Why Canada’s Jews should stand up for Russia’s gays

And the case for boycotting the Sochi Olympics


AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

Every Jew in the diaspora has heard the warning: Canada is among the safest places on Earth to be Jewish, and so are the United States and Britain, but that is exactly what our grandparents said about Germany in the 1920s. Israel is necessary, not only as a homeland, but also as a refuge of last resort. Israel, we tell ourselves, must always be there, in case the worst happens again—a collective insurance policy against history repeating.

For most of the last half-century, this insecurity has had two sides. One has been steadfast support for Israel’s survival, if not always for the policies of its government. The other has been activism for universal human rights. If others are safe, we tell ourselves, then perhaps we will be too.

Hence, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Canadian Jewish Congress was a prominent force behind the drafting of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Jewish groups lobbied successfully for the protections of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The congress was a leading voice for indigenous rights and LGBT equality in Canada, and for the prevention of genocide around the world.

But the congress ceased to exist in 2011, when it was replaced by a new umbrella organization called the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, or CIJA. Canadian Jewish advocacy for Darfur, for LGBT rights, for indigenous peoples and for the elimination of poverty all but ended immediately. In its final year, the congress’ entire senior leadership marched in Toronto’s Pride parade. CIJA’s brass has not showed up since.

Canada, whose constant improvement had always been central to the congress’ mission, has now even vanished from its successor’s name. Yes, individual Jewish Canadians continue to advance the causes that have long defined our community, but the institutions that represent us have now adopted a singular, narrow focus: Israel, right or wrong. As Canada’s political parties have come to see Jews as single-issue voters, our self-appointed leaders have seemed determined to act the part.

But we now have an urgent opportunity to break character—or, rather, to return to it—and to defy our own narrowing expectations of ourselves. Today, on the other side of the world, in a country that many of our families once fled, another group is being persecuted as they were on the same soil. Canada’s Jews should prove our commitment to the values that protect us at home by standing up for those who are denied them abroad—and we should start with Russia’s LGBT community.

On June 29, some 50 Russians celebrated gay pride in St. Petersburg—or tried to, anyway. Their countrymen threw stones and smoke bombs. Then the police carted the gays away.

On July 3, President Vladimir Putin signed new legislation that bans the adoption of Russian children by foreign same-sex couples—and also by anyone who lives in a country that allows same-sex marriage, Canada included.

There is more to come. Another new law prohibits “gay propaganda”—essentially anything that so much as hints at tolerance of gay people. Hate crimes, meanwhile, continue unabated, even as their savagery escalates.

This odious, systematic, homophobic bigotry will provide an inescapable backdrop to Russia’s next big turn on the world stage: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. If Russia’s campaign against gays is enough to justify their boycotting Canada’s adoptive parents, then it should also be enough to justify a Canadian boycott of Russia’s Olympics. Our country’s Jewish leaders should call for nothing less.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein catalogued the Russian government’s anti-gay agenda and pleaded for action that is now long overdue: “American and world leaders must speak out against Mr. Putin’s attacks and the violence they foster,” Fierstein wrote. “In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war.”

If the Russian government were passing legislation that discriminated against Jews, Canada would have announced a boycott of the 2014 Olympics already. That we have been so placid about Canada’s looming participation in what will be a massive public relations coup for Vladimir Putin’s gay-hating regime is both shortsighted and historically myopic. Russia’s LGBT community is being openly persecuted by its own government. Those of us whose ancestors once stood in the same line of fire have a moral obligation to be anything but complacent.

Yes, an Olympic boycott would be a serious loss to Canada’s top athletes, who will have trained for four years to defend our unprecedented gold-medal haul from the 2010 games in Vancouver. But what of Canada’s gay athletes and spectators? Three years ago, we hosted the most gay-friendly Olympics in history. In six months, those whose identity we so proudly celebrated in Vancouver may be forced into silence in Sochi.

Those who oppose a boycott typically point to its likely futility; the Russians are going to persecute gays whether we show up or not, the thinking goes, so why not show up? Because the modern Olympics are as much about promoting the host country as they are about promoting international excellence in sport. Canada’s own self-promotion before, during and after the Vancouver Olympics is a case in point. Showing up at Putin’s games would allow the Olympics to overshadow his government’s human rights abuses. Not showing up would ensure that the opposite happens.

