There is a new national Jewish community agency with a decidedly retro feel and familiar faces. Several leaders from the defunct Canadian Jewish Congress have founded Canadian Jewish Community Forum, saying they are filling a gap in grassroots activism.
Dr. Michael Elterman, who, in the 1980s and ’90s, was a two-time chair of Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region, as well as regional chair of the likewise defunct Canada-Israel Committee, is a member of the steering committee of the new group. Renee Switzer, a former national executive chair of CJC, is the other Vancouverite on the committee. Other figures leading the group include past national and regional chairs of CJC, as well as senior staff of the agency, including longtime chief executive officer Bernie Farber.
The first serious discussions among the group started in January, said Elterman.“What we are interested primarily in doing is creating and resurrecting what was an essential theme that brought us all into CJC, which was that it was primarily a grassroots organization where people could become individually involved in, or take ownership of, the Jewish agenda in Canada,” he said. “I guess the feeling is that we would like to re-create that again and get people more engaged and more involved and feeling personally responsible for what happens to the Jewish community in Canada.”
The focus will be primarily on domestic affairs, he said, although the direction the group takes will be determined, first, by a major survey CJCF intends to undertake of Jewish Canadians and, later, through the sort of plenaries and democratic debates that typified CJC.
While the group boasts a wealth of experience, Elterman stressed that a young cohort is also at the heart of the new group.
With the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which effectively subsumed CJC and the Canada-Israel Committee in 2004, as well as B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Canada has no shortage of national Jewish agencies. Elterman sees room for one more.
“There were many people –– which is why you are seeing such interest in the organization – who would like to be more involved both in the setting of the agenda and in the actual participation in an organization,” he said.
The new group doesn’t intend to detract from existing agencies. “I don’t think this organization is in contrast to or competition with any other organization,” said Elterman. “The emphasis on being a grassroots, bottom-up organization, having the agenda driven by the community rather than by a particular group of people, that I think is what is going to make this unique and that is what made CJC unique.”
Organizers have not reached out to CIJA or the others as yet, he acknowledged. “If they would like to join with us, that’s great, but it’s not something that is being done jointly with any other organization,” he said.
Funding for CJCF is bootstraps for now, with members of the steering committee anteing up for federal incorporation and other essentials. The group will seek charity status to issue tax receipts and Elterman said they hope donors will step forward in time.
A priority for CJCF will be to build bridges with other communities on issues of shared concern, something at which Elterman said CJC excelled.
On the new group’s website (cjc1919.blogspot.com), a four-point statement of purpose includes a promise to “engage with other faith, Indigenous, racial, ethnic and cultural communities to find common cause in matters pertaining to the promotion of civil discourse, reconciliation, inclusivity and mutual understanding and to fight against antisemitism, discrimination, racism and hatred in all their forms. Many important issues facing society at large are viewed to be relevant to the Jewish community. If we are to have a voice in the society we are creating together, we must discuss and address issues as they emerge together as Canadians.”
My Jewish identity is something I have always grappled with. Attending Jewish day school, I felt not only like the outcast of my entire class, but of the entire school, and it took an enormous toll on my mental health.
My peers would always pose the question, “Why are you so weird?” or “Why are you so different?” and, at the time, I didn’t have the answers for them. When I bravely confronted them as adults, they wrote it off as “we were just kids” instead of sincerely apologizing.
As an adult, I still suffer from the effects that these words and actions had on my young, developing brain, though I realize that expecting those apologies is unrealistic. The ironic part of it all is that many of these people have gone into professions where they actively work with children. I sincerely hope that they have learned from their past and consider imparting the kindness and acceptance that I didn’t receive from them to the impressionable youth they are teaching.
Getting my autism diagnosis in 2018 was the catalyst for me to understand myself and make sense of my traumatic past and commit to creating the change I wished I had experienced when I was younger. I still hearken back to my youth, though – where, every single day, I was reminded of the biblical teachings that were supposed to impart good values. I didn’t experience that and that’s why I oftentimes grapple with my Jewish identity.
I identify as being a Jewish atheist, ethnically Jewish or a humanistic Jew. These terms prove challenging when I am attempting to express myself to other people and explain how being part of a minority group echoes a lot of the same sentiments and barriers that being openly autistic has had for me.
As part of the activism and outreach I have engaged in, I continually see harmful images being used. I also regularly experience how dismissive people – not just within the Jewish community, but everyone – are when I tell them these images remind me of the important work that still needs to be done.
