Bill 21, Quebec’s law that forbids most public employees from displaying any religious symbols like a turban, a Magen David or a hijab, may become an issue in the federal election. On CBC Radio’s political program The House last weekend, MPs representing the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties all took effectively the same position: the law is discriminatory but provinces have the right to proclaim their own laws and, what’s more, the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause means Quebec can pretty much do whatever it wants.
There is a political calculation in all this, of course. Many Quebeckers support this law and any federal party needs to appeal to a chunk of these voters in order to succeed in the province during next month’s vote. As a result, party leaders are mostly making the right noises about this discriminatory law, while hoping to move on to the next topic ASAP.
With federal leaders basically throwing up their hands on the issue, which calls into question the most fundamental rights of Canadians of all religions, what can be done?
One individual interviewed on the program is a teacher who is Sikh. Her choice was to move from Quebec to British Columbia, where she could continue her chosen profession without diminishing her religious beliefs, which include wearing a turban.
If federal leaders will not act forcefully, perhaps leaders in the provinces outside Quebec can do something. Throughout history, Canada has been enriched by refugees and immigrants who sought freedom and opportunity – our gains roughly equating the loss to their places of origin. Why not apply the same principle to inter-provincial relations?
Perhaps provinces like British Columbia should roll out the welcome mat for teachers, school administrators, wildlife officers, Crown prosecutors and other civil servants from Quebec who no longer feel welcome there. Actively recruiting these experienced professional people of different cultures and religions would strengthen our communities and send a message to Quebec that cultural difference is an asset, not a liability.
In the absence of forceful federal leadership on this front, it would be encouraging to see provincial governments stepping up where they can.
In a world where Israel is accused of being an “apartheid state” and Zionism is equated with racism, it is understandable that we would recoil from accusations of actual racism in Israel, but we can’t afford to do so.
On June 30, 18-year-old Solomon Tekah was shot and killed by a police officer in Haifa. He is one of at least four Ethiopian-Israelis killed by police in recent years, while another seven deaths were cited as suicide or as being the result of uncertain causes after police encounters, according to community leaders. Reports of police brutality against the black community are alarming and suggest a systemic problem.
Supporters of Israel on social media like to celebrate Muslims, Druze and other minorities who reach the pinnacles of Israeli society, and so we should. But we should not restrain our criticism of serious racial injustice in that country just because of what outsiders might think. There have been struggles in Israel not only between Jews and Arabs, but around the treatment of and inequalities experienced by Sephardim and Mizrahim, Bedouins, Ethiopians and others. There are also legitimate concerns around the treatment of African asylum-seekers, concentrated in south Tel Aviv, who have been neglected and used as political footballs by politicians.
The New York Times Sunday compared the growing awareness of police brutality, as well as more casual racism, to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. In addition to the most visible cases – police killings – the article also includes examples of pervasive prejudices, such as the Ethiopian-born head of a social services agency who was offered housecleaning work by strangers on the street, as but one example. Interestingly, even though one arm of the Israeli government coordinated the airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 1991, another arm insisted on second, symbolic circumcisions for the men, whose Judaism was apparently legitimate enough for the Law of Return but somehow not legitimate enough for the state-sanctioned arbiters of religious identity.
It is particularly disheartening when one compares the racism experienced by Ethiopian-Israelis with the hopefulness this community carried with them to Israel. One individual said that arriving in Israel after journeying for two months was “like touching the moon.”
“Is this the Israel we dreamed of?” Zion Getahun remarked. “It’s a question I ask.”
In light of recent events, the minister for internal security, Gilad Erdan, is setting up a new unit “to fight expressions of racism wherever they exist,” to ensure that force is used by police responsibly and that “over-policing” – in which Ethiopian-Israelis say they feel like they are treated like automatic suspects – is brought to heel.
The parallels are notable with the situation in the United States, where African-Americans experience disproportionate brutality and deaths at the hands of police officers. Also similar are the fears of parents, like the mother who worries about the coming time when her now-11-year-old son will want to go out by himself.
What is notable in the Times article, which seems well presented and fair, is that, unlike African-Americans in the United States, Ethiopian-Israelis do not have nearly the same level of community leadership or representation in government and other places of power. They are a small minority of 150,000, lacking the established community organizations that African-Americans have built over generations.
This means that, more even than in the United States, and more than in Canada, where non-indigenous Canadians have begun to speak up on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples here and to address the wrongs that have been perpetrated, the moral obligation falls even more heavily on people who do not belong to the affected communities to right these wrongs.