Even if Sochi becomes a momentary bubble of tolerance, and even if openly gay athletes reach the podium, the story in Russia, if not everywhere else, will be the games’—and the regime’s—success. After all, do we really expect Russia’s media to highlight the sexual orientation of medal-winning LGBT athletes?

None of this is to detract from the efforts of those who are working tirelessly to make the world of sport a safer place for LGBT athletes. But such efforts are really only meaningful in places where tolerance is already becoming the norm and where the locker room is an increasingly isolated refuge for homophobia. Gay athletes in Canada, the United States, Western Europe and Australia are, for the most part, secure everywhere except in sport. Gay athletes in Russia cannot say the same.

This argument would apply with equal force if the Olympics were set to take place in some reincarnation of Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa—and it would then be made forcefully by the North American Jewish community. Russia’s imminent star turn should be no different.

Canada’s Conservative government has entrenched LGBT rights in the “dignity agenda” at the core of its foreign policy. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s condemnation of anti-gay legislation in Uganda has been exemplary. Yet, that same government is set to pay for Canada’s participation in Vladimir Putin’s Olympics, in what is fast becoming one of the most officially homophobic countries in the world. For Canada’s Jewish community, which has long cultivated and exercised considerable foreign policy influence, such an obvious double standard should be more than a matter of concern—it should be a call to action.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter, and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him at www.twitter.com/adamgoldenberg.


Why Canada’s Jews should stand up for Russia’s gays

  1. Wow. You are correct. We should boycott. I will talk to my MP. Thanks.

    • BDS Israel.

  2. Thank you Adam for the reminder of the mistake we made as a Jewish community by deciding to close down the Canadian Jewish Congress.

    • As an Officer of CJC up to the date of its demise, I can’t agree with you more. It’s a shame that the Canadian Jewish community were not aware of what was happening and did not speak up.

      • … on the contrary Mindi.

        It was when the Jewish community finally woke up and learned how decrepit the CJC had become under Bernie’s (and your) leadership did they finally act by demanding it be shuttered.

        Top of a very long list of it’s malfeasance was abusing its position by agitating against every Canadian’s basic human right of free speech while elevating that feeble minded CEO Bernie Farber as the Grand Inquisitor in Canada for both real and imagined speech violators.

        Shame on you as a Officer of CJC for contributing to destroy a once venerable Canadian Jewish institution.

  3. The best take I’ve read on this yet.

  4. … dream on Adam.

    The Canadian Jewish Congress, once a revered 90 year-old Canadian Jewish institution had devolved into a corrupt hyper-partisan Liberal (dis)organization that “progressively” went against every Jewish Canadian’s interest with each passing day.

    Led by Bernie Farber, an egotistical dimwit of feeble ability and intelligence, the CJC was seen by most Canadian Jews as a joke.

    Like a horse with a broken leg, putting it out of its misery was the kindest thing that could be done.

  5. Excellent article – I’m a non-Jewish gay guy from Scotland btw! However, we must remember that less than 20 years ago similar laws were in place in the UK under Thatcher. I am delighted that gay rights are finally being seen in a similar light to racial/anti-Semitic ones but its taken a while for the non-gay community to support them. Onwards and upwards – lets just hope that Russia (and Africa) follow eventually…

  6. I don’t see why the sacrifice of so many should be asked for, for the sake of the slightly possible enjoyment of so few.

  7. While I support gay rights, and think Russian treatment of the gay community is despicable, there is a fundamental difference between genocide and discrimination. Nearly every Muslim country discriminates against its Christian and Jewish populations, but Canada would NOT boycott their Olympics I bet. However, if they tried to host olympics in Darfur, I bet we would. It hurts your argument to try to just minimize or ignore vast differences in those 2 comparisons.

    • No, here the comparison is apt: look at the 1935 Nuremberg Laws before the 1936 Olympics. They criminalized a hated minority class: this is indeed exactly what’s happening here. To be openly gay — or support someone who is, including family — you can be arrested in Russia today. Your analyses of what we would and wouldn’t boycott are interesting though, and fodder for discussion, because yes, there are actual genocides going on in the world. But Russia is going down that route, and rapidly — gangs of neo-nazi thugs literally assaulting gay people camera, with explicit government support (and the support of the church, embodied by the evil Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill)

      • And the US and Canada were sterilizing mentally disabled people to prevent them from breeding……..You want to look at the RIGHTS of blacks in the US during the 30’s? Have you looked at say….. the anti immigration riots in Sweden which are happening in THIS decade? Just a question, where does your boycotting stop? I’ve done a little research please send me a link of where people have been arrested in Russia for saying they support their gay child.
        You seem awfully eager to throw out the phrase EVIL, anything that opposes EVIL is right and good? right?