For example, Autism Speaks is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as being “dedicated to promoting solutions across the spectrum and along a life span for needs of people with autism spectrum disorder and their families.” It has, in collaboration with Google, a genome database called MSSNG. While their stated aim is to “speed the development of more effective and personalized interventions for autism and its associated health conditions,” there are many ethical issues with the collection of genetic material. And that a group like Autism Speaks (not to mention Google) is collecting these data concerns me, especially, because Autism Speaks has at least one video that personifies autism as an evil force – and only recently has the group stopped using the term “cure.” The change in language notwithstanding, their goal remains the same, and that is to eradicate autism. While this may seem laudable to some people, to me, the only way to reach that goal is to ensure that autistic people are not born. Autism should not be considered a disease, but rather as a neurotype.
A blue puzzle piece, with a little pink at the bottom, is part of the Autism Speaks logo. It is mostly blue because it was initially thought that only boys could be autistic, but a lot of women and gender-diverse individuals like myself are autistic. Colour aside, the puzzle piece symbolizes that something is broken or needs fixing, or that something is missing. I consider this narrative harmful, which is why I speak out against it.
I also find myself trying to correct those who attempt to dictate what is a “proper” way to communicate. To choose a communication style for someone else, when you don’t have the lived experience of being neurodiverse – and being frequently berated for the way you speak to others – is not acceptable. Unless you have experienced the hardships that come along with communication, then you should take the opportunity to learn before you speak. Knowing that not all disabilities are visible is an important thing to consider.
Within the autistic community, I have also had challenges when speaking my mind. For instance, I was accused of silencing the voices of Jewish people of colour when I expressed the opinion that being Jewish does not necessarily equate to being part of white privilege, a concept that is heavily debated in our community. I don’t profess to have all the answers, I am constantly learning and adapting to all the information that I am exposed to. But, to give an example of what I’m grappling with, I recently responded to an apology put forth by a prominent autistic activist, Lydia X.Y. Brown, who writes the Autistic Hoya Facebook page. They apologized for including “white Ashkenazi Jews” in a publication that was to centre on “racialized autism.” They specifically said, “We published a few people who are white Ashkenazi Jews and not Jews of colour or otherwise people of colour at all.”
I often wonder, as a Jew, where my place is, what I should be identifying as. For me, a big part of it is that I have faced antisemitism in my life and people have told me they can tell I am Jewish by my physical appearance. So, when someone makes a comment like Brown did – singling Jews out and making it seem like we are less than, while trying to simultaneously positively amplify the diversity of autistic people, it is hurtful.
My response to the post was a suggestion as to how the apology could have been worded more respectfully: “We included ethnic groups that some folks did not feel were appropriate for our publication. Moving forward, we will be more perceptive to the suggestions of others and pivot to be more inclusive and considerate to those we have overlooked.” This would have been more appropriate, rather than focusing on an ethnic group that already faces enough discrimination. I believe that singling out a marginalized group, no matter what the perceived colour of one’s skin, is inherently wrong.
In another situation, because of the controversy surrounding Judaism and whiteness, I felt I had to sever ties with an organization and some individuals who, instead of accepting my voice and agreeing to disagree with me, pointed out the hardships I had created due to my own personal struggles and attempt to grapple with my identity.
Being autistic is hard. Being Jewish is hard. Being both is even more difficult, and trying to navigate this world while being both is honestly not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. But, what I can do is use my voice and do as much good as possible with the cards I have been dealt.
I have been the recipient of two arts grants through the B.C. Arts Council and I actively create art, run an Etsy store (retrophiliac.etsy.com), have a website (navigatingjourney.com) and am all over social media. I strive to create a very open dialogue and provide a lot of free emotional labour, trying to have the conversation about being autistic. Parents of autistic children and those who purport to be our advocates need to support autistic adults, instead of co-opting our voices and acting like they know better. As far as autism is concerned, acceptance is more important than awareness, because the acceptance narrative is not one over which autistic people have control.
Margaux Woskis a small business owner, content creator and artist living in the Greater Vancouver area. April was Autism Acceptance Month.
Since the High Holidays last year, a group of demonstrators has met every Thursday afternoon opposite the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to protest in support of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The protest was initiated by members of Kehillat Beth Israel, a synagogue in Ottawa, but has grown to include other faith communities and cities, including Vancouver. (photo from Phil Kretzmar)
The Chinese government is perpetrating a genocide against Uyghur people in the northwestern part of that country – with possibly millions incarcerated and untold numbers coerced into slave labour and forced sterilization. Reports also suggest organ harvesting. Children are being separated from their families.
Canada, the United States and the Netherlands have accused the Chinese government of committing genocide. There are about 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, living in the region of Xinjiang, which some Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan, reflecting their connection to central Asian cultures. A United Nations Human Rights Committee report in 2018 asserted that as many as one million Uyghurs were being held in at least 85 concentration camps, though other estimates say possibly three to five million are now incarcerated. The Chinese government acknowledges the existence of the camps, but claims they are education and skills training facilities.
Uyghurs who are not imprisoned have been subjected to intensive surveillance, repression of religious expression, slave labour and forced sterilizations.
