On June 4, New Brunswick resident Chantel Moore, originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation near Tofino, B.C., was shot to death by a police officer sent to her home to check on her well-being. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous-black woman, fell 24 floors from her apartment during a police incident in Toronto.
In the United States, George Floyd died on May 25, after being pinned to the ground with a knee pressed into his neck for more than eight minutes by a police officer in Minneapolis. Breonna Taylor was killed March 13 in her bed in Louisville, Ky., in what amounts to a home invasion by police. Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three armed white neighbours and murdered on Feb. 23, while he was jogging in Georgia.
The challenge in compiling a list of names of black Americans and indigenous and racialized Canadians killed by police or lynched by vigilantes is choosing which from a horrifically long list of victims’ names to include. And the structural conditions that have led to this particular moment of upheaval are not new. Similar demonstrations have occurred after particularly egregious incidents, like the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014; Trayvon Martin, who was murdered in 2012 by a cop-wannabe; and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991. Again, the list of just the most familiar incidents could fill pages. And they are not limited to the United States.
Could this time be different? One thing that some Black Lives Matter proponents are noting is the apparently unprecedented engagement of non-black allies in this moment. Is this because we all have more time on our hands right now? Or have we reached a tipping point, when the lofty language of equality has finally penetrated deep into the mainstream of North American society?
There are parallel streams happening, from the issue of police violence to the broader matter of societal behaviour toward racialized people. These are exacerbated by the unpardonable conduct of the U.S. president. When Trayvon Martin was killed, then-president Barack Obama noted that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The current president tweets threats of violence and has police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators so he can have a photo taken in front of a church he has never entered. In a country aflame, the president’s comportment is incendiary and perilous.
This is a time for our community, the Jewish community, to consider our complacency and complicity in upholding racist systems. It is, as American historian and author Ibram X. Kendi implores, not enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. We must stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and recognize that the pain of racism is also the pain of antisemitism.
The solidarity and support we crave when we are threatened is the solidarity and support we must give other communities when they are in need. Give your time to an anti-racism organization. Donate your money to support black-owned businesses and organizations working to support the black community. Pray for the healing that is so badly needed in our society. March for equality and justice (in a safe manner). Stand up when you see injustice or hear a “casually” racist remark. Sign your name to a petition asking decision-makers to step up and rein in the militarization of policing and the funding that gets diverted from community into the over-policing of racialized communities.
Interrogate Canada’s colonial history and the lived realities of indigenous communities. Ask our educators to explore with their students global histories and the untold stories of millions, including richer views of Jewish history and the experiences and contributions of Jews who are not of European descent. Read a work of fiction by a black or indigenous author. Learn about how black culture forms the bedrock of North American culture and from where those art forms come. Explore the history of the black community here in Vancouver and how the early Jewish community, along with other minorities, together have called Strathcona home.
Absorb the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who referenced the calls of the Hebrew prophets in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for justice. If you’re already doing all of these things, share your knowledge and example with your family, your synagogue and the organizations and schools you support.
Some Jewish observers have expressed reservations about the Black Lives Matter movement, at least partly because the umbrella organization endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This is an unfortunate and misguided move on their part, especially since BDS harms Palestinians in addition to Israelis. But the issue of black people – and people of colour in Canada and elsewhere – being murdered by police or lynched by racists must take precedence now. We can argue over Israel and Palestine later.
If one feels the need to prioritize Jewish or Israeli concerns at this moment, then let’s prioritize the safety of black Jews and Jews of colour. The vast majority of Jews are morally affected by what is happening in our society and black Jews are immediately and personally impacted both by what is happening in the world and by what is happening in our community around this issue.
Let us not pretend that this is not a “Jewish issue.” Rather, let us live by what is referred to as one of the “eternal religious obligations” of Judaism: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
British Columbians, like others in much of the world, are stepping gingerly into what may be a post-pandemic period – or an “inter-pandemic” phase, if the predicted second wave bears out. Our daily briefings from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix are cautiously optimistic, tempered with the reality that some people, given an inch, will take a mile. Confusion around, or contempt for, changing social distancing guidelines has meant numerous instances of inappropriate gatherings.
All in all, though, British Columbians have so far experienced among the lowest proportions of COVID-related illnesses and deaths than almost any jurisdiction in the developed world. Each death is a tragedy, yet we should be grateful for those who have recovered and the fact that so many of us have remained healthy so far. Thanks should go to all those who have helped others make it through, including first responders, healthcare professionals and also those irreplaceable workers we used to take for granted: retail and service employees and others who have allowed most of us to live through this with comparatively minimal disruptions.
