Historical ignorance has been in the news recently, with polls indicating widespread lack of awareness of the Holocaust, especially among young people in North America and Europe. (See jewishindependent.ca/much-work-left-to-do.) Some media reports got the story wrong, however, claiming that many people “don’t believe” six million Jews died in the Holocaust. The reality is that many people “don’t know” this fact, and there is a big difference between not knowing and not believing. Then there is a different phenomenon altogether: denial.
Plenty of well-informed but ill-intentioned people know the truth of the Holocaust but, for various reasons, take a position that the facts are falsified. The notorious Holocaust denier David Irving is reportedly again making the rounds in Britain, promoting his ahistorical ideology. In a nice contrast, Irving’s nemesis, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, is back in the news promoting her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now.
Lipstadt went from respected Emory University professor to a sort of global superstar when Irving sued her for libel in a British court in 1996 for correctly characterizing him as a Holocaust denier. Although Lipstadt is an American, she and the book’s U.K. publisher were targeted because Irving apparently thought that country’s libel laws might serve his cause. In the United Kingdom, libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant instead of the plaintiff. As a result, the trial played out as a public history lesson, with Lipstadt’s legal team forced to prove the historical truths of the Holocaust. They did, of course, and won the case. Nonetheless, Irving’s career as a provocateur and historical revisionist continues.
More serious than a nasty British gadfly is the Holocaust denial taking place in Poland right now, a phenomenon that has led to a collapse in Israeli-Polish relations.
Until recently, Poland was one of Israel’s closest allies on the world stage. While Polish society has never undergone the self-reflection that Germany did after the Holocaust, Polish governments developed excellent relations with the Jewish state. After the fall of the communist regime, relations between the two countries grew quite warm. Trade and diplomatic relations at the highest levels flourished.
With the election of the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party, in 2015, things began to change. Last year, the Polish government passed a law criminalizing speech that references Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Canadian Prof. Jan Grabowski, who spoke in Vancouver last fall, heads a team of researchers, most of them in Poland, who are scouring archives throughout that country amassing what is probably the most comprehensive assessment ever compiled on the subject of Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust. Without Polish collaboration – frequently offered willingly and without compulsion, the research indicates – the Nazis could not have succeeded nearly so completely at their murderous destruction of Polish Jewry, Grabowski insists.
Politicizing this history – that is, criminalizing the truth – has put the Polish government on a trajectory of institutionalized denial. Unlike masses of young North Americans and Europeans, the Polish leaders know very well what transpired in their country during the war. As Grabowski notes, it is not the collaborators and their descendants who are today ostracized in small communities across Poland but rather those families whose members helped their Jewish neighbours.
It was inevitable that Poland’s approach would have repercussions in the Polish-Israeli relationship. It happened dramatically in recent days. The Visegrád Group, which is a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, was slated to meet with Israeli leaders at an extraordinary summit in Israel this week.
A week ago Friday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was visiting the Museum of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, when he stated, in a meeting with Israeli reporters where recording devices were not permitted, that Poles had aided the Nazis. A flurry of confusion followed as the prime minister’s office clarified that he had said “Poles,” and not, as some media had reported, “the Poles” or “the Polish nation.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki decided to snub Netanyahu by withdrawing from the summit and sending his foreign minister instead.
Yisrael Katz, on his second day on the job as Israel’s foreign minister, dumped fuel on the simmering conflict in a TV interview. Ostensibly sent to smooth over the matter, Katz used the opportunity to quote the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to the effect that “the Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mothers’ milk.”
Suffice to say the summit is off. The leaders of the three other countries are still slated to travel to Israel for bilateral meetings but Polish-Israeli relations are on the rocks.
The conflict illuminates a strange dichotomy. The government of one of the countries most affected by the Holocaust tries to blot out what they certainly know to be the truth. Meanwhile, a generation of young people look on, unaware of even the barest details of what is at the root of the uproar.
The United States Senate was expected to vote this week on a bill that would make it easier for state and local governments, as well as government agencies and perhaps other bodies, to refuse to do business with groups that endorse a boycott against Israel.
The bill comes after several state governments have taken steps against BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Florida’s legislators, for example, directed officials in 2016 to create a list of companies that engage in boycotts of Israel and instructed all government entities to divest from those companies. Two years later, the state passed a bill preventing companies that engage in boycotts of Israel from bidding on local or state government contracts. In all, about half of the 50 states have some form of statute on the subject, some simply making their opposition to BDS known, without adding punitive economic conditions.
Boycotting Israel is a dumb and self-defeating position, but so is the idea of governments boycotting the boycotters.
Opponents of the federal anti-BDS effort – and even some people with no horse in the race – are asking whether boycotts are covered by free speech legislation. Nobody is saying BDS should be illegal. But, when a company or individual applies to government for, say, a contract to build a road, there are numerous conditions. Non-unionized companies may be excluded, for example, or businesses may have to prove they adhere to government guidelines around equal employment. People are free to boycott Israel, and governments are free to prevent those people from obtaining contracts with them. On free speech grounds, we don’t really have a problem with the idea – and we’re pretty defensive about free speech.
To us, the discussion is less a legal one, or even a moral one, than it is a strategic one.
Despite their thuggish, bullying tactics, members of the anti-Israel movement love to position themselves as victims. While harassing Jewish students on campuses, shouting down speakers, making Jewish women unwelcome at women’s marches and disrupting venues where Israel and Palestine would seem to have little relevance, such as at a major LGBTQ conference in Detroit recently, they nevertheless depict themselves as tiny Davids fighting Goliath. With that in mind, legislation that punishes those who support BDS will give its advocates their first rightful justification for claiming victimhood. But there is a more important and obvious reason why we should not be legislating against BDS.
