In November 2020, Irwin Cotler was named Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In the 1970’s, Irwin, then a Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at McGill University and later a Member of Parliament in Canada and Canada’s Justice Minister, together with the late Harry Crowe, founded the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East (CPPME). It was an organization of academics focused on the Middle East and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian problem with a mandate of raising the level of awareness on the very many dimensions of the conflict. To that end, many academics traveled together to Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and sometimes Jordan and Egypt on study tours. Harry Crowe also started a periodical, Middle East Focus (MEF) that became a mainstay of investigation and publishing on the issues of the day under discussion.
Some of those academics began to play some active roles as well. David Dewitt and I became involved in the Track II efforts at peace negotiations in the 1980’s. Irwin Cotler was active much earlier and undertook a visit to Syria pioneering work on behalf of Syrian Jewry when he was an academic visitor at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank.
When Boutros-Ghali (later Secretary-General of the United Nations) was the president of that think tank, Irwin played an introductory role in the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal. Since the end of the Yom Kippur War, Anwar Sadat of Egypt had been searching for ways to shift Egypt’s course away from confrontation with Israel in order to recover the territories it had lost to Israel in previous wars. Sadat used Boutros-Ghali, a good friend, to arrange a meeting between himself and Irwin. Sadat wanted to send a message to Menachem Begin, the new Israeli Prime Minister, that he was open to peace talks on two conditions:
- Israel withdraw from the entire Sinai
- Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Begin was initially closed to either possibility. However, Irwin’s initial and subsequent meetings led to the establishment of a backdoor channel between Sadat and Begin. That backdoor channel led to Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the eventual peace agreement.
The background story is just as intriguing as the backdoor diplomacy for it melded inter-personal romance with international diplomacy. Irwin’s wife, then Ariela Zeevi, was Begin’s parliamentary secretary at the time. Irwin, even though then someone who probably identified with the Labour Party at the time, on the return from one of his trips to Syria where he had conferred with the Jews there, traveled to Israel to brief Israeli politicians. I recall to this day the vivid description Irwin gave to me of the Jews on one street where Syrian Jews had their businesses being guarded at each end by an armed Palestinian and where they were asked to show ID every time they left or returned to the street.
Ariela was in attendance at Irwin’s briefing on Syrian Jews in Jerusalem as the eyes and ears of Begin. I once teased her long ago that she sent a note to Irwin on that occasion asking him if he was available to meet Begin, but, in reality, so she could meet this charming, young, charismatic and committed Zionist from Canada more than to get Irwin to brief Begin on Syrian Jews. That was how Irwin met his wife, Ariela. That was how Irwin met Begin. And that was when he brought up the issue of Sadat’s desire to travel to Jerusalem to meet Begin and discuss peace. What followed was the historic invitation Begin extended to Sadat.
That year, 1977-1978, I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor in the philosophy department of Hebrew University. There was no way that I was going to miss Anwar Sadat along with Simon Peres and Begin appearing on the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre on 19 November 1977 for such an historic occasion. I wangled an invitation as an ostensible journalist writing for Middle East Focus (MEF) (I wrote many academic articles for the magazine, but it was a real stretch to call myself a journalist. Further, MEF was then still only a dream in Harry Crowe’s eye at that time.) I suppose I could have tried to use pull through Irwin, but our conversations at the time were too full of his accounts of his courtship with Ariela; there was little time left for international affairs.
It was indeed a dramatic occasion. Anwar Sadat addressed the audience on the promise of peace. Shimon Peres talked about the challenges that stood in the way and the courage and commitment Israelis had to meet those challenges. Begin spoke about the deep scars of the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche with the clear implication that a great deal of effort was required on the other side to overcome Israeli suspicions and wariness. Begin was not immediately ready to buy into Sadat’s offer of exchanging captured Egyptian land for peace and, at the very least, initiating direct talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (the PLO) which Menachem Begin considered a terrorist organization.
But the evidence supporting an openness to peace was widely evident in that Boutros-Ghali had been appointed Foreign Minister. Tahseen Bashir, Sadat’s chief-of-staff, was reputed to be a peacenik. And the ace-in-the-hole was Jihan, Anwar Sadat’s wife, who let Sadat and others know that it was time to forge peace with the Zionist state. (For a more detailed version of the story, see the one that appeared in the Canadian Jewish Record on 8 December 2020.)