In our Jewish community, so many individuals and institutions have done so much, from delivering challah to providing emergency financial and other supports for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Canadians, in general, seem to be making it through this time as well as can be expected. Polls indicate that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the actions our governments have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. How the federal and provincial governments manage the continuing economic repercussions and the potential resurgence of infections in coming months will determine long-term consequences both for us and for their popularity.
In signs that things are returning to something akin to pre-pandemic normal, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-and-still-prime minister, is complaining about a “left-wing coup” and asserting that “the entire right” is on trial. In fact, it is not an entire wing of the Israeli political spectrum that is on trial, but Netanyahu himself, for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He is accused of exchanging favours to friends and allies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trinkets like cigars and champagne, and favourable coverage in media. Whatever strategy his team has for inside the courtroom, his PR strategy is pure deflection: blame the media, the court system, political opponents. He’s fighting two trials: the one in the justice system and the one in the court of public opinion. Netanyahu has managed to save his political hide thus far, through three successive elections and a year of coalition-building and horse trading. Predicting what might happen next is a popular but fruitless pastime.
More signs that things are not so different came from U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. As the death toll in the United States approached 100,000, Trump took time off from golfing to deliver Twitter rants, including retweets calling Hillary Clinton a “skank” and smearing other female Democrats for their appearance. Trump also insinuated that MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
Sitting (mostly) comfortably in our homes watching such things from afar, it’s no wonder Canadians are feeling good about the way our various governments – federal and provincial, of all political stripes – are behaving these days.
Without interpretation, the world’s greatest art is little more than a lot of pretty pictures. Similarly, absent interpretation and thoughtful reflection, history is not much more than a litany of names and dates.
This month, we are marking many anniversaries. The end of the Second World War in Europe. The liberation of the last Nazi concentration camps. The beginning of Soviet-versus-Western tensions and proxy wars that lasted decades.
In some ways, we cannot begin to comprehend the Holocaust, or the world’s reaction to it, without reflecting on a different anniversary we mark this month. It was 60 years ago this week – May 11, 1960 – that Mossad operatives captured Adolf Eichmann, a prime architect of the Holocaust. The astonishing operation, which amazes observers even today with its bizarre twists and chutzpah on an international scale, stands out as a turning point in the way the world – Jews especially – view Holocaust history.
Holocaust survivors themselves understood the particularity of the Holocaust, while much of the world perceived the millions of Jewish lives lost as a part of the larger war casualties, not qualitatively different from the deaths of citizens of Dresden or Coventry or Stalingrad. It should need not be said that every human life lost is a tragedy. But, from the perspective of historical meaning, the murder of Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, homosexuals and others targeted for identities unrelated to the national conflicts, must be understood apart from the tragic consequences of war.
This is the consensus position today – that the Holocaust paralleled the Second World War but was substantively and morally different from broader contemporary events. This consensus emerged to a great extent from the Eichmann capture and trial.
Eichmann was living in Argentina, so confident in his security that, in retrospect, his subterfuge was minimal. Once tipped off, the Mossad had little trouble locating him.
Eichmann’s legendary defence, that he was merely following orders, was dismissed by the Israeli court. Whatever moral or military defence that argument posited was defied by the facts. Eichmann, according to eyewitnesses and documentary evidence, did far more than follow orders. He enthusiastically fulfilled directives beyond the letter or spirit of the command.
When the trial began, in 1961, it was said that one could walk through Tel Aviv and hear the proceedings on radio through every open window. The implications of the Eichmann trial for the world’s understanding of this history, and for Israeli and Jewish consciousness, was revolutionary.
Even among families that included survivors, or who had lost entire branches of the family tree, the historical context of the Holocaust was nebulous until this time. The small amount of survivor testimony that had emerged immediately after the war had largely dissipated, in part because the public did not want to face the most grotesque evidence of human depravity and because, in many cases, the survivors chose to sublimate their experiences and attempt to rebuild and move on with their lives.
It was only in the minutiae of the evidence at trial, the mind-boggling precision, industrial-style execution of diabolical plans and indescribable sadism of the Nazi war against Jews that people began to understand both the quantitative and the qualitative nature of the Shoah.
In addition to gaining insights into what their parents or other survivors might have experienced, younger Jews and Israelis intuited from the evidence a larger realization about their people. According to some historians, an idea persisted in the years after 1945 that the Jews of Europe had gone silently – “like sheep,” in the dehumanizing terminology too often employed – to their deaths.