In Israel, there is a need to encourage and support communal leadership among Ethiopian-Israelis while simultaneously speaking out on their behalf when they experience discrimination. As supporters of Israel and as people who are proud of the many achievements of the Jewish state in creating an enviable society nearly from scratch in an historical blink of an eye, we, too, have a voice.
Express concerns to Israeli family and friends, send support to the myriad organizations that build connections across Israel’s many divides and, while we’re at it, consider whether we can improve our own attitudes about and treatment of people who are different from us.
A recent study indicates that Americans are increasingly tolerant of the idea that businesses should be able to refuse service to customers based on the customer’s identity.
Of those polled, 19% said that a business should be able to refuse to serve Jews, an increase from 12% the last time the question was asked five years earlier. Twenty-two percent believe that Muslims could be legally denied services, 24% said atheists should be able to be turned away and slightly fewer than one in three believe that gay, lesbian or transgender people could be denied service. Fifteen percent of respondents said that a business should have the right to refuse to serve African-Americans, an increase from 10% in 2014. Most notable is that these numbers have increased over the past five years. For example, the number of people who said gays or lesbians could be denied service almost doubled, to 30% from 16%. (The question did not include Muslims five years ago.)
The issue has come to a head on a couple of occasions, such as when bakeries have refused to provide cakes for same-sex weddings. But it is the increase in the feelings of exclusion that have grown over the past half-decade that indicate we are not in a period of unfettered progress in our acceptance of diversity.
Some economists would suggest that the market should decide the matter – a business that turns away customers may have more trouble surviving, or it may benefit from an increase in like-minded clients, but that is of concern only to its owner. Others would say, if a baker doesn’t want to bake your wedding cake because they are prejudiced against your sexual orientation, why on earth would you want to patronize them? Of course, the principle of equality goes beyond economics. Court decisions in Canada and the United States have indicated that the law will not tolerate the refusal of service to identifiable groups by a business or service that otherwise is available to the general public.
There are nuances to the discussion, though.
This year, the White Rock Pride Society claimed discrimination after the Star of the Sea Catholic church refused to rent a venue to the LGBTQ organization. Here is where things get a little more complicated. A Catholic individual – or a Muslim, or a Jew or anyone – operating a business aimed at the general public does not have the right to discriminate based on a customer’s identity. But a church – or a synagogue or a mosque – is not on par with a business that is open to the public. One has to wonder about the motivation of a gay organization approaching a Catholic church to rent space, which seems like a bit of a set-up for a discrimination complaint. But the larger issue here is that religious organizations should certainly have the right to determine who can use its facilities. Imagine, for example, an overtly antisemitic organization asking to rent space in a Jewish community centre. There is a substantial difference, of course, between one’s beliefs (being anti-Zionist or even antisemitic is a choice) as opposed to an immutable characteristic of one’s personality, such as sexual orientation.
The issue is at once simple and complex. Businesses are not individuals with human rights. They are entities created under laws and they must adhere to the laws and norms of the jurisdiction in which they operate. We might be thankful to know that, if a particular pizza maker or café owner holds antisemitic views, we can choose not to patronize them. This is an entirely different scenario than the flip side of that coin, in which a business refuses to serve Jews.
There has been a lot of commentary in recent years that the American president and others in high-profile positions have given permission to people to air their prejudices openly. A study like this is welcome because it puts quantifiable numbers to the perception of growing intolerance. This is a wake-up call to those who would ignore the warning signs of our current era of discontent. The evidence has arrived. Now, what are we going to do about it?
The deed is finally done. For years, Quebec politicians have been talking about secularism, or laïcité, proposing a range of actions to ban the presence of visible religious symbols among government employees. On Sunday, following a weekend of almost round-the-clock debate, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority in the National Assembly passed Bill 21. The law bans symbols such as the crucifix, turban, hijab and kippah for provincial employees in positions of authority, such as judges, police, prosecutors, court clerks and schoolteachers.
The bill was met with lamentations and anger from the opposition. Catherine Dorion, a member of the National Assembly representing the left-wing party Québec solidaire spoke powerfully in favour of individual liberty and the right to exhibit religious identity.
“Each person in this room who will vote for Bill 21 will bear the responsibility for this first great breach in the dike we had proudly erected to protect the fundamental rights of all Quebecers,” she said.
The vote came a day after a similarly contentious debate on another bill, which addresses the province’s agreement with the federal government over immigration to Quebec. On the one hand, the bill aims to ensure that immigration reflects the province’s labour requirements, which is justifiable. On the other hand, the bill also permits the creation of a “values test” that new Quebecers would have to pass before admission to permanent residency. A test of this nature is one thing in theory – extreme examples like female genital mutilation are raised as justifications – but it is something else in practice.
