proliferation around the world.

The P5+1 talks, as well as those with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], have created a framework for Iran to respond to serious concerns about its nuclear program. Yet only one of 12 “possible military dimensions” of the program is on the table as a means of building confidence.

Let us consider for a moment what a regime that is committed to real action on resolving our worst suspicions would ideally look like.

It would address all elements of the possible military dimensions. It would provide complete and unfettered access to its nuclear facilities and inform the IAEA of its future nuclear plans to validate the peaceful nature of its program. In short, it would not walk and talk like the current regime.

I truly hope I’m wrong on this and that current talks are successful in achieving a meaningful deal.

But until we are given real reasons to trust their words, Canadian sanctions will remain in full force.

I believe there remains a strategic problem with the very nature and conduct of this belligerent regime—a regime that oppresses with terror at home and sponsors it abroad.

And until the Supreme Leader’s words and actions produce the human rights that the Iranian people deserve, or until he ceases his sponsorship of terrorism abroad in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, Canada will remain skeptical of the regime’s intentions.

Not all threats to Israel and the region come in physical form. They come in barbed words and thinly disguised prejudices.

Richard Falk, the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, was one clear example of this.

I’ll admit: I was not at my most gracious and diplomatic in reacting to his recent retirement. But this was one retirement I felt good reason to welcome.

This is a man who used this one-sided role to consistently make openly anti-Semitic and misinformed comments about Israel.

Unfortunately, any relief at this small—and all too rare—step forward at the UN was not to last.

His wife, Hilal Elver, has now been appointed a special rapporteur. She has views on Israel that are just as repugnant and ill-judged.

I formally objected to her appointment and the State Department criticized it, but it was remarkably unremarked upon by others.

This is part of a wider trend. It’s sad to say, but in some circles anti-Semitism passes the dinner-table test.

In the West, anti-Semitism is not normally as crude in its language or form as the old hatred of previous centuries.

But it still has ways of seeping out, cloaked in references to Zionism or the State of Israel.

And so, in 2014, we are seeing calls from campaign groups for the boycott of Israeli businesses. These calls uncomfortably echo mistakes from the past. And they demand a vigilant response that repudiates hatred for what it is, and that cherishes those who cling closely to our shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

As I conclude, let me tell you about a conversation I had with a veteran Canadian journalist recently. After a lively interview about Israel, he told me about the time he was reporting on a meeting I had with the Palestinian Authority.

A member of their delegation had left notes behind, detailing what I was saying in the private meeting. The journalist picked them up, read them, and was surprised to see that I had told them exactly the same things that I had been saying publicly.

We cannot waver or “nuance” on our values if we are going to stop mistakes of the past from creeping back.

And you know what? People respect frankness. In fact, Canada’s relationship with the Arab world is stronger than it has ever been.

They understand our principled position on Israel. But they also respect the direct and honest relationship we have with them, and they value our shared perspectives on other regional issues.

Similarly, as a trusted friend of Israel, we are in a position to offer both words of encouragement and words of advice.

Ultimately, this isn’t about a particular nation, race or interest group. And it’s not about having a ledger where you balance out the risks and benefits of taking one position or another.

It’s about freedom, values and standing up for what’s right.

The days are gone when Canadian foreign policy was defined by simply taking the middle path.

By testing the temperature of those around the table and landing somewhere not too hot, not too cold.

Relativism isn’t leadership; it’s the easy way out.

Friends, we live in extraordinary times.

We can be defined by them.

Or we can define who we are in them.

Let’s choose the latter.

Thank you.

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