We shouldn’t need to tie the hands of BDS supporters behind their backs to win this fight. Our strength must be our ability to refute the lies, exaggerations, hypocrisies and prejudices of the BDS movement. There are a million arguments against BDS.
Ireland recently passed a wide-ranging Israel-boycott law and promptly realized that its high-tech sector, which is mostly propped up by American investment, could be imperiled if Ireland forces giants like Apple, Google and Facebook to choose between Dublin and Tel Aviv. While BDS is intended to be economically injurious to Israel, it can harm the very people who are advancing it. And it is more than economic damage BDS can self-inflict. Given the plethora of life-saving and life-enhancing innovations emerging constantly from Israel, boycotting that country could be detrimental to one’s health.
There are countless ways to counter BDS … like pointing out that BDS hurts Arabs. Not just Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, like those who famously lost their jobs when BDS forced the closure of a SodaStream plant in the West Bank, but impoverished residents of countries adjoining Israel, too. Seventy years of its Arab neighbours boycotting and isolating Israel has done nothing to harm the massive economic and social successes enjoyed by citizens of Israel. It has only ensured that the people of Jordan, Lebanon and other countries that snub Israel suffer from being deprived of these economic, technological and scientific achievements. Since the Arab boycott of Israel went global, the discrepancies have only grown. Israel’s GDP has doubled since 2005, when BDS started to take off.
The preoccupation of the BDS movement with academic boycotts is especially easy to confront: it’s the ideological descendent of book-burning.
We should also be conscious that even people who take positions we support may be using us to advance their own agendas. While the Republican party has been steadfastly pro-Israel – as have most Democratic party lawmakers – this anti-BDS measure is a bald attempt to sow division among Democrats by shining a light on some of the new elected officials who diverge from the traditional bipartisan consensus on the American-Israeli special relationship. Confronting those dissenters on the issues is justified – and is being taken up by a new group of Zionist Dems, called the Democratic Majority for Israel. But allowing one party to monopolize Israel for political advantage spells disaster for American Zionists and for Israel (despite the overt collaboration of Israel’s prime minister in the Republicans’ partisanship on this issue).
BDS is a bad idea. But, banning – or, more accurately, boycotting – BDS gives the appearance that Israel is indefensible on merit. That makes legislation to punish BDS supporters another bad idea.
At a time when there are plenty of bad ideas to go around, this is absolutely a case where two wrongs do not make a right. Defeating BDS should be done intellectually, not legislatively.
קנדה, ג’סטין טרודו, הודיע כי ימשיך להתנגד לארגון הבינלאומי הקורא להחרמת ישראל –
הדי.בי.אס. דבריו של טרודו נאמרו בשבוע שעבר במסגרת כנס בחירות פתוח לכל שהתקיים
בעיר סנט קטרינס שבמחוז אונטריו. ראש הממשלה השיב לאחד מהשואלים שביקש לבדוק האם
הוא מתכוון להתנצל על כך, שגינה בעבר את ארגון הדי.בי.אס. טרודו אמר בתגובה לשאלה:
“כשיש ארגונים כמו הדי.בי.אס שמחפשים להציג דמוניזציה ודה-לגיטימציה למדינת
ישראל, וכשיש סטודנטים שמפחדים להגיע לאוניברסיטאות ולמכללות בקנדה בגלל דתם, חייבים להכיר בכך שיש
דברים שלא מקובלים כלל. אסור לאף אחד להפלות אם לגרום לאנשים להרגיש שלא בטוח בגלל
הדת שלהם. וזה בדיוק מה שארגון הדי.בי.אס עושה. אנטישמיות הייתה קיימת ומוכרת
בעבר. וגם היום המתקפות נגד העם היהודי מהוות אחוז גבוה בקרב פשעי השנאה בקנדה
ובעולם כולו. עלינו להבין שחלק מהאנטישמיות כיום מנוהלת לא רק נגד יחידים, אלא גם
נגד מדינת ישראל בכלל. עלינו להיזהר לכן שלא לתמוך באנטשימיות החדשה הזו – שמבקרת
וקוראת לעשות חרם על ישראל”.
תסריט שעוסק בגזענות נגד יהודים עלה לגמר פסטיבל סרטי נעורים
שעלו עם משפחתם מקנדה לישראל וגרים כיום באשקלון, זאת לאחר שהם ומשפחתם סבלו
לטענתם מגל אנטישמיות. האחים החליטו לעשות על זה סרט. התסריט שהוא בעצם מתאר את
סיפור חייהם המעניין, עלה לשלב גמר תחרות של פסטיבל סרטי נעורים ארצי בישראל. כעת
הם ממתינים לתוצאות הגמר שיפורסמו קרוב לוודאי במהלך החודש הקרוב.
(בן השמונה עשרה) ומנחם (בן השבעה עשרה) לבית סמיערק, לומדים כיום במגמת תקשורת
בישיבת צביה אשר באשקלון. התסריט שלהם משתתף בגמר התחרות הארצית של התסריט הטוב
ביותר בפסטיבל סרטי נעורים, לזכרו של התלמיד מתן בד”ט שנפטר לפני שש עשרה
שנים (שתיים עשרה שנים שנים לאחר שמוחו נפגע בצורה קשה מהלך תאונת צלילה באילת,
כאשר היה זה בזמן טיול שנתי בכיתה י”ב). בגמר התחרות משתתפים בנוסף עוד ארבעה
תסריטים נבחרים. זאת מתוך שבעים תסריטים שהגיעו לשלב הראשון בתחרות מכל רחבי הארץ.