Government measures to adjudicate an individual’s beliefs is a recipe for disaster. Certainly we would like to see people with hateful or violent attitudes toward particular cultural groups prevented from entering the country, or rehabilitated if they are already here. There are programs and policies in Canada to address this problem and they should be strengthened. But applying what amounts to a form of prior restraint on the ideas and beliefs of new Canadians by a government with limited respect for civil liberties crosses a perilous line.
The religious symbols law parallels the immigration law in its flouting of civil liberties, but diverges importantly in a number of ways. It applies to people who are already Canadian (for the most part, at least), which is a more grievous affront than putting up barriers for non-citizens.
In responding to criticism, Quebec Premier François Legault declared: “Someone once said, beware of those who say they like the people but do not listen to what the people want.”
This language reflects a populism we have seen in Europe as well as North America, but which has been thankfully rare in this country. The idea that governments should do whatever “the people” want invites a tyranny of the majority that is almost destined to trample on individual rights, especially the rights of members of minority communities. It bears stating that, in Quebec, in order to deliver the will of the people, the assembly had to clip the wings of democracy not once but twice, invoking closure on debate on both bills and, in the case of Bill 21, promising to use the Canadian Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause to override what even the government of Quebec acknowledges is a unconstitutional infringement on individual rights.
We are seeing flare-ups elsewhere in Canada of how some of “the people” would like to see public policy progress. On the same busy weekend, a rally in downtown Vancouver against transgender rights and opposing the province’s progressive sexual education agenda turned nasty (if the mission of the event wasn’t nasty enough) when counter-protesters showed up to confront them. At the rally were the Soldiers of Odin, a far-right group, people wearing yellow vests, the symbol of an amorphous movement that began in France and has attracted extremists, and at least one leading member of the People’s Party of Canada, a new populist party that seems determined to stoke a range of fears and prejudices in the lead-up to the federal election this fall.
Violence also erupted last weekend at a pride parade in Hamilton, Ont., when protesters showed up at the celebration. A local politician laid blame for the violence, which included punching and choking, on “far-right evangelicals” who he said were “just there to sucker-punch people.”
All of this is to say that Canada is not immune to extremism or even politically motivated violence. There is, of course, an important line between the violence in Hamilton and the laws that were rammed through Quebec’s legislature. Violence deserves universal condemnation while passionate disagreements over politics – even laws we see as repressive and excessive – are justifiable and welcome. Still, these incidents all reflect different approaches to “othering” – the idea that “we” are under threat from “them.”
What is encouraging is hearing the voices of those forced to defend the values of inclusion and respect for diversity. There was eloquence on the opposition side of Quebec’s National Assembly last weekend and, in response to the altercations in Hamilton and Vancouver, admirable recommitment by many to the values that we genuinely hope will represent the Canada we hope to create. This is also a reminder to speak up, so that when politicians say they are doing what “the people” want, what they mean is the will of people who pursue inclusion, acceptance and diversity.
Deema Abdel Hafeez placed third in the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies’ annual speech contest. (photo from Janet Lee Elementary School)
Every year, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies puts out a call to Ontario students in grades 6 to 8 to submit a speech reflecting on a quote of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, z”l. This year, the quote selected was, “I believe in the good in people,” and students were encouraged to think about how to make the world a better place.
Deema Abdel Hafeez, a Grade 8 student at Janet Lee Elementary School in Hamilton, Ont., entered the contest, the first round of which was in February. Hafeez comes from a Palestinian family who moved to Canada 20 years ago.
“When I heard the quote, I didn’t want to just base it on the good in people … unicorns, rainbows,” Hafeez told the Independent. “I, more so, attacked the quote. I was like, you cannot believe in the automatic good in people, because it takes time to find the good in people.
“I wrote about my Islamophobic experiences. I was saying that you have to define the word ‘good’ to believe in the good in people. And, you have to become the good yourself before you can assume the good in other people.”
Hafeez shared that, while her school is pluralistic, with students of many different faiths, racism still very much exists.
“All the racist slurs and things like that, that’s how I attacked the quote,” said Hafeez. “I talked about how my family can’t go out without [experiencing it] … how my mom is being told to go back to her own country, or how anyone wearing religious clothing … is attacked in social standing … and how things are at a disadvantage for people like us. Obviously, it’s not as bad as it used to be, but, as a world, we need to try to change more.”
Hafeez said one of her Muslim neighbours had been badly beaten, to the point that he had almost died, just because he is a Muslim.
In the classroom, Hafeez has witnessed hate. “People mention jokes on social media and like things like that, and they talk about different colours of skin as if following a stereotype… and it’s, like, you’re funny, but you’re not … it’s just rude.”