A concerted campaign has been waged to suppress Uyghur culture and the Muslim religion to which most of them adhere. It began with a ban on men growing long beards or women wearing veils and expanded into the destruction of dozens of mosques.
The region is an economic powerhouse, producing 20 to 30% of the world’s entire cotton supply. It is also rich in oil and minerals, and produces China’s largest supply of natural gas.
A webinar was presented March 22 by the Canadian Multifaith Initiative for Uyghur Rights. In addition to three Uyghur expatriates who spoke from a personal perspective, three clergy members of different traditions spoke of the moral obligation to defend the imperiled people.
Vancouver anthropologist and author Alan Morinis was one of the organizers and moderators, and Rabbi Susie Tendler of Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Congregation introduced one of the speakers. Rev. Christopher Pappas, an Anglican priest, and Mufti Aasim Rashid, a Muslim scholar, also spoke.
Mihrigul Tursun, who spoke on the webinar, was incarcerated several times and said she was electrocuted and subjected to other forms of torture. She saw detainees beaten, starved and strip-searched. Scores of prisoners were kept in tiny spaces, forcing some to stand up while others slept sideways.
The Chinese government has contested Tursun’s testimony, claiming she was taken into custody on suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination. The government also insisted she was not imprisoned, but spent time in a skills training facility.
Akeda Pulati described the personal anguish from a family’s perspective. Pulati’s mother, Rahile Dawut, disappeared on Dec. 12, 2017, and her family has had no contact and seen no trace of her since. She assumes her mother is in a “re-education camp.”
“The Chinese government has been claiming that those kinds of centres, those kinds of places, are educational centres for people to receive education and job training,” she said. “How could my mom, in her retirement age, need job training?”
Pulati stayed silent for some time for fear of reprisals by the Chinese government against other members of her family and community.
“I stayed silent for too long,” she said. “One day, I realized I cannot stay silent anymore. Our people is experiencing a genocide. I don’t want my mother to die in this horrific place. I lost hope for the Chinese government to have mercy on my mother, have mercy on the Uyghur people.… I am not the only one experiencing this tragedy. There are many, many Uyghur children like me searching for their parents. We found each other on social media and we decided to do something together.”
Mehmet Tohti is a Uyghur-Canadian activist and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, based in Ottawa. He is a cofounder of the World Uyghur Congress and has twice served as vice-president. By extrapolating the Chinese government’s own limited information on the subject, Tohti estimates there may be 7.8 million Uyghurs incarcerated.
“Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs living abroad are not communicating with their family members,” he said. “They don’t know whether their families are alive or dead. I don’t know whether my mother is alive or dead.”
The world must make China realize they will pay a price for their actions, Tohti said. “Unless there is a cost, the Chinese government won’t stop,” he said.
Canadian companies are the fifth largest investors in the region, Tohti said. “The Chinese ambassador [to Canada] said that Canada’s exports to China soared more than 95% in the last year,” he added. “We are still continuing business as usual.”
Canadians, Tohti said, should be calling on our elected officials to introduce legislation to ban imports of products that may have been created with forced labour. “We have to force our companies to disclose their supply chain,” he said.
Other Canadians are also stepping up on the matter. An ad hoc group coordinated by Ottawa Jewish community member Phil Kretzmar helped schedule a demonstration outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver during Passover, on April 1. The local team intends to demonstrate outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, 3380 Granville St., every Thursday at 3 p.m. until further notice. For more information, email [email protected].
A poster in Marseille, France, in July 2020, calling for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s release from prison.
The National Council of Jewish Women of Canada spotlighted the remarkable story of Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh during a showing of the eponymously titled film, Nasrin, on Jan. 10.
Narrated by actress Olivia Colman, the film takes us into Sotoudeh’s life in Tehran, where she has been a stalwart in defending a wide array of people: political activists, women who refused to wear a hijab, members of the religiously oppressed Baha’i faith, and prisoners sentenced to the death penalty for crimes allegedly committed while they were minors. Her work has come with a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice, including prolonged periods in jail.
Among the notable cases brought up in the film is that of Narges Hosseini, who, in 2018, stood on an electricity box on Tehran’s Revolution Street and removed her headscarf to protest Iran’s mandatory hijab law. She was immediately arrested, and Sotoudeh soon took up her cause. At her trial, the prosecutor claimed she was trying to “encourage corruption through the removal of the hijab in public.”
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is another of Sotoudeh’s clients. In 2010, Panahi was given a 20-year ban on making films, but he has nonetheless continued to create widely praised cinematic works, such as Taxi, in which he played a Tehran taxi driver – Sotoudeh was one of his passengers. The movie won the top prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in 2015. Together with Sotoudeh, Panahi was co-winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
And there is the unassuming hero we encounter in Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan. His unflagging loyalty to his wife and family is underscored throughout the film. He, too, has been imprisoned several times, most recently from September to December 2018, after he wrote about human rights violations in Iran on Facebook. He was accused of operating against Iran’s national security by backing the “anti-hijab” movement. Khandan currently faces a six-year prison sentence.