        • What they are doing is evil. Support is illegal (even covering a news event about something gay requires a warning): but I did find a link about a poor kid whose parents have HELPED arrest him:

          “But it was his parents that helped to arrest Isakov on the Sunday, with his father helping police to bring him to the ground as his mother snatched the poster from his hands.” – See more at: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/russian-gay-activist-attacked-arrested-his-own-parents010713#sthash.2sJvzSLu.dpuf

          And, unsurpisingly, the Church backs the pogrom, even leading the violence!

          “Georgian Orthodox priests helped lead the mob of 20,000 people that violently attacked a small group of gay rights protesters in the capital of Tbilisi on Friday.

          What’s worse, a bishop in the church, Iakob Iakobashvili, who helped organize the counter-protests, refused to condemn the violence by his own priests.”

          And of course the newly empowered neo-nazis are already torturing gay teenagers publicly:

          As a gay man only in his 9th year of equal civil rights to other Canadians (and legally married) I am currently a one-issue guy, here and abroad, first- and third-world.

          • OK let me put this another way.
            1936 Olympics. Jesse Owens a “inferior” black man from the US wins four gold medals becoming a hero to millions. By your reckoning the US should have boycotted the games.

            How many gay athletes do you think there are in Canada? How many have spent almost their entire lives with the sole goal of competing in the Olympics. You propose to take that away from them. Not only do you wreck their dreams you deny them the chance to do what Jesse Owens did.
            But hey it’s for their own good, you obviously know what is best for them.

          • Totally agree with this comment.

          • So here’s an interesting strategic idea — a Winter Sochi Pride event on the same day as opening ceremonies, when all eyes are on Russia. This is great strategically, does not take away from the athletes, and i have to say the Russian gay community is extremely brave.

            “It’s official! The organising committee of Moscow Gay Pride and founders of the banned Pride House Sochi decided today against the boycott of Winter Olympics in Sochi and instead to organise Winter Sochi Pride on the day of the opening of Olympic Games on 7 February 2014. Join us! It will be much more effective to draw attention to official homophobia in Russia all around the world and expose the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee which went into discriminatory agreements with Russian regime and of the European Court of Human Rights which still has not considered our complaint concerning the unlawful denial to register Pride House Sochi! Vive Sochi Pride 2014!”
            – Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseyev


    • Although as you rightly point out there is a difference between genocide and discrimination how does genocide start? With the recent report of how teenagers are being tortured by neo-Nazi groups and other various beating that are being ignored by the authorities and the continuing arrests and isolation of those in the LBGT communities we can see the path that Russia is heading towards. Should we not act until genocide takes place or is after the event too late?

      I think of the poem “First they came…” by Martin Niemöller.

      • Russia is such a easy target. Maybe you should delve further and protest all the 1st world countries where exactly the same thing is happening? Don’t get me wrong, I believe in equal rights for everyone. I just find it interesting how people focus on EVIL countries and fail to look at what’s happening int heir own back yard.

  8. Short of Russia adopting the exemplary equaltiy and anti-hate speech laws Canada until recently had in place, the best thing would be if Canada went and every time they were interviewed had sharp words for Putin and his anti-gay policy. Canada could easily win the most medals – imagine if we kept beating the Russians and then spoke out against their anti-gay policy.

    This is also an issue our current government could easily get behind. Although they’ve been far too quiet about equality at home, (possibly as a result) they like to puff themselves up about atrocities abroad.

    • P.S. “Israel, we tell ourselves, must always be there, in case the worst
      happens again—a collective insurance policy against history repeating”

      if that was the thinking, you chose pretty much the single worst spot in the entire world for it.

  9. There will not be a boycott because Canada is usually lackadaisical in nature. Nothing will change and the Olympics will go on and be a great success. LGBT rights are the least important issue confronting our world – bottom of the food chain.