כתבו כאמור שני האחים עוסק בנושא גזענות כלפי יהודים בקנדה בכלל, וכלפי המשפחה
שלהם בפרט. הגזענות לדבריהם היא זו שגרמה למשפחה לעזוב את קנדה ולעלות לישראל לפני
סמיערק נחשבים עדיין בישראל על תקן של עולים חדשים, לומדים כיום בישיבת צביה
באשקלון. המשפחה כולה המונה שבע נפשות עלתה לישראל: שני ההורים, שני האחים ושלוש
אחיות. הם בחרו לגור באשקלון.
בקנדה שני האחים למדו במגמת תקשורת ועתה הם ממשכים את לימודיהם באותה מגמה
בישיבה באשקלון. אל הפרוייקט הקולנועי שלהם מצטרפים שני בוגרי מגמת
התקשורת בישיבה (אביב סיאני ומאור מיכאלי) אשר יפיקו את סרט, עם יזכה במקום הראשון
בתחרות. השופטים בגמר התחרות (בהם: נציגי עיריית רעננה, נציגי בנק מזרחי-טפחות
ונציגי משרד החינוך) וכן גם נציגי המשפחות התרשמו מאוד מהתסריט והסיפור האישי של
חיים סמיערק אומר על הפרוייקט שלו ושל אחיו הצעיר מנחם: “אני חושב שזה תסריט ממש טוב. מדובר בסיפור האישי שלנו שחווינו בקנדה.
חשוב לנו לספר זאת לכולם. נפלה בידינו ההזדמנות לעלות לגמר תחרות הסרטים. במידה
ונזכה בתחרות וכך גם יתאפשר להקהל נרחב לצפות בסרט שלנו – תהיה זאת ממש גאווה
בשבילנו”. במהלך החודש הקרוב יקבלו האחים תשובה אם התסריט שלהם זכה במקום
הראשון בתחרות החשובה.
Hundreds of thousands of women and allies
marched in cities all over North America Saturday, bringing people from across
the spectrum together to stand for equality and justice. It was the third
annual network of women’s marches that sprang out of the shock and alarm after
the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
To ensure that the nearly spontaneous eruption
of resistance to the direction of American (and world) politics was more than
lightning in a bottle, a movement was solidified in the form of Women’s March
Inc. This body, led by a small group of activists who quickly gained
international fame and recognition, not only came to helm one of the most
remarkable new grassroots movements in American history, they also became
central figures in the cadre of leftist, socialist and progressive political
activists that is loosely defined as “the resistance.”
Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately, for
reasons we’ll explain – the small group of Women’s March leaders has recently
been beset by controversy. In a book-length analysis last month, Tablet
magazine reconstructed accounts of the earliest hours of the march movement –
including the marginalization of Jewish women who were there at the start and
the assertion, apparently made in one of the earliest meetings, that “white
Jews” were partly responsible for “white supremacy.”
Additionally, some of the leaders of Women’s
March Inc. are associated with Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam and
an unrepentant Jew-hater and Hitler admirer who last month capped a career of
antisemitic rhetoric by declaring Jews “satanic.” Tamika Mallory, one of the
most visible faces of the march movement, has referred to Farrakhan as “the
GOAT” – the greatest of all time.
These developments led march organizers in
various cities to disassociate their marches from Women’s March Inc. While some
figures tried to patch over or reconcile divergences within the movement, such
efforts were undermined by top leaders, including Mallory, who appeared on
national TV the Monday before Saturday’s marches. She defended her position on
Israel and Palestine. She declared “the Palestinians are native to the land,”
and that “there are people who have a number of sort of ideologies around why
the Jewish people feel this should be their land. I’m not Jewish. So for me to
speak to that is not fair.” She’s not Palestinian, either, her interviewer
noted, yet she had no qualms defending Palestinians’ right to national
At a time when another organization might aim
for conciliation, Women’s March Inc. leaders seemed to double down on their
troubles. In her keynote speech to the march in Washington Saturday, Linda
Sarsour, another leading figure, expressed support for the BDS movement. While
she had, earlier, finally rejected Farrakhan’s antisemitism and homophobia, her
decision to use her limited time on stage to focus on BDS – an issue peripheral
at best to the women’s movement – suggests she is not finished enflaming
tensions with Jewish people.
Notably, attendance was down at rallies across
the continent, including here in Vancouver. There could be a range of
explanations – Trump-fatigue, weather – but certainly some Jewish and
non-Jewish women were motivated to stay away because of the association of
march leaders with bad ideas.
Within the loose affiliation of “resistance”
figures, several of the individuals elected to the U.S. Congress in November’s
midterm elections have made themselves known for statements about Israel and
Palestine. One of the freshmen, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota,
came under criticism for a 2012 social media post in which she wrote: “Israel
has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the
evil doings of Israel.” She has since said that she didn’t understand the
implications in her choice of words.
Another new legislator, Rashida Tlaib, Democrat
of Michigan, made her entry into Washington known by displaying a map of the
world with a Post-it note with the word “Palestine” covering Israel.