The film relies on secret footage, made possible by intrepid camerapeople within Iran who took on incredible risk to record Sotoudeh in both her professional and private lives. In the midst of filming, in June 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested for representing several women protesting Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Due to health concerns, she was briefly released from prison late last year, but has since been incarcerated again.
During Sotoudeh’s furlough, she was scheduled to undergo tests to monitor her heart. At one time, she was moved to intensive care in a Tehran hospital after a 46-day hunger strike, protesting the conditions political prisoners in Iran have to endure. She also has pressed for their release during the time of the pandemic.
Shortly before her own release from the Qarchak women’s prison, Sotoudeh contracted COVID-19 but has since recovered.
Following the film’s presentation, a panel discussion took place with the film’s director, Jeff Kaufman; its producer, Marcia Ross; activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh; and former Canadian minister of justice Irwin Cotler. The discussion was led by NCJWC president Debbie Wasserman.
“One of the intents of the film is to say it is not just about Sotoudeh and Iran, it is about applying her standards to our countries and ourselves. Let’s take her example and make it global,” said Kaufman.
The filmmakers said they wanted to tell Sotoudeh’s story because she personifies a commitment to democracy and justice, and represents the power of women to shape society. Further, Sotoudeh holds a deep conviction that people of all faiths and backgrounds deserve equal opportunity and protection.
Both Kaufman and Ross spoke of the extraordinary caution taken to preserve the anonymity and security of those shooting the footage in Iran.
Asked about her reaction upon seeing the screening, Shajarizadeh said, “I cried the whole time. We could see ourselves in every minute of the movement.” Shajarizadeh, who now resides in Canada, was a women’s rights activist and political prisoner in Iran – she fought against the country’s mandatory hijab law for women.
“Nasrin is not only the embodiment of human rights in Iran, but a looking-glass into the persecution of all those who are imprisoned in Iran,” Cotler said.
Cotler advocated for “showing the film as much as we can, and [to] have the sort of conversations we are having now, and mobilize the different constituencies that she has been helping.”
Ross said the film will be out later in the year on Amazon and iTunes.
Established in 1897, NCJWC is a voluntary organization dedicated to furthering human welfare in the Jewish and general communities locally, nationally and internationally. To learn more, visit ncjwc.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A still from the documentary Shared Legacies: From the left are Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Maurice Eisendrath and Abraham Joshua Heschel during the march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
The Victoria Shoah Project held a panel discussion on Oct. 20, following an online showing of the documentary Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.
The 2020 film, part of the sixth annual Victoria International Jewish Film Festival, chronicles the common history of prejudice and hardships each group has faced, and features footage of the relationships of such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Included are interviews with many prominent civil rights leaders of the time, such as Andrew Young, John Lewis, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman and Rabbi Peter S. Berg.
After the screening, there was a Vancouver Island-based panel discussion with Adrienne and Barrie Carter, Paul Winn and the Victoria Shoah Project’s Robert Oppenheimer. From their own experiences, they each spoke about African-Canadian and Jewish-Canadian relations. They also talked about the film, and the events from 1960s America that it depicts, from personal, historical, present-day and Canadian perspectives. Rick Kool, also of the Shoah Project, served as moderator.
Adrienne Carter was born in Hungary in 1944, as the Nazis marched into the country and were increasing their campaign to exterminate the Jews. Many in her extended family died in Auschwitz. She and her family moved to Canada in 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution. “The whole stateless experience is very well known to me,” she recalled. “I married Barrie in 1965, at a time when Blacks and whites rarely ever connected, let alone married, and at a time when many Southern states had laws against interracial marriages.”
A co-founder and the director of services at the Vancouver Island Counseling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees, she has spent much of her working life helping immigrants by providing therapy to those who have experienced trauma, including intergenerational trauma.
Barrie Carter, who was a special needs education assistant until his retirement, told the audience of his early years. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., he moved to the northeastern part of the country where, in his teens, he volunteered with the NAACP in Bridgeport, Conn., and in New York and picketed Walgreens to challenge their segregationist luncheonette policies in the South. He immigrated to Canada on a bicycle in 1963. “While I was riding north, people were taking the bus south to the March on Washington. But I just had to get away,” he said.
Both Barrie and Adrienne Carter have traveled around the world, providing services to victims of torture and genocide.
Winn, whose work experience includes having been the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, followed by recounting his experiences growing up in Toronto’s diverse Kensington Market neighbourhood.
“When I was 10 or 11, I was a Shabbos goy. I would do some things for the neighbours on Saturdays because they were unable to perform those tasks for religious reasons,” Winn recalled. “I got invited to bar and bat mitzvahs.”
