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

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