Gaining an understanding of the inescapable precision and indefatigable determination of the Nazis to identify and murder every single Jew in their realm, younger Jews and Israelis came to know that their lost civilization did not go willingly. Indeed, among the earliest memorializations of the Holocaust – including here in Vancouver – were commemorations of the bravery and resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The nuances of the historical record were enriched by this knowledge, with implications for the self-identity of Jews everywhere. The extent of the cataclysm was a result of the homicidal tenacity of the Nazis and their collaborators, not of the responses of their victims.
The Eichmann trial opened a floodgate. The contemporary era of Holocaust history, including survivor memoirs and public discussion of that time, really began then. A decade later, this new understanding led to a backlash of Holocaust denial and revisionism which, in turn, inspired yet more survivors to speak out to correct and add to the record.
Today, we struggle to keep this history alive and to challenge its diminishment and misuse. Even among well-intentioned people who would never mean to belittle this history, there is a tendency to invoke it in situations that by no measure are comparable.
Additionally, especially in Europe, public opinion polls reveal that there is a fatigue around the subject. In many countries, pluralities or even majorities say that too much attention is paid to the Holocaust. Incongruously, the same polls indicate that it is in countries where ignorance of this history is most pronounced that citizens contend there is too much focus on it. Try to square those results.
We always view the past through the changing lens of the present. We have seen transformations in the understanding of and responses to Holocaust history for 75 years now. One of the challenges of our generation and successive ones is to be active in addressing these changing perceptions and interpretations. Our desire to continue to delve into this difficult experience and our people’s enduring trauma cannot depend on other people’s ignorance or assessment of what’s considered “too much” or “too in the past.” Our obligation, as carriers of this knowledge and witnesses to the survivors, is to glean the lessons of the past that improve the future and help strengthen our community and our societies. We will continue to do this work and to honour our ancestors. And we will continue to share what we know to be true, as we search for ways to make “Never again” a reality.
Like everything else in this time of pandemic, Yom Hashoah, which took place this week, was not normal.
On Monday, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, viewers worldwide, including here in British Columbia, tuned in online to watch the state ceremony marking the start of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, taking place in Israel at Yad Vashem. Later that day, a cross-Canada commemoration took place, presented by a number of national bodies and with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre as a contributing organization.
The eerily vacant hall at Yad Vashem was interspersed with video recordings of remarks from Israel’s president, prime minister and chief rabbis, as well as six survivors, who shared their stories of loss and survival. The Canadian commemoration a few hours later was similarly moving, with video interspersed with thoughtful reflections from a member of the third generation who served as host and a message from the prime minister, stories of survivors, and candlelighting by families across the country. (See coverage next issue.)
No doubt the organizers of these events would have preferred to hold them in person. The proximity of family, friends and community strengthens survivors and the successive generations. Being in proximity provides crucial emotional, psychological and intellectual means of conveying the historical importance of that time and its lessons for social justice and human rights today.
The use of digital technology to mark Yom Hashoah was perhaps a little less startlingly odd, given that Jewish people worldwide recently experienced an unprecedented Passover, engaging in “zeders” – virtual seders on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms – to get together with family over the holidays. The contortions some of our family members went through to make these celebrations happen was cause for some laughs, as well as some tsuris, and Passover 5780 will not be soon forgotten.
This was hardly an ideal way of celebrating – and many in the Orthodox community couldn’t even do this much – but it was necessary given the social isolation required of us during this pandemic.
Yet, while it is important to come together for happy occasions, this time is particularly difficult for those experiencing grief and loss. Having to up-end the ancient Jewish rituals that serve to sustain and strengthen mourners, those who have lost loved ones are left with minimal funeral attendees and shivahs conducted by telephone and computer; hugs only from those who share a household, none of the important reinforcement – and comfort – that comes from the physical proximity of a broader community. Even this sad situation fulfils a mitzvah, though. As painful as it is to be remote from our loved ones in times of grief, it is pikuach nefesh, an act of saving a life, the highest Jewish value and one that overrides almost every other law. During a pandemic, we remain apart from our loved ones because we love them.
Yom Hashoah commemorations often take a sombre tone and include some of the rituals we perform at a funeral, which made viewing the events in seclusion especially isolating. Yet, conversely, there was something uniquely appropriate about this alternative form of marking Yom Hashoah.