He said, “It was natural for the Black and Jewish communities to support each other when there were struggles with such things as immigration. When I watched the film, I remembered how the connection between the religious Black and Jewish communities helped bring about a lot of activities in Canada, as well.”
Oppenheimer, a clinical psychologist with a focus on traumatized children and youth, a human rights activist and a staunch promoter of Holocaust education, also shared some information about his career. Reflecting on the 28 years he spent working in Detroit, he said, “It was an interesting experience for me. I was the only non-African-American on the staff and I was impressed with how welcoming the community was to me.
He added, “One of the things that impressed me about the movie was when Heschel said ‘not to be a bystander to history.’ I think that is central to my idea of human rights, that we cannot just stand by.”
“One of the things that really hit me in the film,” said Kool, “was a pastor standing in a church with a rabbi who said, ‘Reverend King isn’t here anymore, Rabbi Heschel isn’t here anymore, but are their children here now?’”
Barrie Carter observed that the youth in activist groups today “have the same dynamism as we did. They have an energy and a knowledge of concepts. It isn’t just a blind following. It is a positive morality.”
“They seem to believe it is part of their responsibility to make things better,” added Winn about today’s activists. “They want to make things better.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct name of the film festival. It is the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
“I learned about climate marches and I learned about dancing bubbies,” said my niece Fae, 9, when we were discussing Bonnie Sherr Klein’s new children’s book, Beep Beep Bubbie, over FaceTime. Among other things, my niece Charlotte, 7, learned “you can learn to ride a bike at 53 and anything is possible.… And I learned about grandmothers who can shush a crying boy.”
Amid much laughter, including talk about dogs pooping – Bubbie has a dog – and what my nieces recalled of Vancouver from their visit here last year, Beep Beep Bubbie offered more discussion than I had anticipated. But, before I get to that, I have to say, for the record, that my nieces have dancing bubbies in their lives, and bubbies who can shush crying children, so they more related to these aspects of Bubbie’s character than learned from them. With that qualification and butt covering, I continue with the review, starting with the basic story of the book.
It is Shabbat and Kate and her little brother Nate are going to visit their grandmother, who is going to take them to Granville Island to buy apples for Rosh Hashanah. The kids have been told there’ll be a surprise waiting for them at Bubbie’s. That surprise, though – Bubbie’s new scooter – isn’t a happy one initially for Kate, who “already missed the Bubbie she used to have. That Bubbie danced and took them to climate marches.” However, during the afternoon’s adventures, Bubbie’s scooter not only allows her to venture farther from home than she otherwise would have been able to manage, but has other advantages, as well.
After their trip to Granville Island, Kate shares a library book that she’s brought along for the visit. About American educator, activist and suffragist Frances Willard, Kate and Nate find out that Willard “fought for women to have the right to vote. When Frances was 53 years old, she learned to ride a bicycle to show that women could do anything.” A conversation ensues about why Willard wouldn’t have known how to ride a bike. “People were afraid women’s ankles would show under their petticoats,” explains Bubbie. “Can you believe it?”
Well, at my nieces’ house, this part of the book was met with disbelief and more laughter, as Charlotte was keen to show off her ankles, which were hard to see, given the placement of their computer and her being the height of a 7-year-old. But, before things deteriorated into mayhem, Fae said, “I also learned that girls are tough.” And, she “learned another reason why women weren’t treated fairly in the past.”
“And what was that reason?” I asked.
“Because women didn’t ride bikes because their ankles were going to show. And they couldn’t vote, [it was] like they didn’t have an opinion.”
“It’s definitely not fair,” said Charlotte about people thinking that girls showing their ankles was wrong.
All in all, Beep Beep Bubbie elicited much talk and not an insignificant amount of gymnastics. The illustrations by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal are wonderfully colourful and fun; full of energy and movement. Both Fae and Charlotte gave a resounding “yes” when asked if they liked the pictures.
One the drawings is a two-page spread of Bubbie, Kate and Nate and the park, where they join in the fun of flying kites. One young person is in a wheelchair, and Charlotte asked why Bubbie had chosen a scooter instead. Not knowing the answer, I asked the author. Here is her response: “I chose a motorized scooter over a wheelchair, btw, because it felt more sportif,” wrote Klein in an email, “and I am lucky enough to be able to transfer, which keeps me a bit more mobile.”
I like knowing, but the reasons aren’t important, as far as the story goes. Art is to be interpreted and my nieces and I talked about a lot of ideas, from serious to silly, during our FaceTime book review session.
Published by Tradewind Books, Beep Beep Bubbie can be purchased from pretty much any online bookseller. Enjoy!
