On Remembrance Day, pro-Nazi posters were discovered at War Memorial Gym on the University of British Columbia campus. The posters depicted Nazi soldiers with the words “Lest we forget / The true heroes of WWII.”
This incident followed the discovery earlier in the week of antisemitic drawings on a chalkboard in the forestry faculty. Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, sent an email to the community thanking the Forestry Undergraduate Society for making a clear statement of solidarity. While this is the good news, he wrote, there is also bad news. Students are reporting that the latest incidents are a “tip of the iceberg” of similar expressions and depictions that go unreported.
Earlier this month, white supremacist and antisemitic posters also appeared at the University of Victoria. “(((Those))) who hate us / Will not replace us,” read a poster. The use of triple parentheses is a method used online to identify Jews. The fear of white people being “replaced” by non-white people is a recurring theme in the white supremacist movement.
These incidents are local iterations of a larger and obviously deeply troubling phenomenon occurring worldwide. In part a response to the movement of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, far-right groups in Europe have grown significantly in recent years. This is evident in the horrifying rally of an estimated 60,000 neo-Nazis, hyper-nationalists and racists in Warsaw, Poland, last weekend. And it is underscored by the neutrality or even affirming noises from those in positions of power at the sight of ralliers carrying signs urging “Clean blood,” “Pray for an Islamic holocaust” and “Jews out of Poland.”
Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party has informal connections with some of the extremist groups that organized Saturday’s rally. Poland’s foreign ministry, on the one hand, condemned the xenophobic, antisemitic and racist messaging, but, on the other hand, called the event “a great celebration of Poles.” The country’s interior minister called the rallying extremists “a beautiful sight.”
This sort of equivocation from leaders is perhaps as worrying, or more so, than the rallying mobs themselves. While the past year has seen numerous European far-right parties fail to live up to expectations in elections, their strength is nevertheless very concerning.
On the subject of elections … off-year elections in the United States last week delivered a strong rebuke to the U.S. president. Although polls indicate that 36% of American voters would vote for him again, no president in the history of polling has been this unpopular this early in his mandate. This is, perhaps, a sign that most Americans are turning against the divisiveness and xenophobia that this president advances.
Encouraging as that may be, possibly (wishfully) portending his defeat in 2020, the damage he is doing to the civil fabric of the country is incalculable. It is saddening to see the president of the United States overtly promote racism against Mexicans and people from Muslim-majority countries, threatening one group with a wall and the other with a travel ban that has been repeatedly deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Among his supporters are openly racist and white supremacist activists.
All of this is to say that the world is experiencing a time of extremism. Rather than throw up our hands in despair, this is a time to rededicate ourselves to the values that motivate us, the values for which Canadian and other Allied soldiers fought.
The posters at B.C. universities should be enough to sweep away any complacency we may have about our shores being free from this sort of racist ideology. This is a good thing. Canadians have a right to be proud of our comparatively decent record of multicultural harmony, but smugness is a blinder that can allow us to ignore very real undercurrents. We must be vigilant in calling out evil ideology when we see it at home and abroad.