These examples – and there are more – are
disheartening. That these ideas have moved from the recesses of crackpot online
discussion forums and into Congress, into one of the most significant
grassroots organizations and, apparently, into a significant swath of the
Democratic party, is certainly concerning. But there is a silver lining: it
also allows us to openly confront the trend and, perhaps, to gain allies in
When we talk about the need to shine light on
dark crevices of bigotry, this is exactly what we mean. Social media has, for
better or worse, allowed anyone with any views to broadcast them. In the
chaotic network of the internet, there is no practical, central force for
contesting bigotry and other bad ideas. When those ideas and expressions seep
into institutions like Women’s March Inc., Congress or, even more noticeably,
the U.K. Labour party, this presents an opportunity unavailable elsewhere. It
is a chance to bring these issues out in the open and contest them in the light
of day. Among other things, it forces people with power and influence to make a
Among those who made choices in recent weeks –
the choice to withdraw as sponsors of Women’s March Inc. – are prominent
individuals and organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, the
Southern Poverty Law Centre, the women’s political action group EMILY’s List,
the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, the pro-choice organization
NARAL, the Centre for American Progress, and Amnesty International.
This is the kind of unified voice we need: a
concerted rejection of antisemitism or Jew-baiting or Israel-bashing that has
emerged as a force in important places.
A recent poll determined that a large number of
Europeans hold views that are antisemitic and, at the same time, awareness
about the Holocaust is decreasing.
More than 7,000 people were polled on behalf of
the news network CNN. In each of seven countries – Austria, France, Germany,
Hungary, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom – 1,000 people were surveyed.
One-third of those surveyed – and one in two
respondents in Poland – stated that Jews exploit the Holocaust to advance their
goals and that Israel uses the Holocaust as a tool to justify its policies.
One in 20 Europeans have never heard of the
Holocaust. In Austria, 12% of respondents said they had never heard of it,
while 40% admitted they know little about it.
About 40% of respondents in Poland and Hungary
claim that Jews have too much influence on business and finances. One-third of
Poles and Hungarians think Jews exert too much influence on global politics.
Other findings in the poll deliver a mixed bag.
Half of respondents in all countries claimed to know “quite a lot” about the
Holocaust, with 20% claiming to have “extensive knowledge.” Two-thirds of
Europeans agree that commemorating the Holocaust helps ensure similar
atrocities do not happen in future and half believes that Holocaust
commemoration helps combat antisemitism today.
While Jewish people constitute about 0.2% of
the total world population, 25% of Hungarians and 20% of Polish and British
respondents believe that more than 20% of the world is Jewish.
The poll says that 54% of Europeans believe
that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. (One almost wishes they had
been asked if France has a right to exist as a French country, or Poland as a
One-third of Europeans, according to the poll,
believe that criticism of Israel is symptomatic of antisemitism, while 20%
believe that it is not.
Deflecting blame for antisemitism away from its
perpetrators and onto its victims, 28% of respondents contend that antisemitism
in their respective countries is a direct response to Israel’s actions. Fully
18% of Europeans blame antisemitism on the behaviour of Jews themselves.
Polls like these are an important barometer of
opinion. There is little in the results that will surprise anybody who has been
paying attention to European developments in recent years. Previous surveys
have indicated that Europeans (as well as North Americans and others) have what
we would consider an inadequate grasp of the realities of the Holocaust.
Likewise, nobody needed a survey to know that antisemitism in Europe is at a
level unprecedented in recent decades. However, it is important to have empirical
evidence like this, especially a survey that is both cross-national and
includes enough respondents to make it statistically significant.
It would be no help at all to throw up one’s
hands and declare Europe lost, as some people have done in recent days. But
neither do we, in Canada, have all that much influence over what happens there.
We do, however, have the ability to influence
things closer to home and we should redouble our efforts to ensure that trends
in Europe are not transmitted to our shores. We are, by no means, immune to
this kind of thinking. A similar study done in Canada or the United States
would indicate some parallels with the European results, albeit, we hope, not
to the deeply concerning degree that this study has indicated.
We must continue to support every area ofHolocaust education possible. The work being done at the Vancouver HolocaustEducation Centre and by organizations across Canada must be supported andstrengthened. As Prof. Jan Grabowski said in delivering the annual Vrba lecture(jewishindependent.ca/revealing-truth-elicits-threats), there is still verymuch primary research left to do about the Holocaust, unearthing basic detailsthat are still not recorded about that time in history.
On the front of combating antisemitism here,
the Jewish community must continue being vigilant and raising alarms whenever
antisemitic ideas or actions emerge because this work has fallen primarily to
Jewish Canadians. We must continue to build strength through our allies in all
the multicultural communities in the country. This is the surest method to
combat the growth of antisemitism – and this has to be a two-way street. As a
community, we must stand with other groups and individuals when they are
unjustly targeted if we are to expect others to stand with us.
While the last lights of Chanukah our now
extinguished, we still have the season of winter before us and it is our
responsibility to continue bringing light where there is darkness.
Crimes against identifiable groups in Canada have spiked sharply, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada on police-reported hate crimes. Jews and Jewish institutions were the foremost targeted group, but hate crimes against Muslims comprised the largest increase.
Across Canada, there were 2,073 police-reported hate crimes in 2017, an increase of 664 incidents over the previous year. Almost half of all hate crimes were reported in Ontario. In British Columbia, 255 hate crimes were reported to police, including 68 that targeted Jews, 36 incidents against black people, 19 against Muslims and 18 crimes based on sexual orientation. Reported hate crimes against the Muslim, black, Arab or West Asian and LGBTQ+ communities all increased nationwide.