Unfortunately, Middle East Focus did not exist at the time so I never had an opportunity to write up my observations and analysis. When MEF did come into existence, I am convinced that it played a very important role in raising the level of Canadian awareness on the issues. One of the casualties of the Oslo Accords was the demise of both the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East and our stellar periodical. For we thought peace had arrived. We were no longer really needed. The Jewish community had other priorities. So did we. And each of us put our major energies into other endeavours.
What does that say about the clairvoyance of academics looking into the future? In any case, many of us felt the deep loss when events turned for the worse. It was not that we did not have available other journals and other outlets. But none with a particularly Canadian angle.
Recently, a small group of academics and others who have been intimately concerned with Israel met together. They had all maintained a high degree of involvement concerning the Middle East. One idea raised was the possible revival of Middle East Focus as a twenty-first century electronic journal. It would, of course, not be the same. For one, we saw it initially servicing the interested general community rather than having a singular focus on academia. It could be an information-sharing instrument for the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. After all, there is so much more that is available and accessible to anyone now than was not available three decades ago.
Each issue would be sent out, not as a single publication, but as a series of dispatches from different departments intermixed with articles. The departments could include:
- Forthcoming webinars over the following two weeks.
- Lists of podcasts available by category.
- Lists of previously distributed recorded webinars by topics.
- References to relevant articles that had appeared in the past month with perhaps brief summaries of them.
- New books and references to reviews of those books relevant to the concerns of the periodical.
- Notices of events being put on by various Canadian Jewish organizations that relate to the concerns of the magazine.
- Publications of critical documents as part of the historical background, the changing interpretations of their provisions and the impact of the different interpretations on the peace process.
- Memories and recollections of specific past historic events that can throw light on the present.
There are other ideas. But this list suggests the flavour. Other suggestions would be welcome. More significantly, if antone would like to become involved in the production of the periodical or contributing material, please contact Howard Adelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make the above suggestions more concrete, I include one example – Forthcoming Webinars. I will send others in subsequent blogs. Let me know if you find this list useful and we welcome suggested improvements.
FORTHCOMING WEBINARS (times are eastern standard time)
Date Day Start End Sponsor Topic Speakers
23 Tues. 11:00 APME Settlements ICC Michael Sfard
12:00 ASMEA Clash of Civilizations Lewis, Ajami
12:00 PeaceNow Israel’s 23 March elections Merav Michaeli
12:30 2:00 York U World Social Justice Guild, Okafor, Fursky
2:00 3:00 IPF Israel, Iran, Region Ben Goldenberg
4:30 6:00 Moment Hitlers’ Food Tasters Gabriel Rosenfeld
8:00 HRC Resurrecting Iran Deal Mark Dubowitz
24 Wed. 9:00 10:00 Brookings A conversation with H.E. Barham Salih
10:15 “ A conversation with Rep. Gregory Meeks
11:00 “ A conversation with H.E. Nasser Bourita
12:00 “ Panel: European priorities in the Middle East
11:00 12:00 Munk Changing Face of Diplomacy – panel
12;00 ICEJ “Who are the Jews? Rabbi Moshe Cohn
12:00 Brandeis Germany, Israel, Palestine Abraham Gator
25 Thurs. 9:00 a.m. Brookings- An address by His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein
9:10 a.m. – – A conversation with H.E. Dina Kawar
10:00 a.m. – A conversation with Dr. Anwar Gargash
10:45 a.m. – – A conversation with H.E. Sabri Boukadoum
11:45 a.m. – Panel: The Biden administration and Iran
12:00 1:00 ` APN Electing New Knesset Merav Michaeli
11:00 12:00 FMEP ICC & Israel-Palestine Gallagher, Jabareen, Kearney, Stein
12:00 APN Elections: Labour Party Merav Michaeli
26 Fri. 9:30 11:00 LEARN Refugees, Knowledge, Representation
10:00 a.m. — A conversation with former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
11:00 a.m. — Panel: Dealing with conflicts and their aftermath
2:00 p.m. — Conclusion and lessons learned: MENA and the new U.S. administration
28 Sun. 10:00 Yeshiva U. Contemporary Jews in Iran Schacter, Abale