When asked about how her parents felt about her entering the competition, Hafeez said she had entered without their knowledge. “It wasn’t because they wouldn’t have allowed me to,” she said. “But, I kind of just entered without telling anyone. At home, we talk about the Palestine-Israel conflict a lot, because we have a lot of family in Palestine. We can’t hate a whole group of people, because that’s hypocritical and we’re nice people … so, we don’t hate Israeli people. I have a lot of Israeli friends and I’m Palestinian. It’s cool, because, I feel like, with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there’s a way we can live in harmony, both nations living in the same land.”
Hafeez is a member of the school group Making a Difference.
“We do a lot of fundraisers and things like that,” she said. “I volunteer my time while making projects for my school and having the whole school getting involved in these projects. That’s how … I think I’ve become ‘the good,’ in my opinion. I find good as not seeing other people as objects and not labeling them and things like that … becoming the good is more mental to me. You can’t judge anyone. You can’t say, this person is good or bad. You can define yourself and, if you believe you’re doing the best you can at being good … if everyone did that in the world, then we’d live in a better place.”
Hafeez said she watches the news a lot and feels there is far too much violence that results from people judging others.
“I’m not talking about politics,” she said. “If everyone just stopped judging other people based on their religion, colour, sexual orientation … if everyone just focused on themselves, then our world wouldn’t be as hateful a place as it is right now.”
Hafeez practised her speech with her eight siblings.
“I feel like the hardest part for me was just managing my time and how I was supposed to practise my speech, and do all the things for my speech while I also have school, sports, classes … that was the hardest part,” said Hafeez. “The speech itself came easy for me. It is my own thoughts and is everything I’d thought about before. I stayed up late at night thinking these thoughts. I already knew what I wanted to say, so, on the stage, I wouldn’t be reading off a paper. I’d be talking about what I’ve been thinking about.”
The practise paid off. Hafeez was among 10 students chosen to attend a workshop and have their speeches taped as part of the semifinals on March 3 at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre in North York, a suburb of Toronto. A panel of judges then selected five students for the finals on March 28 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Hafeez placed third, winning an iPad.
Hafeez and her school have sent the Simon Wiesenthal Centre a grant application in the hope of organizing a peace summit, incorporating some anti-Islamophobic and anti-discrimination workshops for area schools.
Hafeez is already thinking about what types of activities she would like to undertake in high school, next year, such as starting up a group for change.
“I feel like, when I do that, I’ll be introduced to everything else I can do at my high school,” she said. “I have a lot of siblings, know a lot of teachers. I feel like it won’t be hard, to use my voice to reach people in high school.”
Meanwhile, Hafeez will find good use for her new iPad.
Kenton Klassen, left, and John Voth co-star in Pacific Theatre’s production of Cherry Docs. (photo by Dylan Hamm)
I often wonder, as a lawyer and the child of a Holocaust survivor, if I would be able to defend a skinhead charged with a racist crime. Can a person shut off their emotions and take on a case that is at odds with their moral compass?
This is the premise of Cherry Docs, a two-hander playing at the Pacific Theatre until April 28. Playwright David Gow penned the piece in 1998 as a response, in part, to the homophobic attack by a group of skinheads on his university friend and, in part, to his Jewish Belgian family’s Holocaust experiences.
“I wanted to explore and come to terms with my own anger at seeing young people dressed as Nazis and adopting Nazi thinking 50 years after the end of a war that killed so many millions,” Gow told the Jewish Independent. “Now, 70-odd years later, we seem to have more neo-Nazis than ever before. It looks far, far worse today than in 1998, when someone could (and did) say with a straight face, are you sure this is a problem? It was not good in 1998. Now, of course, it is a problem of epic, international proportions.”
Cherry Docs has been produced globally, including a long run in Germany, where, said Gow, “the critical reception … was extremely detailed, extremely well-written, unlike anything we see in North America, even from, say, the New York Times, in terms of depth and breadth of commentary and analysis. The play ran for something like seven years in rep in Berlin. Two distinct productions have been done in Tel Aviv over the years, and maybe two in Jerusalem.”
As well, he added, “productions in Poland ran for 13 years. One Polish production went to Beijing for an international theatre festival and, there, it played with Chinese subtitles, so, an English Canadian play in Polish and Chinese, in China.”
The success of the play and its international acclaim led Gow to adapt the story for the big screen. Its cinematic debut came in 2006, as Steel Toes. It won several awards on the film festival circuit.