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
Tzeporah Berman is international program director for Stand.Earth. (photo from Tzeporah Berman)
There is no silver bullet when it comes to responding to the climate crisis, according to Tzeporah Berman. The 25-year veteran of environmental activism and international program director for Stand.Earth said it needs a multi-pronged approach.
“A lot of people like to say it’s negotiations or policy work or protests, but, in my experience, the most effective campaigns that have made change have been the ones where there has been a diversity of tactics and approaches,” Berman told the Independent. “The most effective initiatives are the ones that are not just about educating, but are about motivating people to take action on an issue…. What we need to try and do is motivate people to make change.”
Berman was among those who started Stand.Earth (formerly ForestEthics) about 20 years ago. According to the website, the group “designs and implements strategies that make protecting our planet everyone’s business. Our current campaigns focus on shifting corporate behaviour, breaking the human addiction to fossil fuels and developing the leadership required to catalyze long-term change.”
In the 1990s, Berman was an organizer of the Clayoquot Sound logging protests that contributed to agreements to prevent clearcutting. More than two decades later, as construction of the then-Kinder Morgan-owned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion ramped up, Berman participated in the sit-ins on Burnaby Mountain.
“The War in the Woods … it was this tipping point moment on the issues and Canadian history, where people were engaged from all walks of life,” she said. “Whether or not the rainforest should be clearcut was a conversation around everyone’s kitchen table. I think that’s true today of climate change and pipelines, that it’s one of these rare moments in history where it is a populist issue, where everyone is engaged in the conversation, and I think that’s why you see, in both circumstances, such a diversity of people showing up.”
Last year, the concern reached a fever pitch in Canada and elsewhere, with unprecedented numbers of people marching in the streets calling for climate action. Asked what Berman thought of elected officials such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or NDP leader Jagmeet Singh participating in marches like last September’s global climate strike – that, at their heart, target leaders such as them to address climate change through policy decisions – she said she believes they show up with good intentions.
“We’re living in this strange moment where our elected officials are starting to understand the urgency and importance of climate change, but that is not yet translating into their policy proposals,” she said. “It’s like there’s a time lag and they’re saying the right words about urgency and joining marches, but their policies represent the best thinking on what climate policy should be from 10 years ago. I don’t think they’re being disingenuous when they join a protest … but one of the big problems that we have is that so many people believe that they’re doing enough and other people need to do more. We like to celebrate how progressive we are, but we have a very mixed record. Canada is among the worst in terms of G7 countries with our climate plan.”
Despite estimates of more than one million people in Canada marching in climate strikes last year, Berman said the environmental movement is sorely outnumbered resource-wise in comparison to the oil and gas industry lobby. In a tweet sent at the beginning of this year, Berman spelled out 10 tips for successful activism.
“Do stuff that makes the world respond. Don’t just respond to the world,” she wrote. She expanded, telling the Independent that advocates need to be sure they are the ones setting the agenda, not governments and corporations. “Campaigners and campaigns are not proactive enough, we just respond to what decision-makers are doing. Instead of doing that, what if, months before, you looked at what you think needs to happen in order to protect the climate, our water, the air, produced a report with recommendations for policy, and then held a press conference and a public information night. Then you’re putting a proposal out there of what you think needs to happen in the world.”
Last November, Berman presented to 400 people at Temple Sholom, giving an overview of the scientific evidence of climate change and the role of nations and individuals moving forward. She spoke of the loss of the “culture of engagement.”
“Today, we have a weak civil society engagement muscle and an overextended hyper-consumer muscle,” she said during the presentation.
“We got lazy,” she explained to the Independent. “We live in a democracy, we assume it’s functioning, and leave it up to the politicians…. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it’s a culture that was eroding over the last generation. Growing up, it was expected in our community that you volunteer – for your synagogue, for your church. We don’t really have that culture now and the result is we’re not engaging in our communities as much as I think we used to. I notice now that we’re starting to see it more as a result of the more active student movements, but I think that’s because they’re scared.”
The role of community groups such as religious institutions should not be underestimated, she added. “People are going to be more willing to engage in the issues if they feel safe, if they feel a sense of common purpose, if they trust the people they’re organizing with. It’s one thing to hear scientists, or read an article. It’s a very different thing to sit down with people in your community … and organize. A lot of people right now are searching for what they can do. [Institutions] should be providing leadership and structure.”
Berman continues to be a leader in her own right. Late last year, she was awarded $2 million US from the Climate Breakthrough Project to fund her efforts to limit new oil and gas development globally to align with the United Nations Paris Agreement goals of a safe climate. The project will be housed within Stand.Earth.
Shelley Stein-Wottenis a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.
Chatting surf, water refill stations and plastic pollution at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, left to right: Enzo Ackermann (Ocean Hero), Rob Machado (professional surfer/environmentalist) and Sondra Weiss (art educator). (photo from Sondra Weiss, Founder, Lost Art of Love Letters)
Organized and led by Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale, Vancouver’s Ocean Heroes Bootcamp has a singular purpose – finding ways to save our oceans from plastic pollution.
