למעלה משלושים אלף איש צעדו בדאון טאון טורונטו לאחרונה בפרוייקט השנתי: “ללכת עם ישראל”. זאת הפגנת עמדת כוח לתמיכה במדינת ישראל. מדובר באחד מאירועי התמיכה בישראל מהבולטים ביותר עולם, כמובן אחרי קהילת היהודים של ניו יורק.
לפי הערכה למעלה מארבע מאות אלף יהודים חיים כיום בקנדה. מדובר בעצם באחת מקהילות היהודים הגדולות בעולם מחוץ לישראל. במקום השני ארה”ב, אחרי כן עדיין צרפת ואולי גם רוסיה ולאחר מכן במקום המכובד קנדה.
קהילת היהודים בקנדה נחשבת לתומכת בישראל לפי מחקרים של אוניברסיטאות טורונטו ויורק, ואפילו אולי יותר מיהדות ארה”ב? לא בטוח שהנתונים נכונים, אך בוודאי בכל קהילה של יהודים בעולם רוצים לחשוב ולקוות שהם התומכים הגדולים ביותר של ישראל.
הקהילה היהודית בקנדה היא קהילה חזקה ומבוססת ובעלת השפעה בקנדה, בתחומים הפוליטיים, הכלכליים ועוד. זאת בעיקר ערים הגדולות של קנדה בהם מרוכזים מרבית היהודים: טורונטו ומונטריאול. בערים מרכזיות אחרות בקנדה מספר היהודים נחשב לקטן ויש להם פחות משמעות. מדובר בערים כמו: ונקובר, אוטווה, קלגרי, אדמונטון וויניפג.
שגריר ישראל בקנדה, נמרוד ברקן, מסר לעיתון ידיעות אחרונות כי אם גורמים בישראל ימשיכו לדחוק את היהודים הקונסרבטיבים והרפורמים, ישראל תשלם מחיר על כך בקנדה. ליהודי קנדה הפלורליזם היהודי מאוד חשוב יש לזכור.
לפי נתוני שגרירות ישראל בקנדה: כארבעים אחוז מהיהודים במדינה הם אורתודוכסים, כארבעים אחוז מהיהודים הם קונסרבטיבים וכעשרים אחוז מיהודים הם רפורמים. למעלה ממחצית היהודים בקנדה (כחמישים וחמישה אחוז) שולחים את ילדיהם למערכת החינוך היהודית. על סדר יומה של הקהילה היהודית בקנדה, בדומה לקהילות יהודיות אחרות בעולם: אנטישמיות הגואה, ביטחון, הדור המזדקן, הגברת המעורבות של דור העתיד, הקמת הנהגה חדשה והקשר עם ישראל.
בממשלה הפדרלית הקנדית של המפלגה הליברלית בראשות ג’סטין טרודו, מכהנים כיום שני שרים יהודים: השר לגיוון סחר חוץ, ג’ים קאר והשרה למוסדות הדמוקרטים, קרינה גולד. בבית הפרלמט הקנדי יש שישה חברי פרלמנט יהודים (בהם יו”ר ועדת החוץ ויו”ר האגודה הפרלמנטרית קנדה-ישראל, מייקל לוויט). בבית המשפט העליון שמכיל תשעה שופטים מכהנים שני שופטים יהודים.
ראש הממשלה, ג’סטין טרודו, נחשב לידיד הקהילה אם כי הוא רחוק מאוד מראש הממשלה הקודם, סטיבן הרפר, שנחשב בשעתו למנהיג התומך ביותר בישראל מקרב כל מנהיגי העולם. הרפר בנסיעתו לישראל העמיס על מטוס הממשלה משלחת גדולה של כמאתיים איש ומרביתם יהודים. טרודו השתתף לאחרונה באירוע ההצדעה לישראל שנערך בטורונטו, במלאת שבעים שנה לקשרי קנדה וישראל. באירוע טרודו נאם ויצא בחריפות נגד האנטישמיות וכן גינה את תופעת הבי.די.אס הגואה בקנדה בשנים האחרונות. במהלך ביקורו בקנדה של נשיא המדינה, ראובן ריבלין, נפגש עמו טרודו לא פחות מארבע פעמים. לפי הערכות טרודו מחפש את הקול היהודי לקראת הבחירות הפדרליות שיערכו בעשרים ואחד באוקטובר.