Across the country, hate crimes against the Jewish community rose by 63% between 2016 and 2017 – from 221 incidents to 360 – and the Jewish community remained the most frequently targeted group in both absolute and per capita terms, the report stated. Hate crimes against the Muslim community increased 151% between those years, from 139 police-reported incidents in 2016 to 349 in 2017.
In one of few comparatively bright spots in the report, violent incidents decreased as a proportion of all hate crimes, accounting for 38% of reported hate crimes in 2017, down from 44% in 2016. But this proportional decline is tempered by the raw numbers. The actual number of violent hate crimes increased 25% but decreased as a proportion of hate crimes overall only because the number of non-violent crimes increased that much more – non-violent offences like mischief and public incitement of hatred increased 64%.
Of the 360 police-reported crimes against Jews or Jewish institutions across Canada in 2017, 209 of those were in Ontario and 49 in Quebec – making British Columbia not only the second province in raw numbers of anti-Jewish attacks, but almost tying Ontario on a per capita basis and surpassing all other provinces by far.
Hate crimes in Canada have been creeping upward relatively slowly since 2014, according to Statistics Canada, but 2017 saw a leap of 47% over the previous year. Most of the crimes involved hate-related property crimes, such as graffiti and vandalism.
Despite the large increase in 2017, however, hate crimes still represent a very small proportion of overall crime – about 0.1% of the more than 1.9 million non-traffic crimes reported by police services in 2017. That said, a 2014 Statistics Canada study, General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization), in which Canadians self-reported incidents of perceived hate crimes, indicated that two-thirds of such incidents were not reported to police, suggesting that the numbers in the hate crimes reports might underestimate actual incidents substantially.
“Police-reported hate crimes refer to criminal incidents that, upon investigation by police, are found to have been motivated by hatred toward an identifiable group,” explains StatsCan. “An incident may be against a person or property and may target race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, language, sex, age, mental or physical disability, among other factors. In addition, there are four specific offences listed as hate propaganda offences or hate crimes in the Criminal Code of Canada: advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred, wilful promotion of hatred, and mischief motivated by hate in relation to property used by an identifiable group.”
Hate crimes against Muslims, particularly in Quebec, contributed significantly to the overall spike in 2017 reported incidents. Hate crimes in that province increased 50% over the previous year, with incidents targeting Muslims almost tripling to 117 reports in 2017 from 41 the previous year. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the biggest spike in anti-Muslim incidents in Quebec occurred in the month following the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, where six Muslim men were murdered in a shooting rampage on Jan. 29, 2017.
In response to the statistics, which were released Nov. 29, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs called on the federal government to take a three-pronged approach to hate-motivated crime and related matters.
“In the wake of this report, we are reiterating our call on the Government of Canada to take three key steps to combat hate,” Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of CIJA, said in a statement. “First, we are grateful that the prime minister announced he will enhance the Security Infrastructure Program. We urge the government to expand it to cover training costs, especially given that emergency training saved lives during the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. Second, we need a national strategy to combat online hate. Experience shows that vicious rhetoric online can fuel and foreshadow violence offline. Third, the federal government should strengthen the capacity of law enforcement to combat hate crime. This should include enhancing legal tools to deal with hate speech and supporting the creation of local hate crime units where they are lacking.”
The news is not good. Hate crimes are up almost everywhere in the world one cares to look. A Statistics Canada report on police-reported hate crimes in Canada erases whatever smug superiority Canadians may have been feeling when watching rampant racism south of the border, at least some of which seems a result of the licence granted by a president who flirts with the most incendiary elements in U.S. society. The number of hate crimes reported to Canadian police in 2017 far outstripped the number in 2016 (see story, page 1) – and the actual number of hate-motivated incidents may be up to three times larger than the number reported to police.
Similarly terrible phenomena are taking place across Europe, where xenophobic and racist rhetoric is manifesting into violence against Jews, Muslims, Roma, asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia and, really, anyone who does not fit an escalating nationalist and populist consensus.
The lines are not all clear, either. The perpetrators and the victims can, at times, overlap. In online posts, email threads and private conversations, we witness members of our own community attributing motives to entire groups of people, and spreading hatred based on religious or racial identities. Likewise, messages of anti-Jewish hatred are common in online locations addressing the Israeli-Arab conflict, often including antisemitic comments from members of victimized minority groups.
The range of hate-motivated incidents addressed in the Statistics Canada report varies – most are non-violent and involve graffiti or crimes against property. But, when they are violent, they strike with a precision that aims at the emotional, as well as physical, vulnerabilities of the victims. In three of the most horrific hate crimes of recent years, assailants struck in the very places where people should expect safety – in the spiritual sanctuary of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, S.C., where nine African-Americans were murdered by a white supremacist on June 17, 2015; at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, a mosque, where six people were murdered by an Islamophobic killer on Jan. 29, 2017; and at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 were murdered during Shabbat services this past Oct. 27.
The idea that people should be safe in a place of religious observance seems to be precisely the reasoning behind such attacks. But there is another form of violent crime that seems oddly excluded from this discussion.
Thursday (Dec. 6) marked the 29th anniversary of the mass murder at the École Polytechnique, in Montreal, where 14 women were killed by a man with deep-rooted hatred against women. A commemoration took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in recognition of the annual National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, with empty shoes representing the 545 women who have been murdered in British Columbia between 1997 and 2015 (the last year for which reliable statistics are available).