One of the bootcamp presenters is Sondra Weiss. She offers participants a unique way to inspire action.
Having grown up in Connecticut, close enough to the ocean to fall in love with it, Weiss then went to the University of California. After graduating, she took an art museum educator position, a role she maintained for about two decades. Eventually, however, her love for the ocean drew her to start up the Lost Art of Love Letters.
“I launched this project about four years ago, thinking the world needs more love,” Weiss told the Independent. “As I listen to the news, or my students, or people in the world committing suicide, I just thought that love is a great antidote for everything happening in the world.”
Weiss lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was asked to come to Vancouver last year to help with the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp.
“Last year was the second year that they did Ocean Heroes, when I was in Vancouver,” said Weiss. “It brings together 250 local and international youth activists between the ages of 11 and 18, from 20 countries and 24 U.S. states, and the idea is to collaborate worldwide to fight plastic pollution.”
Based out of the University of British Columbia dorms and hosted by Ocean Wise and the Vancouver Aquarium, the next bootcamp is scheduled for June 26-29, though that may change depending on the progress made dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Weiss is to lead a part of it called Love Letters to the Sea.
“It is an art-integrative letter-writing project that promotes positive changes for the ocean,” said Weiss. “So, rather than feeling overwhelmed by environmental issues, community members can take action and promote innovation by using their voices to drive policy solutions.
“Participants take pen to paper and brush to paint to express their sentiments, their solutions, for ocean love. And, a lot of the letters are sent out to local businesses, council members and political figures to say either thank you for the work they do for the ocean environment, or to ask them to make changes.”
Last year’s focus was on eliminating single-use plastic bottles. Participants were tasked with developing ideas to help the community achieve this goal.
“As mentors in bootcamp, in general, we come up with ideas and have the youth collaborate, come up with campaigns and talk to experts in different fields, figuring out how to create the most change, being creative and positive the whole time,” said Weiss.
Each Ocean Heroes Bootcamp draws many different people from all around the world, she said, including youth who have created changes in their community or on a wider scale.
“There are experts leading panels, workshops and group activities … and Love Letters to the Sea, my personal activity, is more artistic-based,” she said. “So, there are writing prompts for writing, but there are also images to inspire art. There are watercolours, crayons and coloured pencils for campers to express themselves in various ways.”
While there are age gaps, some of the younger kids have inspired more change than some of the older ones. Regardless of age, all are passionate about the issues and put any age-related ego aside to learn from and with one another, said Weiss.
“One of the beautiful things is that youth from all around the world are working together toward the one topic – and the topic is plastic pollution, what plastic pollution and consumerism is doing to affect the planet as a whole,” she said.
Weiss hopes that the letters “help motivate the people doing good work and also helps the community to remain civically engaged … and be part of society, knowing we can make change and, as an educator, working with youth shows them to use their voice for change.
“We can use that same thing – the letter writing, it has been tried and true throughout the years. When someone wants to try and make a decree, the people will use a letter. Or, to really express something to a friend going through a hard time, or a family member, a lot of times, we’ll take pen to paper and write it down. It’s a great way to slow down. We live in such a fast-paced society. We need to slow down and really think about what’s in our hearts.”
Still, Weiss is well aware of the power of technology when well-used. She has worked with Jack Johnson’s band to create a song written by middle school kids who wrote love letters to the sea.
“They took lines from the letters, which became lyrics for a song,” said Weiss. “Letters are personal, but the way to reach the masses is through music and video. And, we created it into love letters, which are strong and powerful.”
Some of the lyrics produced include: “Water can’t be broken, but we can make her cry / Going to write a love letter to the ocean, let her know we are always going to try.”
“It was phenomenal that the students got to express themselves and sing it out,” said Weiss. “They wrote the notes and the music, and then we went into a recording studio and recorded a different version.
“Letter writing is such a great way to get ideas onto paper and out of your mind and heart. The next stage is to bring music and video to a larger global audience.”
Weiss sees artistic letters as a gateway to reaching people on a different level, touching people’s minds in a different way to promote change.
“Images or music definitely help ignite that,” said Weiss. “For me, when you are talking to them and you see the light in their eyes go up, you see them drawn into the conversation.
“So, what does it takes to ignite someone to care? That’s what I ask at the bootcamp. I ask the youth if they are going to write an organization and ask them to limit their plastic packaging. And I ask them what they think would get them to consider the financial cost … and think more about the overall cost, the environmental cost. We learn so much from the kids and they inspire us as much as we inspire them – and the relationships maintain year-round.”
