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Posted Tuesday, February 2, 1999

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February 2, 1999

Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien learns Auschwitz politics the hard way

Death camp protocol haunts Chrétien


AuschwitzIN VICTORIA -- Officials in the Prime Minister's Office spun last week's visit to Auschwitz as the first by a Canadian prime minister to a concentration camp, and must have been disappointed that it ended in vinegar. However, they should not have been surprised when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien got caught in the crossfire between the Jewish and Polish communities -- because while all politics are local, there are none like ethnic politics.

Originally, there had been no thought of inviting representatives of either community along on the trip, although some was given to including an Auschwitz survivor, the mother of Mr. Chrétien's senior policy adviser, Chaviva Hosek. Conceived as a Team Canada trade mission to Eastern Europe, planning was disrupted in late October as the Russian economy sank deeper and Canadian businessmen lost interest. When Boris Yeltsin suggested that Mr. Chrétien stay home too, a decision was made to cut out that leg but proceed with a diplomatic trip anyway.

Then, six weeks before departure date, the president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Moishe Ronen, got wind of the visit to the death camp through his brother Dan -- the Liberal candidate in Thornhill in the next Ontario election, and a friend of Defence Minister Art Eggleton.

The PMO is said to be eager still to reverse the perception in the Jewish community that when Saddam Hussein launched what many feared were chemically tipped Scud missiles at Tel Aviv in 1991, Mr. Chrétien was wavering on Canadian participation in the Persian Gulf war.

So, Mr. Ronen -- young, enterprising and always interested in increasing his group's visibility -- got on the phone to Ms. Hosek and suggested everyone would win if his organization were invited to tag along. Moreover, when her mother bowed out for personal reasons, he came up with the idea of asking his father, also a survivor of Auschwitz, to represent all victims of the Holocaust.

IN AGREEING to these suggestions, the PMO erred in two ways: First, it failed to understand the complex internal politics within the Jewish community. Second, it forgot about the Canadian Polish Congress.

Within days, Frank Diamant of B'nai Brith called to express his displeasure at not being invited, but the PMO told him that the Canadian Jewish Congress represented his entire community. Mr. Diamant -- who saw his competitor for funding, newspaper readership and visibility about to gain a leg up on him -- protested that his group was autonomous and had more members besides. After checking around and confirming these points, the PMO had no choice but to invite him, too.

Then the Canadian Polish Congress learned of the visit through the media, and asked to join the delegation to commemorate the non-Jewish Poles the Nazis exterminated. Knowing of the bitterness of world Jewry at the attempt by the Polish Catholic Church to place a convent and crosses at Auschwitz, PMO officials did not even raise their participation with Mr. Ronen. They told the Polish Congress that the visit was private, and offered to add them to the trade delegation.

The Polish Congress accuses the PMO of insensitivity and misleading them about the true nature of the trip, and is hinting at "profound political implications." Mr. Chrétien told the media accompanying him that everyone had been invited, while his spokesman said that the decision was not to single out any nationality.

By now, even the politics of coal in Cape Breton must look pale to the Prime Minister: The dispute touches on more than who went with him and who stayed home, pitting group against group over the nature of the Holocaust and its lessons. Watch for the conflict to heat up, and to draw in other ethnic groups, as the government stickhandles its way through the Jewish Congress's demand for a Holocaust museum in Canada.

Our opinion
Author Norman Spector was once chief of staff to Canada's most unpopular ever prime minister Brian Mulroney; he was the first Jew appointed Canadian ambassador to Israel; and, for a time, ran The Jerusalem Post for Conrad Black. [AR] He is therefore someone in a position to know whereof he speaks. One thing is sure: in far-away Canada the Auschwitz debate will linger on. We will follow it with the utmost interest.

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