In the two-actor play, which features John Voth as Danny Dunkelman and Kenton Klassen as Mike Downey in the Pacific Theatre production, Danny is a Jewish legal aid lawyer who has been assigned the task of defending Mike Downey, a 20ish, tattooed skinhead, who is charged with murder in the stomping death of a Pakistani fast food worker in a back alley in downtown Toronto. The play’s title represents Mike’s pride and joy, his steel-toed, cherry red Doc Marten combat boots, which he is wearing when he commits his hate-motivated crime. The rationale for Mike’s unprovoked, drunken attack is his perception of the decline and fall of white male supremacy as brought on by what he sees as unchecked immigration, reverse discrimination for employment opportunities and a ZOG (Zionist occupation government) conspiracy of the Jewish elite.
Mike has been indoctrinated into the white racist youth movement and recites antisemitic clichés with ease and conviction. He is a proud foot soldier for the Aryan resistance movement. He goads Danny on by saying, “In an ideal world, I would see you eliminated, but I need you. I know you will do a good job for me, as you are a Jewish liberal thinker, a humanist, who believes in checks and balances in the system.”
Mike insists that he be tried for his crime, which he admits – although he says he did not intend to kill the victim – as an individual. “Try me,” he says, “not the skinhead ideology.”
Danny aggressively challenges high school-dropout Mike to formulate a convincing defence strategy, taking him through “the eye of a needle” in an effort to make him stand up and be accountable for his actions.
The two travel their own paths of discovery through the seven months of legal proceedings. Mike’s journey leads him to a path of redemption, while Danny struggles. Danny must confront not only his violent dislike for his client, but his own racism; in doing so, he explores his Judaism and its tenets of atonement and forgiveness.
The biblical names of the characters Daniel (in the lions’ den) and Michael (the archangel) suggest an allegory, “A battle from above played out here,” said Gow. As the story unfolds, we see the impact that two ideologically opposite humans can have on each other, and that Danny is no saint and Mike no devil.
All of the action takes place in the prison, where Mike is being held in administrative segregation. The style – alternating monologues from the protagonists followed by intense bouts of verbal sparring – and the sparse set (two chairs and a table) are appropriately stark for the subject matter and the intimate theatre space. The costumes also are uncomplicated – Mike’s prison jumpsuit and Danny’s business attire. Subtle lighting and sound cues complete the atmosphere.
Klassen is superb in his portrayal of Mike. At the opening night reception, he shared with the Independent that he had prepared for the role by talking to a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead, which gave him insight into his character. While Voth is solid as the defence attorney, he is not as engaging as Klassen.
Two particular scenes bear mention. In one, the two actors stand at opposite ends of the stage, just breathing and looking at each other with no words spoken – the silence is more powerful than any dialogue. In the second, Mike sits alone on the stage, repeatedly opening and closing a lighter, his face mirrored in the glow of the flame – again, the silence says it all. Kudos to director Richard Wolfe for bringing all the parts of this production together into a riveting whole.
As for another reason why audiences should come to see the play, Gow said, “It is highly entertaining, and that is why it has attracted tens of thousands of audience members. The best-known actor associated with the play has said, ‘It will recalibrate your soul.’ I am not sure about that, but certainly thought-provoking, I believe … not an average play, in any case.”
Cherry Docs is, indeed, a thought-provoking play, whose themes remain timely and relevant. It is difficult to perform and a brave choice for Cave Canem Productions and Pacific Theatre – it is both a visceral and intellectual experience, suitable for older teens and up, as it contains mature subject matter, violence and profanity. For tickets, call 604-731-5518 or visit pacifictheatre.org.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
On Monday, Facebook eliminated many extremist pages from its platform, including several Canadian pages, such as those of extremist groups Soldiers of Odin, the Canadian Nationalist Front and Aryan Strikeforce, as well as individuals like white supremacists Faith Goldy and Kevin Goudreau.
Some anti-racist activists say it’s a good start, but only the tip of the iceberg. They also assert that occasional purges of hate content will not address the larger issue in the absence of clear, enforceable standards by social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, which also owns Instagram.
Relatedly, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has launched a campaign, #notonmyfeed, which is intended, according to the accompanying website, “to stop online hate from becoming real-world violence.” (See jewishindependent.ca/cija-fights-online-hate.) CIJA cited social media posts by the murderers in the Pittsburgh synagogue and the Christchurch mosque killings as cause for governments to move on the issue.
“In both cases, the perpetrator used social media to spread their heinous, hateful agenda,” according to the website notonmyfeed.ca. “From white supremacists to ISIS, it is increasingly clear that online hate and radicalization can fuel and foreshadow offline violence.”
The House of Commons justice committee – as if they are not busy enough with the SNC-Lavalin affair – is launching a study on the issue. The intent, according to CIJA, is to develop a national strategy around online hate.
A national strategy confronting hatred, whether online or offline, seems like a positive development if it helps track problematic people and ideas in order to prevent future violence.