While we were fortunate to have survivors participate via video in these and other online commemorations of the day, the undeniable reality is that this was among the last such commemorative days where successive generations will be able to hear firsthand from the mouths of survivors their stories of loss, resistance and survival. Finding ways beyond first-person witness testimonies is the unavoidable way forward for Holocaust education and remembrance. Organizations dedicated to this mission have recognized this reality and have been developing impactful ways to augment and, eventually, replace in-person survivor testimony.
Remembering and, using that memory as motivation, ensuring that the promise of “Never again” is taken up by the next generations is also a Jewish value. It took an admirable mobilization of our local, national and international communal organizations to ensure that the pandemic did not cause us to ignore Yom Hashoah this year. It was precisely the sort of flexible, responsive action that will be required to meet the demands of Holocaust remembrance and education in the decades to come.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the unusual yet deeply moving commemorations this week should encourage us that, whatever challenges and changes the future holds, we remain determined to memorialize and educate about the Holocaust in ways appropriate to the times in which we live.
I hope this letter finds you well, and that you are finding ways to cope with the new reality that COVID-19 has brought on all of us so suddenly. I’ll admit to moments of struggle in maintaining a positive outlook but, mostly, I am determined that, together, we will get through this crisis and return to some variation of normalcy.
For more than 20 years, I have owned and published the Jewish Independent, which started its life as the Jewish Western Bulletin in 1930. For nine decades, the paper has recorded our community’s stories, as well as news and commentary about the wider world. We have reported on the ordinary and the extraordinary, fleeting trends and paradigm shifts. We have covered happy and sad occasions, and promoted the work and activities of countless individuals and organizations. Past issues of the paper comprise a distinctive archive of our community in this place over time.
I am determined to continue this vital calling. Ensuring continuity and the thriving of Jewish life here in Canada and worldwide is no less urgent or relevant than it was in 1930. These are difficult times for many people, organizations and businesses and, among the many closures in recent days, the Canadian Jewish News ceased publication and Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News suspended its print version indefinitely.
I firmly believe that the Jewish Independent is one of our community’s invaluable resources and that we have an important role to play during the pandemic, both in keeping the community up to date on one another’s events, initiatives and well-being, as well as offering some respite from the at-times overwhelming bad news.
For years, this publication has been a labour of love for me and a dedicated staff of a few employees and a cadre of freelance writers. As we face the coming weeks or months of increasingly dismal advertising revenues, I am making an unprecedented appeal for support from you, our readers.
I am proud to produce independent Jewish journalism that has been recognized internationally by scores of awards and accolades. I am proud that, on a very modest budget, we have managed to produce a regular publication that informs, inspires, engages, exasperates, amuses, entertains, provokes and reflects in ways that unite Jewish British Columbians across all religious, cultural, political and social divides.
You subscribe to this paper or pick it up for free at a local depot, I hope, because you see the value in this, which is why I am asking for your help through this deeply challenging time. Please consider supporting the paper through one or more of the following actions:
- Renew your subscription – or start subscribing. When you receive your annual subscription notice, please renew as quickly as you are able, as the fewer reminder notices I have to mail, the less expensive the process. If you pick up the JI at one of our many depots, please seriously think about subscribing or donating to help fund the creation, printing and distribution of the paper you now hold in your hands.
- Consider an esubscription instead of a traditional subscription. You’ll still receive the full contents of the paper, just in digital form. It saves you money and it’s more economical for us, too. (However, if you still like to hold the paper in your hands and pass it around the house, please continue to get the print edition!)
- Give a gift subscription. For generations, B.C. families have stayed connected to one another and our community through the pages of our newspaper. Keep the tradition alive with gift subscriptions to younger family members.
- Advertise with us. We know that your business or organization needs support, too. The most effective, affordable way to reach our community is through these pages, as it has been for 90 years.
- Send a greeting. You can send a message in any issue of the paper. Birthday, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, anniversary, graduation greetings – any time is a good time to celebrate our loved ones. But now it is especially welcome. Something as affordable as a business card-size insertion is a fun way to mark a special occasion – and it sends a double message: you support thriving, independent Jewish journalism.
- Make a donation. This is the easiest and most immediate way you can help. It’s true, we’re not a charity. I can’t give you a tax receipt. But, as I’ve said, this has been a labour of love for a small group of dedicated individuals. We need you now more than ever.
On behalf of the staff and freelancers of the Jewish Independent, thank you to everyone who has reached out and helped the JI over the years, including recent weeks, and to all of you for taking the time to consider these words. Please stay safe and healthy.