These victims include some of Canada’s murdered indigenous women, women working in vulnerable situations and women who were murdered because they were women and members of another marginalized group. Others were murdered by their domestic partners. In probably all of these cases, issues of differential power (of various forms) and attitudes about the value of women’s lives, factored into their fates. They are victims of gender-based violence.
It seems strange that, in a discussion about hate-motivated crimes, we exclude an entire gender, whose experience with violence is as prevalent, or more so, than that of other identifiable groups.
This is not an attempt to detract from one or another group’s experience with violence to emphasize something else; it is more an attempt to emphasize that every life should be respected and that membership in an identifiable group often diminishes that respect in the eyes of perpetrators.
But neither should the universal idea – every life is sacred and every individual deserves respect – detract from the more particular issue at hand. Every life is sacred and every individual is deserving of respect, but membership in particular groups can disproportionately impact on one’s experience with violence and discrimination. So, while we should be always conscious of the universal, we should likewise militate against the particular bigotries and prejudices that lead to disproportionate victimization of identifiable groups. In Canada and around the world right now, humankind could benefit from more emphasis on both the universal and the particular.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons this month and apologized for his predecessors’ decision to turn away more than 900 Jewish refugees on the ship MS St. Louis in 1939, he also made a plea for a better, more tolerant world.
Almost all Jewish Canadians – and probably most Canadians in general – thought this was the right thing to do.
The most recent public opinion polls indicate that most Canadians think that, on balance, what Trudeau has been doing since he became prime minister three years ago is generally OK. With the collapse in public support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québecois, Trudeau seems to have an edge in a two-way race against the Conservative party of Andrew Scheer.
It is hard not to imagine that the leaders of most of our allied countries aren’t a bit jealous of Trudeau’s position right now.
In the United States, the mixed messages of this month’s midterm elections – which strengthened Republican control in the Senate and saw the Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives – leaves President Donald Trump with less power than he had a few weeks ago, although it does give him a scapegoat, in the shape of a Democratic House of Representatives, which will doubtlessly invigorate his 3 a.m. tweetstorms.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down as leader after a remarkable 13 years at the country’s helm. At times, she has seemed the adult at an international kids’ table, holding Europe together while bailing out failing economies and managing influxes of refugees, among other things. But apparently she’s had enough of the excitement.
One-time wunderkind French President Emmanuel Macron is learning that coming out of nowhere to take the top job can leave one ill-equipped for the demands it entails. His popularity, according to polls, is spiraling downward.
In far worse shape are the governments to the west and east of these European powers. In both Israel and the United Kingdom, the leaders are unsure when they go to bed what their status will be when they wake. Between the time of writing and the time of reading this page, either or both of these governments may have fallen and new elections called – or some Band-Aid solution found for propping up or rejigging the existing coalitions.
In Britain, division at the top over the conditions of British withdrawal from the European Union has led to resignations of top cabinet officials (as well as lesser cabinet officials). Dissidents are penning letters that could lead to a leadership review for Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, by her own caucus. Even if she survives that, the inevitable vote on the Brexit plan could see her government defeated just a few weeks hence.
For Jewish Britons, this situation is particularly serious. May’s Conservative government has been struggling in popularity almost since she took the helm. The Tories faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in last year’s general election, in which the Conservatives expected to glide to an easy majority and ended up having to cobble together a coalition with sectarian parties from Northern Ireland. A new Conservative leader might revive the party’s chances, though it seems impossible to see how anyone could paper over the seemingly irreparable divisions in that party between pro- and anti-Brexiteers.
The potential for a Corbyn-led Labour government is anathema to the vast majority of Jewish voters in that country. Corbyn himself has been a leading voice against Israel and in support of those who seek its destruction, including Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he has referred to as “friends.”
While extremists on the continent, like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, do everything in their power to convince Jewish and other voters that they are not antisemitic, Corbyn seems to relish poking Jewish voters figuratively in the eye. And he is the proverbial tip of an iceberg. Websites are devoted to chronicling the extraordinary outpouring of overt antisemitism in the party he leads. One local chapter recently demurred on condemning the mass murder at the Pittsburgh synagogue, with one member complaining that there is too much focus on “antisemitism this, antisemitism that.”
In Israel, division among top cabinet officials over the response to the most recent violence from Gaza has led to the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister, and extremely unfriendly musings from Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is hanging by a thread, though public opinion polls indicate that support for his Likud bloc may actually give him reason to look favourably on early elections.
An ancient Chinese curse speaks of living in “interesting times.” For the leaders of many of our closest allies, these are interesting times indeed. But they probably look enviously to Canada and realize what Jews have known for many generations: when it comes to politics, boring is good.
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, was the “Night of Broken Glass” that saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. The state-sanctioned pogrom was staged to look like a spontaneous uprising against the Jews of Germany, annexed Austria and occupied Sudetenland. It is frequently seen as the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust. According to Prof. Chris Friedrichs, who delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative evening Nov. 8, global reaction to the attack, which took place on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, sent messages to both Nazis and Jews.
“The world was shocked,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. “Newspapers in the free countries of Europe and all over the Americas reported on these events in detail. Editorials thundered against the Nazi thugs. Protests took place. Demonstrations were held. Opinion was mobilized – for a few days. But soon, Kristallnacht was no longer front-page news. What had happened was now the new normal in Germany, and the world’s attention moved elsewhere. And this is what the Nazis learned: we can do this, and more, and get away with it. Nothing will happen.