The benefits of a crackdown on online hatred are obvious: by making it more difficult for hateful ideas to reach large, mainstream audiences, moves like those by Facebook are a positive step. Groups that use social media to recruit individuals into hate movements may be hobbled by such policies. Although there are plenty of forums online where they can continue their efforts, hate groups may not have as easy and accessible a reach if policies are put in place to monitor and censor such groups and their messages.
Of course, some of the extremists are crowing about being banned.
“Our enemies are weak and terrified,” Goldy tweeted (because she is not banned from that platform). “They forget most revolutions were waged before social media!”
True enough. But if we make Goldy’s job harder, it’s a good thing.
However, while there are potential positive outcomes, we should not be blind to the potential unintended consequences of such a move.
If the murderers of Pittsburgh and Christchurch had given hints on social media of their intent, isn’t the larger issue here that those threats went unchecked and, therefore, the perpetrators were allowed to complete their mission of mass murder without intervention? Do we really want to eliminate forums in which we can track and identify potential terrorists? If we ban them from these platforms, are we forcing them underground into places where we cannot police them?
Presumably, police and intelligence agencies know where to find the online warrens of hatemongers and can monitor those venues almost as easily as they could Facebook or Twitter, while ensuring that members of the public who are innocently surfing the web do not stumble upon violent hate messaging in seemingly innocuous places. Even so, given that, as CIJA points out, the Pittsburgh and Christchurch killers left a trail on social media and still managed to execute their terrible plans, it suggests we’re not doing a stellar job on this front even when the warning signs are on the world’s largest sharing platforms. So, how much better are we to expect things to be when we force them into the darker crevasses of the online world?
This issue is confounding in part because the internet is, by definition, anarchic and largely beyond the control of all but the most authoritarian governments. As a result, governments and even social media behemoths like Facebook can do only so much to control what is shared through the web writ large.
Leaving aside issues of free expression (which differ across jurisdictions in ways that social media do not), there are practical considerations that we hope elected officials, law enforcement and social media corporations themselves consider when addressing online hate.
As governments do begin to take the issue seriously and consider interventions in the interest of public safety (including, especially, the safety of the most commonly targeted identifiable groups), we trust that a balance will be struck between eradicating violently hateful messaging, on the one hand, and, on the other, not harming law enforcement’s ability to do their job by pushing these ideas into clandestine sectors where they can neither be monitored nor challenged. Finding that balance should be the key to formulating public policy on this urgent issue.
Passover is coming! As we prepare, we think of what it means to be enslaved and to be free. Some seders focus on human rights. Others read and discuss Jewish texts about how to understand the holiday. Every year, we re-examine not only how good the foods are, but the ideas around slavery and redemption.
At one of my first Jewish events in Winnipeg, 10 years ago, I heard racist comments about indigenous Canadians. I was really upset by the incident. I was so uncomfortable that I still remember the experience in detail, even though I’ve forgotten a lot of other things over time.
I recently attended some of the lectures in an extremely worthwhile series put on by Westworth United Church called Interfaith Dialogue on Truth and Reconciliation. Each year, in the springtime during Lent, this church offers some of the best adult education programming I’ve ever attended and they welcome the entire community. The topics are thoughtful but, even more important, participants come ready to wrestle with hard intellectual and emotional ideas. I was introduced to it because Dr. Ruth Ashrafi has been a speaker as part of this programming more than once, and I’m hooked.
This year, the series was held in four different locations throughout the community, including Congregation Etz Chayim, Westworth United Church, as well as at one of the mosques and at a Buddhist Temple. It was so well attended that it filled the pews – wherever it was held.
Each session, a religious leader spoke, but he or she spoke at the lectern of a different congregation. Dr. Shahina Siddiqui spoke at Etz Chayim. Ashrafi spoke at Westworth United. It was powerful to see people of different faiths take to different pulpits. These leaders spoke, in the context of their religious traditions, on their status as Canadians or newcomers to a place with a heavy past of racism toward and discrimination and neglect of its indigenous people.
The most shattering part of the series was to hear from indigenous elders. I only attended two of the events, and heard Theodore Fontaine and Chickadee Richard speak. I cried while I listened to them. Their powerful personal, political and religious stories shook me.
These were bright, strong leaders with absolutely valid points about how they and their communities have been affected and mistreated by Canadian law and society. Their beliefs and prayers – about caring for Mother Earth, about protecting water and guarding the lives of those they love – are no different than those of other religious traditions in Canada. Yet, there are still indigenous communities who are forced to live in terrible conditions, without access to clean water and without adequate education or health care. How can people of faith accept this dichotomy? How is it that the first people in Canada don’t have access to the basic human rights that most of the rest of us enjoy?