  10. This comment was deleted.

    • What garbage. “Protecting children????” By refusing to let orphans be adopted by gay people or any country with gay civil rights? Attacking gay people does nothing, absolutely nothing, to protect children. Most children are abused by their biological straight parents. 90% of child abduction is by one of the child’s estranged straight biological parents. Who is banning divorce? The Catholic Church has seen thousands of children sexually assaulted: 500 in the L.A. case this year alone. In other words, your child is safer with a GAY STRANGER than its mom, dad, or priest.

      Anyhow, I know you don;t really want to protect children, you just don;t like gay people, just thought I;d let you know.


  11. Unfortunately I have become biased against Canadians of Jewish decent because of their support of Israels abhorent treatment towards Palestine. Hard to listen to people whom I consider hypocrits :(.

  12. I cannot in good conscience support Israel with their abhorrent treatment of Palestinians. This conflict has been occurring since the creation of Israel in 1948 and the world has let it happen. Canada rather than playing the peace keeper role as it always has done decided to take sides. Canada on the world stage no longer has a clean record.

  13. Russia and China, the font of so many of the world’s problems: pollution, corruption, aggression, animal rights violators of the worst sort. It would be nice if they would evolve.

    • Canada and US….Went to War in the most foreign countries in the last 20 years and killed more people than both Russia and China.

      It would be nice if you evolve. Twit!

  14. This story is terrible…How does Canada treat it’s first nations, rampant racism and homophobia. Then Israel, rampant racists and neo conservatives from eastern bloc countries, performing genocide on the Palestinians….

    And we want to nail Russia for their homophobia, but they should serve up Snowdown for exposing the American Government as a police state, and not anything close to it’s original constitution.

    This is the type of media, that blindly promotes Harpos Agenda. Israel Good…Every body else evil.

    Israel should be relocated to Florida, and their they can suppress the immigrant hispanics…and make articles about the ill treatment of Drug Dealers in Mexico.

    I’m amazed that a magazine can cater to one specific religious group and criticize an entire country…without looking at our own back yard…maybe the RCMP in Saskatchewam should take all the people of Toronto for one of their late night winter drives.

    • I don’t think you understand what an article is, or by your definition every article on every magazine would be “OMG TONS OF BAD THINGS EVERYWHERE!”

  15. I always thought the ‘C’ in CIJA was for Conservative. Seems like such an overtly partisan organization that obviously every Canadian who associates with any other party would be excluded.

  16. Russia’s infringement on LGBT rights is terrible, there is no disagreement there. But I disagree that boycotting the Olympics is the answer to every political and human rights issue in the world. It would’ve been equally possible to boycott the Vancouver Olympics in opposition to the oil sands (or over its treatment of its first nations people) and the Beijing Olympics over China’s atrocious human rights record. The Olympics, at least as it was originally intended, is about bringing together the world’s youth through sport in common understanding of competition and fair play. Boycotting every single Olympics to make a political statement isn’t helpful, and surely there must be better tools in foreign policy than boycotting athletic competition between the world’s youth.

  17. 1936 Olympics. Jesse Owens a “inferior” black man from the US wins four gold medals becoming a hero to millions. By your reckoning the US should have boycotted the games.

    How many gay athletes do you think there are in Canada? How many have spent almost their entire lives with the sole goal of competing in the Olympics. You propose to take that away from them. Not only do you wreck their dreams you deny them the chance to do what Jesse Owens did.
    But hey it’s for their own good, you obviously know what is best for them.

  18. A lot of post stating “well, there are other atrocities in the world” or “well, Canada did terrible things in it’s history”.

    Neither of those excuse what’s going on today or justify ignoring it. People — mostly young people — are being incarcerated and beaten. If this escalates, and it will, more will likely be killed or executed.

    We can’t let that an injustice happen simply because there are other injustices in the world.

  19. At Toronto’s annual “gay pride parade”, only one country is excoriated. One country. Iran (where gays are executed for being gay)? Nope. Saudi Arabia (where people are executed for witchcraft and apostasy)? Nope. It’s Israel – the one country in the entire Middle East where it’s safe to be gay, and where gay pride parades take place. It is no coincidence that Israel is the only country excoriated at Toronto’s gay pride parade, and is also the world’s only Jewish country.

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