While Ocean Heroes Bootcamp is free to attend for accepted youth and their chaperones, including room and board, there is a $100 reservation fee and travel costs that may be waived via scholarship. All applications to attend the bootcamp are reviewed by Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale. Qualified candidates are contacted by the Ocean Heroes headquarters team to complete registration.
The Ocean Heroes HQ team accepts a maximum of 300 youth leaders each bootcamp. Each attendee is paired up with a team of squad leaders, peers who guide them through the program and ensure they have the tools, support and information they need to graduate from the camp with a successful campaign plan to eliminate plastic pollution. For more information, visit oceanheroes.blue.
Katie Delay, left, and Sunny Enkin Lewis are co-presidents of Grant Park High School’s Students for Social Justice. (photo from Sunny Enkin Lewis)
Earlier this year, Winnipeg Grade 12 student Sunny Enkin Lewis won first prize for her age group in A&E network’s contest Lives That Make a Difference. The contest receives hundreds of submissions from all over Canada.
“The prompt [for the contest] is along the lines of, ‘Write an essay about someone who has made a significant contribution to Canada in 2018,’” Enkin Lewis told the Independent. “So, I wrote about Autumn Peltier, who – I believe she’s 15 now, around there – is an indigenous water keeper. She’s an activist for clean water in indigenous communities in Canada. She’s spoken at the UN, she’s spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So, she’s done a lot of amazing activism.”
Peltier is Anishinaabe and is from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
“I chose her for a couple reasons,” said Enkin Lewis, who was born in Toronto, but has lived in Winnipeg for the past 10 years. “First of all, I think her cause is really important in Canada. I’ve always been really upset with Canadian society and government, because we tend to look at ourselves as pretty flawless in terms of human rights. And, it is true that the quality of life for Canadians, overall, is really good. Yet, there are people, a lot of people, who don’t have the most basic of their needs met – water and shelter … and I think she has brought more awareness to that.”
In her essay, Enkin Lewis points out that Peltier not only stands up fearlessly for this cause, but that she does so from a unique worldview as an Anishinaabe person.
“She thinks of water as deserving of rights,” said Enkin Lewis. “That’s not something we would generally think of and I think it’s a really strong statement – that someone can stand up and speak of things in a way that contrasts the common logic of general Western ideas. I think that helps validate indigenous worldviews in a Western context a little more. Also, I was just inspired by her, as a young woman. I think it’s so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s how I believe change will happen the fastest – if young people are given a platform and are accepted and respected – and she really embodies that.”
As for as why Enkin Lewis’s essay may have been chosen, she said, “I think my choice of person was really relevant in Canada today, especially since, now, I think, there’s a big focus on indigenous rights, and I think it was maybe a bit refreshing to see someone like that. I haven’t read the other people’s essays, and they didn’t tell me why mine was specifically chosen … just that they thought it stood out.”
Growing up, Enkin Lewis learned that “a big thing in Judaism is valuing life over everything, and knowing the value of human life. And, I think a big part of Judaism is also just respect for people and … everyone should have a good quality of life.
“The fact that, here, in Canada, there are people who don’t have their basic needs met, I think that’s not OK in Judaism. I think it’s important for other cultures to listen to each other, just as I think it’s important for Christian people to listen to Jewish people. And, I think it’s important for Jewish people to listen to indigenous perspectives. As a European Jew, I’m not native to this land … and it’s important to respect the people who are the caretakers of this land and who have been for thousands of years.”
Last year, Enkin Lewis led the organizing of a social justice conference at Grant Park High School, which, in turn, led to the development of a student social justice club at Grant Park. Enkin Lewis and co-president Katie Delay created the club and, because they and the teacher involved in helping to form the group will have left the school by the start of the next school year, Enkin Lewis hopes the younger members will pick up the ball.
“I think our club is very student-centred, very much about what we care about right now, and it gives me and other people an opportunity to get involved in a safe and constructive way,” she said.
As Grant Park has many newcomer Yazidi students, events organized by the club have been focused on building community awareness of the Yazidi situation.
“We did a drive for school supplies for underprivileged students in Winnipeg, and the biggest thing we’ve done is organize a coffeehouse and a couple other events for Yazidis with the help of a local organization called Operation Ezra. We had a bake sale where we sold traditional Yazidi foods, a Yazidi dance class to educate people about the culture, etc. I find that people are not really aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.
“We had a coffeehouse in the evening and invited community members, students, parents, anyone to come. There were student performers and a speaker talking about what’s happening, and a Yazidi performer.”
Enkin Lewis’s essay win comes with a $3,000 cheque for her and a $1,000 cheque for her school. She plans to follow her family’s Jewish custom of donating a portion of everything they earn. “I haven’t narrowed it down to a specific organization yet,” she said, “but I’m going to donate it basically to her [Peltier’s] cause – water in indigenous communities. Other than that, I will probably put it toward my education.”