After each set of lectures, we were sorted into random discussion groups. In the first event, we were asked to imagine what it might have been like to experience residential school and how we felt we would have reacted. What would that have been like?
All around me, I heard older Canadians mention how they didn’t know, and that their history classes didn’t teach them what had happened. They struggled with this part of Canadian history. It’s a denial that seemed familiar from German accounts of the Second World War, when people said “they didn’t know” what was happening to the Jewish people in their communities.
I could see many parallels between the stories Theodore Fontaine told, of “going to the moon” and escaping the abuse by disassociating and going somewhere else in his mind, and the novel The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski, which describes the horrors experienced by a Jewish child during the Holocaust. Trauma causes us (humans) to do many of the same things, even if our religious and ethnic identities differ.
Many of us know that the trauma of the Holocaust doesn’t go away in one or two generations. Those indigenous Canadians who were sent away from their families to residential schools, where they were abused, fed poorly and otherwise mistreated – their trauma has affected their families for generations. Jerzy Kosinski dealt with his childhood Holocaust trauma through substance abuse and, eventually, suicide. It’s no wonder that many indigenous survivors do the same.
Passover is a time of year, like the High Holidays, where we throw off wrongs and bitterness in the hope of embracing new growth and change. We can throw off the bondage of old biases or ideas that have enslaved us. Prejudice against indigenous people, their traditions and the burden of past abuses needs to be addressed – by all of us.
At the end of the lecture series, the facilitators asked variants of this question: “What will you do in the next year to address reconciliation, promote diversity and inclusion, and to make change?” My commitment was to be brave in speaking out about these issues.
Now, I’m turning over the question to you. What will you do, as a person of faith, to make change? Start by reading the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action. Write to your politicians to protect the water, the earth and the peoples who came to Canada first. Go to a powwow or a reconciliation discussion. Look others, no matter who they are, in the eye and greet them with loving kindness. In short – do more. It’s the Jewish thing to do.
Remember – we were slaves in the land of Egypt and now we’re free. Free to step up, speak up and help others along the path to equal rights, respect and freedom.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
“We were saddened, horrified and deeply angered by the murderous terrorist attack in Christchurch, which was clearly motivated by hatred of Muslims that was at least in part fomented online,” Martin Sampson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told the Independent. “This is another disturbing example of how terrorists and mass murderers make use of social media – both before and after attacks – to spread their heinous message.”
On Friday, March 15, 50 Muslims were murdered by a white nationalist terrorist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 Jews were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. Both perpetrators had been active in spreading hatred online. In the case of Tree of Life Synagogue, the shooter had written a post announcing his intentions hours before the attack.
“This issue has been of interest to us for some time,” said Sampson. “We included it as a core federal priority in our Federal Issues Guide, which was released in September of 2018. The horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in late October, and the fact that the assailant had been highly active in promoting antisemitism on social media – it is reported that he posted more than 700 antisemitic messages online in the nine months or so prior to the attack – underscored the urgency of the issue and the need to increase awareness about the connection between online hate and offline violence. This is why we launched notonmyfeed.ca.”
The goal of CIJA’s #notonmyfeed campaign is to reduce the spread of online hate speech. “In any democratic society that values freedom and individual rights, no right is absolute,” said Sampson. “Striking a reasonable balance between preserving free speech and protecting Canadians from those who systematically demonize and slander entire communities is a challenging, complex task, but not an impossible one.”
CIJA is calling for a comprehensive response that addresses hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism, he said. “We can preserve free speech while protecting Canadians from those who deliberately promote hostility – and even glorify violence – against entire communities.”
Sampson said there is a direct link between online hate speech and violence. “In countless cases – such as in the case of individuals who have been radicalized to participate in terrorism or hate crimes – online propaganda has been a significant factor,” he said. “This is a complex issue. Understanding it and developing tools to counter it is why we are calling on the government of Canada to take the lead by launching a national strategy to tackle online hate, working in partnership with social media platforms and internet service providers.”
Some people contend that, if online hate speech foreshadows offline violence, there may be some value in monitoring it, rather than forcing it underground. As well, if kicked off one social platform, those inciting hatred can just move to another one.
“In cases of ignorance, inappropriate statements or offhand comments that are bigoted, counter-speech is clearly the best response, and these types of online behaviours are not the focus of our calls for a national strategy to tackle online hate. In cases of propaganda being systematically produced by extremists – particularly when it includes the glorification of violence – allowing it to continue can in some cases pose significant risks to public safety,” said Sampson about these concerns. “Moreover, allowing such behaviour to take place on social media platforms often violates the basic terms and conditions of those sites. Social media platforms should enforce their own existing policies.”