“And the Jews of Germany learned something too,” said Friedrichs, himself a son of parents who fled the Nazi regime. “By 1938, many Jews had emigrated from Germany – if they could find a country that would take them. But many others remained. Much had been taken away from them, but two things remained untouched: their houses of worship and their homes. Here, at least, one could be safe, sustained by the fellowship of other Jews and the comforts and consolations of religious faith and family life. But now, in one brutal night, these things, too, had been taken from them. Their synagogues were reduced to rubble, their shops vandalized, their homes desecrated. Nothing was safe or secure. The last lingering hopes of the Jews still living in Germany that, despite all they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they might at least be allowed to live quiet private lives of work and worship with family and friends, collapsed in the misery of fire, smashed glass, home invasions, mass arrests and psychological terror on Nov. 9, 1938.”
Friedrichs’ lecture followed a solemn procession of survivors of the Holocaust, who carried candles onto the bimah of Congregation Beth Israel. The evening, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and Beth Israel, was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and the Azrieli Foundation, which provided every attendee with a copy of Dangerous Measures, the memoir of Canadian Joseph Schwartzberg, who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled Germany with his family soon after.
“We are gathered tonight in the sanctuary of a synagogue,” said Friedrichs, who retired in June, after 45 years of teaching and researching at UBC. “A synagogue should indeed be a sanctuary, a quiet place where Jews can gather, chiefly but not only on the Sabbath, for prayer, worship and contemplation. Recent events have reminded us only too bitterly that this is not always the case.
“Our minds are full of mental images of what happened in Pittsburgh less than two weeks ago, but I invite you to call up a different mental image,” he said, taking the audience back to the time of Kristallnacht. “Think of a synagogue. Just a few days earlier, on the Sabbath, Jews had gathered there, as they have gathered in synagogues for 2,000 years, for prayer, worship and fellowship with other Jews. But now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a firebomb is thrust through a window of the synagogue. As the window glass shatters to the floor, the firebomb ignites a piece of furniture. Within minutes the fire spreads. Soon the entire synagogue is engulfed in flames. It is an inferno. The next morning, the walls of the synagogue are still standing, but the interior is completely gutted. No worship will ever take place there again.”
Friedrichs paused to note that some in the audience would recall a similar attack that destroyed Vancouver’s Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, on Jan. 25, 1985. He recounted the reaction of police and firefighters, civic leaders and the general public, who rallied around the Vancouver congregation at the time, and compared that with the reactions of non-Jews in Germany and the territories it controlled at the time of Kristallnacht.
“Police and firefighters are on the scene,” Friedrichs said of the situation during Kristallnacht. “But the firefighters are not there to put out the blaze. They are there only to make sure the fire does not spread to any nearby non-Jewish buildings. The police are there only to make sure no members of the congregation try to rescue anything from the building.
“The next morning, crowds of onlookers gape at the burnt-out shell of the synagogue. Some of the furnishings and ritual objects have survived the blaze, so they are dragged out to the street and a bonfire is prepared. But first, the local school principal must arrive with his pupils. Deprived of the opportunity to see the synagogue itself in flames during the night, when they were asleep, the children should at least have the satisfaction of seeing the furnishings and Jewish ritual objects go up in smoke. Most of those objects are added to the bonfire, but not all. Not the Torah scrolls – the Five Books of Moses, every single word of which, in translation, is identical to the words found in the first five books of every Christian Bible. No, the Torah scrolls are not added to the bonfire. They are dragged out to the street to be trampled on by the children, egged on by adult onlookers, while other adults rip apart the Torah covers to be taken home as souvenirs.
“And now consider this: events like this did not happen in just one town,” Friedrichs said. “The same things took place in hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns throughout Germany and Austria, all on the very same evening and into the next morning. There were minor variations from town to town, but the basic events were exactly the same, for it was a nationwide pogrom, carefully planned in advance.”
Friedrichs, who devoted 25 years to serving on the organizing committee of the Kristallnacht commemorative committee, including eight as president, reflected on the history of Holocaust remembrance in Vancouver, including the decision to single out this date as one of the primary commemorative events of the calendar.
“Why should we commemorate the Shoah at this particular time in November?” he asked. “Consider this: 91 Jewish men died on Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938. Yet, on a single day in the busy summer of 1944, up to 5,000 Jewish men, women and children might be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on one day. Why not select some random date in August 1944 and make that the occasion to recall the victims of the Shoah? Why choose Kristallnacht?”
The earliest Holocaust commemorations in the city, he said, citing the work of local scholar Barbara Schober, was an event in 1948 marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
People who had founded the Peretz School in Vancouver, in 1945, hoped to preserve the memories and values of the East European Jewish culture, which had been almost totally wiped from the map, he said. “Yet, rather than focus on the six million deaths, their intention was to honour those Jews who had actually risen up to fight the Nazi menace – the hopeless but inspiring efforts exemplified above all by the heroic resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters who used the pathetically meagre supply of weapons they could find to resist the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis in the spring of 1943,” said Friedrichs. “That effort failed, but it was not forgotten.”
This event continued, with the support of Canadian Jewish Congress, into the 1970s, he explained.
“There was an emerging concern that Jews should not just recall and pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah,” said Friedrichs. “The increasing visibility of the Holocaust denial movement made it apparent that Jews should also make their contribution to educating society as a whole – and especially young people – about the true history of what had happened. Prof. Robert Krell and Dr. Graham Forst undertook to establish an annual symposium at UBC at which hundreds of high school students would learn about the Holocaust from experts and, even more importantly, from hearing the first-person accounts of survivors themselves. It was in those years, too, that the Vancouver Holocaust Education Society was established to coordinate these efforts. The survivor outreach program, through which dozens of survivors of the Shoah in our community spoke and continue to speak to students about what they experienced, became the cornerstone of these educational efforts. Their talks are always different, for no two survivors ever experienced the Shoah the same way, but the ultimate object is always the same – not just to teach students what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but to reflect on the danger that racist thinking of any kind can all too easily lead to.”
