Newly-elected dual citizen Ya’ara Saks brings a distinct voice to Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, often contending with ire of Jewish constituents and anti-Semitism simultaneously
By Robert Sarner, The Times of Israel, January 12, 2021
TORONTO — Barely 24 hours into her new role as the first member of Canadian Parliament with dual Israeli citizenship, Ya’ara Saks was already attracting plaudits and fielding criticism from the country’s Jewish community. It was part of her initiation to joining Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government following her recent victory in a hard fought by-election in the Toronto district of York Centre, where 15 to 20 percent of the residents are Jewish.
In late November, just after being sworn in as Canada’s newest MP, Saks stood up in her parliamentary debut in Ottawa. Saying people in her district were extremely concerned by the rise in anti-Semitism and online hate speech, she turned to Trudeau, who has led the country since 2015.
“Could the Prime Minister tell the House,” Saks asked, “what our government is doing to combat anti-Semitism in Canada and around the world, and honor the memory of the six million Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust?”
First congratulating Saks on entering Parliament, Trudeau then addressed her question: “This government has repeatedly stated that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial have absolutely no place in our society.” As reinforcement, he then cited the announcement hours earlier that he had appointed former justice minister Irwin Cotler as Canada’s new special envoy on combating anti-Semitism and preserving Holocaust remembrance.
For raising the issue of anti-Semitism in her first parliamentary appearance, Saks gained approval from her Jewish constituents. But she also endured the ire of those upset by the government’s decision several days earlier to vote in favor of a pro-Palestinian resolution at the United Nations.
It wasn’t the first time Saks faced scorn from Canada’s Jewish community. During the fall election campaign, critics publicly lambasted her for past statements about Israel.
“Within the Jewish community in Canada, there’s a variety of opinions on what happens in Israel,” Saks told The Times of Israel in a recent interview on Zoom from her constituency office in Toronto. “It’s a place many align with culturally and religiously, but to varying degrees of affiliation and observance with a diversity of political views. Being a dual citizen of Canada and Israel with my lived experience there, my lens differs from that of many people here.”
Today, as a public figure, she’s more circumspect in her comments about Israel.
“I won’t pretend I agree with every initiative and policy of the current government in Israel,” said Saks, 47. “Comments I’ve written or statements I’ve made previously were a reflection of being involved there over many years. That being said, Israel is a democracy and chooses its leadership and politics as its population sees fit.”
Taking Israel ‘off the mantel’
Last year, after having observed many Israeli elections from afar with frustration, Saks decided she couldn’t sit on the sidelines again. Five days before Israel’s September 17, 2019, vote, she published an impassioned 1,700-word essay on her personal blog and a few days later in The Times of Israel’s opinion section.
“It was a split-second decision,” she wrote about flying back to the Holy Land to cast a ballot of her own. “Something deep inside me switched on. I could not simply passively watch another Israeli election happen with bated breath on the other side of the world. So just like that, I booked a ticket and I am home to vote.”
Not mincing her words, she depicted an Israel as built on tropes of fear, protracted conflict and rising religious extremism.
“Yes, it’s a start-up nation, yes, it’s innovative, modern and vibrant,” she added. “It’s also deeply divisive in its policies and current legislative attempts. It has legitimized devaluing the rights of non-Jewish citizens, and members of the LGBTQ community. It is deeply racist toward its minorities and does not see itself as a light and shelter or future home to asylum seekers fleeing war. More troubling is its drive to diminish the powers of justice, and elevate the powers of leadership and not hold it accountable to corruption and embedded cronyism.”
For all her strong criticism in the past, Saks insists Israel is central to her identity, describing herself as an “unapologetic Zionist.”
Despite the vociferous reaction from many Canadian Jews about Ottawa’s decision to support the recent UN resolution affirming the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, which some viewed as one-sided against Israel, Saks is comfortable with the vote. Still, she acknowledges some of its language was problematic vis-à-vis Israel.
“I’ve heard from many constituents that they’re disappointed with Canada’s vote and I understand where it’s coming from,” said Saks. “But our relationship with Israel is much stronger and deeper than can be defined in one vote… I don’t believe, nor do I think my government believes, that supporting Israel and supporting Palestinian self-determination are mutually exclusive of one another.”
Israel figures prominently in Saks’s life. Born in Toronto to an Israeli father and Canadian mother, her first spoken language was Hebrew. As a child, she spent her summers in Israel with relatives in the central Israeli town of Even Yehuda and later traveled often between the two countries. In 1995, after graduating from Montreal’s McGill University with a BA in Middle East Studies and Political Science, she moved to Israel, attracted by the promise of the Oslo Accords for a better future between Israel and the Palestinians.
