The Pearl Grunzweig Memorial Lecture


to the Oxford University Chabad Society


PROF. IRWIN COTLER, former justice minister of Canada


Sixty years on from the Holocaust, the most systematic and sophisticated genocide in human history, we are forced to encounter the ultimate question: has humanity advanced and learnt its lessons from the past? Can genocide reoccur in front of the eyes of the world?


This was the subject of a lecture given by renowned expert on human rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Honourable Professor Irwin Cotler MP for the Oxford University Chabad Society.


Professor Irwin Cotler, who is at the forefront of a campaign to prosecute Iran's President Ahmedinejad for incitement to genocide, travelled from Canada to give the Chabad Society's annual Pearl Grunzweig memorial lecture. To give added flavour to the event, a special introduction was given by Cotler’s high school friend from Montreal, Professor Jerry Cohen, who is currently Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, fellow of All Souls College and who Professor Cotler described as "the wittiest and most brilliant philosopher in the world today".


Professor Cotler addressed the society on the influences and inspirations guiding his work. He said that it was guided by the principles that his father held dear, “justice, charity, and righteousness”. All these words are core Jewish values and found in the single Hebrew word, Tzedaka.


At the inauguration ceremony of his appointment to Justice Minister of Canada, he proclaimed, “I will be guided in my work by one overarching principle: justice, justice, and the pursuit of equality”. However, he qualified the pursuit of justice with the feeling of empathy. The philosophy “if you do not know what hurts me, you cannot love me" is a useful formula and should be a guide underlying ones mentality, he said. In today's age of constant fear of terrorism whether real or imagined, he said, knowing one's neighbours and their cultural roots on a personal level rather than through superficial generalizations is the only way of making informed decisions.


He therefore drew the following important observation, quoting the great Jewish sage, Hilel “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” This means, if Jews, for example, don’t affirm their history and heritage, ethos and ethics, values and heritage, they will be less able to convey themselves and be less able to help others understand them. Only then can they fulfil the second part of Hillel’s statement “If I am only for myself than who am I?” and will then be fit for campaigning for others.


Cotler believes that the principles of Judaism are based not only on respect but pursuance of justice. He declared that if Jews don’t get involved in human rights struggles of our time they are complicit by their complacency and silence. Furthermore, in his view, they would not be conducting their lives according to Jewish values.


The pursuit for justice is even more important when viewed in the context of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Nuremberg and on the eve of the 62nd anniversary of the UN, which Cotler said was founded specifically because of the holocaust of European Jewry.


In light of these anniversaries, he said, it must be asked, what has the world learned and what has been done to prevent similar genocides from happening again? Quoting Søren Kierkegaard, he said, "Life has to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards". Based on this philosophy, Cotler set out universal lessons of the Holocaust.


His biggest concern was related to the dangers of state sanctioned cultures and incitement to hate and genocide. The Holocaust indeed did not begin in gas chambers, but in Nazi teaching of racist hate.


He saw the irony of today’s times that countries who have signed the international declaration of human rights, stood aside during the unspeakable genocide in Rwanda. The same, he lamented, is regarding Darfur. Despite well mobilized grassroots efforts the political will of governments to act is still not there. He suggested not only popular protest but an inter-governmental Darfur summit to bring together all parties able to take political action to save Darfur.


It is most common to view the violators of human rights as violent groups and despotic governments. However, Professor pointed out the neglected phenomenon of what he called the treason and complacency of intellectual elites. As a man of action, he said that it is necessary to also hold accountable, doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers.


The greatness of a society can be measured by its treatment and care of the most vulnerable and powerless. The real test of human rights as taught to him by his daughter Gila can be summed up: Is it good for the children?


When asked "What his prediction of future is" he replied: "The future will look like what we say and do today!"