But this was education, he noted, not commemoration.
“With the decline of the Warsaw Ghetto event in Vancouver, the need to commemorate the Shoah came to be filled in other ways. One of those ways was the emergence of the Vancouver Kristallnacht commemoration. The origins of this form of commemoration lie right here in the Beth Israel congregation. In the late 1970s, members of the Gottfried family who had emigrated from Austria in the Nazi era, now members of Beth Israel, proposed that their synagogue host a commemoration of Kristallnacht.”
Friedrichs spoke of the burden carried by each of the survivors who carried candles onto the bimah moments earlier.
“You might think that a candle is not very hard to carry, but, for each one of these men and women, the flame of the candle has reignited painful memories stretching back 70 or 80 years, to a dimly remembered way of life before their world collapsed,” he said. “These men and women survived, and sometimes a few of their relatives did as well, but all of them, without exception, you’ve heard this before, had family members – whether parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or cousins – who were murdered. One could not reproach these men and women if they had chosen to stay home on a night like this. But, instead, they are here.
“Many of these men and women have done more, even more, as well,” he continued. “For many of them have done something for years and continue to do so even now: to speak of their experiences to students in the schools of our province. To stand in front of two or three or four or five hundred students of every race and every heritage and describe life in the ghetto or the camp or on the death march or the anxiety of living in hiding and being pushed into a basement or a closet every time some unwanted visitor arrived – this is not easy. But there is a purpose. The young people of our province are barraged with images and messages and texts telling them that people of certain religions or races or heritages are inferior and unwanted members of our society. They must be told just what that kind of thinking can lead to. No textbook, no video, no lecture can do the job as powerfully as hearing a survivor describe exactly what he or she experienced during the Shoah.”
Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president of the VHEC, welcomed guests and introduced the candlelighting procession. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs. UBC Prof. Richard Menkis delivered opening remarks and Helen Pinsky, president of Beth Israel, introduced Sarah Kirby-Yung, a Vancouver city councilor who read a proclamation from the mayor. Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, introduced Friedrichs. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld provided closing remarks, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, sent greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada.
In the Wisconsin town of Baraboo, high school students in their final year before graduation take formal pictures on the steps of the town’s courthouse. Census figures say that the town of 12,000 in the country’s heartland is 94% white.
Among the pictures available for purchase on the website of a local photographer was one with only the boys and in which many – most, it appears – were performing a Nazi salute. (The photo disappeared from the site on Monday but is widely available online.) One of the students near the front did not make the Nazi salute – instead he made a hand signal made popular by far-right white supremacists. He’s the real rebel, we suppose.
Actions like these can often be sparked by the dumb idea of one or two kids, with others following along. It would be distressing and disgusting at the best of times but, now, when there is a clear, genuine resurgence of white supremacy, antisemitism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance in the United States and worldwide, this takes on a deeper resonance. Is this an example of a bunch of high schoolers thinking (perversely) that this would be funny or kooky or somehow amusing? Or is there, among the crowd, a few or a lot who know what the salute really means, identify with the ideology behind it and, because of the mainstreaming of “alt-right” ideas in the country, felt emboldened to make this statement?
Certainly, there are worse hate crimes and other catastrophes in the United States – including racially motivated and gun violence – that deserve attention. Yet, this incident sticks out for a number of reasons.
The picture is jarring. Kids – young adults almost – well-dressed in their graduation suits, nearing a turning point in their lives, standing in front of the embodiment of justice and rule of law in their society, raising their arms aloft en masse in a motion determined to provoke.
But this is not the most alarming thing about the photo and how it came to be. Deep into the New York Times story about the incident, a recent alumna of the high school said she was disappointed but not shocked, knowing that a group of boys in the school were noted for bullying and offensive remarks. “I’m not surprised by them doing this,” she said.
Then she added: “But I’m surprised that there’s so many of them doing this. Photographers were there; the parents were there; community members were there.”
There’s more to the story. The photo was apparently taken months ago and it took this long for anyone to raise alarms.
Still more: a young man in the back of the photo whose arms remain by his side said, on Facebook, that the salute was the idea of the photographer. Should this make us feel better? If true, the photographer should suffer professional and social consequences. But were there parents and other community members who witnessed this live and stood by silently?
In a world not lacking in tragedies or social ills, this is not the worst of the week’s news. Yet it resonates because these young people are part of the next generation we are depending on to fix society’s ills and improve the world. Have their parents, grandparents and educators done their jobs in preparing them for the world and their responsibilities in it?
In a letter to parents, the superintendent of the school district said her team was “extremely troubled” by the image.
“Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our schools remain positive and safe environments for all students, staff and community,” she wrote. “If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue.”
Fair enough. But, first and foremost, perhaps they should look at their curriculum and also consider what messages are being sent consciously or unconsciously by teachers, administrators and other role models before they initiate legal or any other actions against the students.
While school administrators and teachers have much on their plates – shrinking budgets and broadening demands, as well as trying to prevent their charges from being murdered in yet another gun rampage – this should be a warning for educators everywhere to remember that success is not only measured in grades and that a proper education includes more than academics.