An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people showed up at Vancouver City Hall Aug. 19 to protest a planned racist rally. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
A week after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., British Columbians faced the prospect of a clash between racist, anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi activists and their opponents.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people showed up at Vancouver City Hall Aug. 19 to protest a planned racist rally. Among those at the counter-rally were members of the Jewish community, including several wearing kippot and at least one draped in an Israeli flag.
For those in attendance, it was an odd and strangely uplifting time. As it turned out, most attendees never came in contact with those they came to protest. Many left the event thinking that the other side never showed up. For all intents, they didn’t. Apparently, a couple of extremists appeared at one point but their voices were quickly drowned out. The counter-rally turned out to be the main event.
Since the sound system at the gathering was terrible, most of the crowd couldn’t hear the words of the pro-diversity speakers. For the record, the event was organized by an ad hoc group and the speakers included Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Ravi Kahlon, the parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism in the new B.C. government, several indigenous representatives and people from a range of faith and multicultural organizations, including Independent Jewish Voices. (Anyone complaining that their own particular views were not represented on the official roster of speakers should bear in mind that we are all free to organize our own rallies, as this ad hoc group did, and those who organize such events are free to invite whoever they like to speak.)
There were concerns by some that the sort of anti-Zionist (and arguably antisemitic) undertones that pervaded some “progressive” events in the United States recently might pop up here, but there appeared to be nothing of the sort. One speaker – one of the few who could be heard, because she led the group in a boisterous chant – specifically identified Jews as brothers and sisters. It was reassuring and welcome.
The crowd was wonderfully diverse, including people of apparently every culture, religion and identity, milling about enjoying witty and positive handmade signs and running into old and new friends. It is probably safe to say that those who attended left feeling encouraged by the show of solidarity in the face of hatred, while social media responses suggest those who did not attend believe the crowd of thousands made the province and the country proud.
A similar event – on an even grander scale – was taking place at roughly the same time in Boston, with roughly as positive an outcome. Elsewhere in America, however, wildfires of hatred fanned by winds directly from the West Wing of the White House continued to spread, with one incident of particular concern to Jews.
Richard Spencer, one of the emerging leaders of white supremacism in the United States, told an Israeli TV interviewer that his “white nationalism” is essentially the same as Zionism.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, writing online at the Forward, summarized the stupidity of this comparison.
“Richard Spencer’s movement is based on hate, racism, negativity and exclusion,” wrote Greenblatt. “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people in the Jews’ historic homeland, is based on providing for equal opportunity for the Jewish people, like others, to have sovereignty in their land while still fully protecting the rights of minorities who live within Israel. At its core, Zionism is a positive movement and is not intended to be ‘against’ anyone.”
Of course, as Churchill said, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. The equation of Zionism with racism is an idea we have been battling for four decades. Originating from the Muslim bloc at the United Nations, it has been happily incorporated by many organizations of the left.
But things are changing quickly. In just the past week, while the U.S. president has effectively endorsed the Charlottesville racists (or, at the very least, equivocated between good and evil), a new urgency has emerged among anti-racist advocates.
Sometimes, something good comes out of something terrible and, as we said last week in this space, Charlottesville may be a turning point.
In another example, the March for Racial Justice – potentially one of the most significant such rallies in recent U.S. history – has been scheduled for Washington, D.C., on Yom Kippur. The sadness, disappointment and anger expressed by Jews over this timing resulted in what appears to be a deeply heartfelt, apologetic and, honestly, beautiful response from organizers, including the observation: “Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.”
This incident is a reminder, much needed, perhaps, not to write off potential allies. We are experiencing an unprecedented lack of moral leadership from what was once deemed the leadership of the free world. That moral vacuum will be filled. As the battle for space in this time of change proceeds, we must continue to make the case for our place in a multicultural society and for Israel’s place in the world.