The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians is controversial, with some seeing it as a legitimate tactic opposing human rights abuses and others seeing it as a form of discrimination rooted in antisemitism. “It is neither the focus of our policy position on online hate, nor can I perceive any scenario in which BDS would be implicated or affected by a national strategy to tackle online hate,” said Sampson, when asked whether BDS was one of the intended targets of CIJA’s campaign. “To be clear – we strongly oppose BDS and work to expose and counter the real agenda of the BDS movement, but that is a very separate challenge and completely distinct from our call for a national strategy to combat online hate.”
Asked if CIJA has any plans for addressing hate speech in the Jewish community itself, Sampson said, “Our position on online hate is that a national strategy should address hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism. This is why we have mobilized a coalition of communities, including the Muslim community, to join us in this effort. We believe every online account should be held to the same standard, regardless of the identity of the person who runs the account. When it comes to the Jewish community, we strive to set an example in how we manage our social media accounts, allowing debate and diverse opinions in the comments section of our posts, while having a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry and hateful comments.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The mass murder of Muslims in two New Zealand mosques last week is a tragedy that transcends words. But, of course, humans being what we are, we need to struggle to try to understand this sort of evil. As a natural consequence, billions of words have been shared, some thoughtful and empathetic, others attempting to score political points off the misery.
No amount of words can turn back time and prevent the horror. Our only way forward is to share our deepest condolences with Muslims in our communities and worldwide, while striving for a better world.
Empathy should be a natural response to Jewish communities in North America, as we can so easily put ourselves in the positions of our Muslim neighbours. In some ways, Muslim British Columbians must be feeling something similar to those feelings experienced by Jewish people after the murder of six people in a Pittsburgh synagogue less than five months ago.
Again, there is no way to turn back time and change history. Lives taken cannot be brought back. But, when faced with an act of such grievous hatred and violence, from which it seems nothing good could ever emerge, there are things we can do to ease the grief and remind survivors and others affected that the world is not defined by the acts of one, or a few, terrible people.
After that act of terror in Pittsburgh in October, many of us experienced feelings of isolation, the sorrowful kinship of being part of a targeted community, the comprehension of how interchangeable we may be with the victims in the eyes of murderous haters. These feelings were eased in small but meaningful ways by acts of understanding and sympathy. Synagogues, day schools, Jewish community centres and Jewish individuals all over the world received notes and other gestures of solidarity and sympathy. A “solidarity Shabbat” that took place the following week saw congregations throughout North America swell with non-Jewish friends who were moved to demonstrate support and friendship.
Likewise, members of the Jewish community and many diverse members of the broader British Columbia community came together at a number of vigils and events in recent days, trying to alleviate the isolation and feelings of being targeted that our Muslim neighbours must be experiencing.
Part of the shock of the attack, which killed 50 people, is that it happened in a place so unaccustomed to hatred and violence of this magnitude. For many Canadians, the murders brought back memories not only of the Pittsburgh attack, which is so fresh in our minds, but also of the Quebec City terror attack of two years ago, when six Muslims were murdered and 19 others injured during a similarly motivated hate crime. Whatever self-image Canadians have as a peaceable people was challenged by that act. Likewise, New Zealanders, who, despite being a world away from us, share much of our colonial and post-colonial history and a common parliamentary foundation, must be coming to terms with the reality that they are not at a remove from the world’s worst ideas and people.
In an era when everyone’s reactions to every event, however monumental or insignificant, can be broadcast to the world through social media, we have seen responses that are beautiful and others that are inappropriate. An Australian senator famously blamed the victims.
Each of us can make a small difference by sending a message to our Muslim neighbours – whether we know them or not. Google “Vancouver (or Richmond or Surrey or wherever you live) mosque” and send kind thoughts to the congregation. Reach out to Muslim friends and let them know that the feelings they are having are understandable.
But there is one other thing. As noted, this is not a time for politicizing. So try to accept this suggestion as it is intended, as a humanitarian, rather than a political, statement: when a community of people is attacked, people of goodwill need to stand with that particular community and, for a moment or whatever length of time seems respectful, avoid universalizing the tragedy.
When elected officials or other well-intentioned people declare that “an attack on Group X is an attack on all of us,” it diminishes the experiences of the targeted group. When Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh, people needed to express (and Jewish people needed to hear) condemnations of antisemitism and words of support. Today, we need to face Islamophobia and white supremacy. We need to express (and Muslim people need to hear) words of support and condemnations of anti-Muslim violence.
There is a time for universal messages of solidarity and unity. In the aftermath of a catastrophe specifically targeting an identifiable group, we need to deal in specifics.