“Greatness and humility, in the Jewish tradition, are not incompatible. They complement one another. For a man to be humble he does not have to be someone who ‘has plenty to be humble about’... The greater the man the more humble… he is likely to be. The Torah… is compared to water for just as water only runs downhill, never uphill, (wisdom) can only be attained through a humble heart.”*
Perhaps more than any individual in public life, past or present, Irwin Cotler exemplifies a unique melding of intellect and compassion – of heart and mind. Of greatness and humility.
International Human Rights Lawyer...Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience...Peace Activist...Member of Parliament...former Minister of Justice and Attorney General...Constitutional and Comparative Law Scholar... And most significant to me, Teacher and Professor.
I was first privileged to personally experience both this man’s deep heart and mind while a law student at McGill, where he was an esteemed professor. This was back in the early 1990’s and I was presenting a mock appeal – as chance would have it, Professor Cotler was one of the three individuals listening to my presentation.
Needless to say, these things can be a stressful event in the life of a young law student. When I finished my presentation, Professor Cotler, in that measured tone of voice and reasoned manner we have all come to know and respect over the years...thanked me for my efforts; praised me for what I had covered well...and gently listed 10 things I could have done better, each point interrelated and building upon the other.
I was in shock and awe.
More importantly, I walked out thinking that this is an individual I could learn from – and not just about the law.
I asked if I could follow up with him to learn in greater detail how I might have done better...and, characteristically, he said yes.
I ended up taking a number of his courses and working for him as a researcher in the summer. It was an invaluable mentorship. And while I no longer see him on a regular basis, to this day he has had an enormous impact on the way I look at the world and the decisions I make.
I often think, “How would Professor Cotler react in this case...what might he do in this scenario?”
Professor Cotler teaches us, as his parents taught him as a child, that the pursuit of justice is equal to all of the other commandments combined.
And it was in this vein that he got deeply involved in two of the great human rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century, that is the struggle for Soviet Jewry and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And as we all know these struggles were successfully overcome – Professor Cotler’s advocacy, including his campaign to mobilize shame against oppressive regimes in the former Soviet Union and South Africa helped secure the freedom of such heroic icons as Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandella.
Professor Cotler’s advocacy for peace and human rights is as strong today as it ever was. Sadly there are still plenty of political prisoners all over the world who have been wrongfully detained for simply exercising freedoms we often take for granted, including the freedom of expression. Professor Cotler gives these heroes voice and he gives them hope.
Whether it has been...transforming the Supreme Court of Canada into the most gender representative Supreme Court in the world in his capacity as Minister of Justice and Attorney General, or quashing more wrongful convictions in a single year than any prior Minister, whether it has been combating anti-Semitism...and the dangers of mass-atrocity…. advocating for peace in the Middle East and in fact across the globe… or advocating on behalf of the dispossessed anywhere in the world...His voice has been strong and has been heard.
Professor Cotler reminds us of our duty to speak and to act out against racism… against hate… against anti-Semitism…. Against injustice….. against, as he puts it, the crime whose name we should shudder to mention, namely genocide. Particularly poignant since it was Holocaust Remembrance day just this past week.
All in the pursuit of that inspirational dream that Irwin Cotler embodies for us, and that is the pursuit of justice.
Professor Cotler once taught me, if I ever wonder what I can do in a world that can often make us feel cynical or even indifferent, to think about the words of the great sage Maimonides, who suggested we look at the world as if it were half evil and half good. Then one good deed by any of us…. As I tell my children it may just be helping a friend with homework, or calling a grandparent to say hi, or helping an elderly person who is struggling to cross the street… One good deed could tip the scale from evil to good. And so, as we learn from the good professor, that each and every one of us has a cosmic opportunity to repair the human condition, and as he has done with so many good deeds, transform history.
Professor Cotler really transcends politics. He is in many ways the conscience of a nation. And despite all of his accomplishments, he remains an individual who displays profound humility.
I give you a great, good man – and a good friend and teacher – Irwin Cotler.
* The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press