She spent the next 11 years based in Jerusalem, where she completed her MA at Hebrew University in International Relations and Diplomacy on Israeli-Palestinian relations and worked in City Hall under then-mayor Ehud Olmert in foreign relations. She later worked in social service projects for the city’s diverse communities. From 1999 until 2002, she was co-director of the Center for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue (CIPD) at the Melitz education agency.
“Working in Israel with the People to People program of the Oslo Accords via the CIPD shaped my understanding of the work and commitment in being dedicated to normalization,” said Saks, who, in addition to her fluent Hebrew, speaks basic Arabic, having studied it in Canada and Israel. “It helped me better appreciate the values of equality and justice are the foundations for reaching that goal.”
Her reality in Israel — including the specter of Palestinian terrorism — contrasted sharply with her more tranquil life in Canada. In July 1997, she came perilously close to a bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. Five years later, she lost two friends who were killed in a suicide bombing attack at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002.
“Their memory stays with me and is still something I get upset about,” said Saks, choking up with emotion. “But that’s what it means to live in Israeli society, to be able to hold those moments of tragedy but also to hold true to building and developing communities that are resilient, that are strong, creative and thriving. That despite those moments of adversity, we can still create societies in Israel and elsewhere that uphold values of peace, coexistence and inclusivity.”
For all she experienced, Saks harbors little cynicism or disillusionment.
“There are those who argue the violence of those years hardened many, but it didn’t harden everyone,” added Saks. She cites the late Israeli left-wing politician Shulamit Aloni as an inspiration in fighting for peace, equality and justice. “Despite those tests, I still hold true to what drove me to move to Israel in the first place, to be part of the Oslo process firsthand. The impact of those losses and bearing witness to that tragedy showed me that my core values of wanting peace in the region were not shaken.”
From Canaan back to Canada
In 2006, Saks moved back to Toronto, in part so her parents could spend time with her Jerusalem-born two-year-old daughter. The original plan was to stay a few years and then return to Israel. In the meantime, she gave birth to another daughter and got divorced from her Israeli husband.
Also a certified yoga instructor, Saks taught for many years before becoming a partner in a Toronto yoga studio in 2017 and also headed the Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, which deals with issues of mental health.
When asked if she sees herself as a Canadian-Israeli or Israeli-Canadian, she smiled.
“It’s pretty interchangeable,” said Saks, who until recently headed the communications committee of the Canadian branch of the New Israel Fund. “I was born in Canada but I started going back and forth to Israel at the age of six months. I lived in two worlds my whole life. So, I’m comfortable with whatever order. I’m now a Canadian MP, so Canadian-Israeli makes more sense at this point.”
As a single mother, she required the blessing of her daughters, ages 16 and 12, to run for public office, which she received after the then-MP in her district resigned in September to head the Canadian Friends of the Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, prompting the by-election. On election night, when Saks ultimately prevailed after initial results were inconclusive, her daughters were over the moon.
As a member of Trudeau’s Liberal Party caucus, Saks takes pride in its position on Jewish-related issues. She cites as examples Ottawa adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, Trudeau speaking out against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), and the recent appointment of Irwin Cotler as Canada’s envoy to the IHRA.
In mid-December, Saks herself was the target of hate speech after hosting a virtual Hanukkah candle lighting with Trudeau and Jewish communities across Canada.
“The message was absolutely shameful,” Saks told The Times of Israel. “I won’t sit back and accept this as a normal part of the internet age or the realities of public life. Nobody should be subjected to this. Nobody should feel free or empowered to share this hate.”
Saks said her heritage will add to caucus and parliamentary discussions on issues close to home.
“In stepping into this seat as a Canadian-Israeli, it’s important for me to convey that I’m a product of the Jewish story of what it means to be part of the North American Diaspora and also to be unequivocally Israeli,” said Saks, whose only sibling, a brother, works in the family’s commercial real estate business in Toronto.
Their mother’s family immigrated to Canada in the 1880s from the Eastern European region of Galicia, on the run from pogroms and anti-Semitism. Their father’s parents immigrated to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s from Lithuania.
“With my background, I have a unique voice to bring to Parliament in conversations we have about anti-Semitism, our ally-ship with Israel and our aspirations for a region to be normalized, safe and peaceful for all its citizens in secure borders,” said Saks.
Recently, Saks called on opposition leader Erin O’Toole to condemn what she labeled “vile anti-Semitic theories” allegedly promulgated by two Conservative Party MPs. “This kind of misinformation amplifies the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic conspiracies that have arisen during the COVID pandemic and that Jewish Canadians know all too well,” she wrote to O’Toole. “It threatens their safety, subjecting them to hostility, prejudice and discrimination, but its ultimate result is the erosion of public trust in democracy.”
If her first month in office has proved demanding, Saks knows the pace is about to intensify. She was recently appointed to the Foreign Affairs and Environment committees, which resume work in January. She welcomes the increased role as part of her determination to make her presence felt in Canada’s political arena.