לפי הערכת שגרירות ישראל בקנדה מספר הישראלים בקנדה עומד כיום על יותר משבעים אלף. מטבע הדברים מרביתם חיים בטורונטו. בנוסף אליהם בשנים האחרונות הגיעו לקנדה קרוב לכארבעים אלף יהודים מארצות חבר העמים. מרביתם כנראה גרו קודם לכן בישראל.
הקונסוליה הישראלית בטורונטו אגב נחשבת לאחת מהעמוסות בעולם וזאת לאור הגידול המתמיד במספר הישראלים המהגרים לקנדה, בין אם בגלל עבודה או רצון לשפר את איכות החיים.
יצויין כי המגבית היהודית של טורונטו מגייסת מדי שנה כשישים מיליון דולר, ומהם כעשרים מיליון מועברים לסיוע בפרוייקטים שונים בישראל, בעיקר בפריפרייה.
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” says the patient in an old joke. “Don’t do that,” advises the doctor.
In a decidedly unfunny twist on that old joke, the German government’s Commissioner on Antisemitism Felix Klein responded to the fact that Jews are being beaten up on German streets by advising German Jews not to wear kippot in public.
Discretion may be the better part of valour. In the short term, donning a baseball cap may be a personal choice for someone who merely wants to dash out to the market to pick up some vegetables. As part of a bigger picture, the idea that Jews in Germany should hide their identities – and the bleak historical resonance that act of Jewish hiding evokes in that particular nation – is a testament to something far beyond individual security. If a country – but, more importantly, that country – is not a safe place for identifiably Jewish people to go about their everyday lives, that is a society with a problem.
After the Holocaust, many Jews, including the leaders of Canadian Jewish Congress, determined that the surest path to safety, security and acceptance for Jewish people was to promote a universalist approach and advocate for a society in which all people are safe, secure and accepted. This is one reason why, throughout recent Canadian history, we have seen Jews in leadership roles in multicultural organizations and supporting policies that advance inclusive, universalist goals.
But there may be, in this approach, an unfortunate acknowledgement that asking people to take a stand in support of Jewish people in particular may be a losing bet. Consider the disparate responses in theory and practice of public opinion in recent months. After the murders in synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego, a great many voices (on social media, predominantly) declared solidarity with Jewish people. Yet almost concurrently, when Israelis were under attack by missiles and incendiary devices from Gaza, the overwhelming reaction was to condemn Israel’s responses. It is incongruous and incoherent to support Jews under threat in one place and, at the same time, side with those who would attack Jews in another location.
The bigger point is that, if a society like Germany seems prepared to accept a level of social illness that means a kippa becomes a hate target, how do Jews respond?
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin reacted passionately to events in Germany last weekend.
“We will never submit, will never lower our gaze, and will never react to antisemitism with defeatism – and we expect and demand our allies act in the same way,” he said. But Rivlin’s is the voice of a self-determined Jewish people sovereign in their own land. The reality for Jews in Germany, and in many other places, is that they face antisemitism of a sort and magnitude unseen since 1945. Whether Diaspora Jews will indeed submit, lower our gaze or react with defeatism actually remains to be seen, Rivlin’s encouraging words notwithstanding.
Rivlin is unequivocally correct, though, when he says he expects more of Israel’s allies in protecting Jewish people, rather than suggesting that we hide our identities. Ideally, as a result of this discussion, the German government will recognize the inappropriateness of the commissioner’s words. Through preventive actions, like increased security, and educational efforts, including genuinely tackling antisemitism in schools and public discourse, the government of Germany, as well as other European countries, can move in the right direction.
Equally important, especially when leaders won’t lead, citizens must. It falls to each of us – Jews and non-Jews – to build bridges of understanding across ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural lines. We need to advocate for those same inclusive values. Yes, times have changed and ideals of multiculturalism and the celebration of difference have taken a beating, but the inherent goodness of those values has not changed.
We also should strive to make intolerance and bigotry socially unacceptable again. The culture in Europe and North America has become coarsened and we are becoming inured to statements and imagery that would have been unacceptable before. Social media is partly to blame for this, but, as it seeps into broader society, we need to keep calling out words and ideas that divide, harm, vilify or seek to diminish others.
We know these “solutions” sound idealistic and perhaps a bit like bailing out the Titanic with a thimble. But we got to this stage in history through a million small incremental steps in the wrong direction. It is a constellation of small, positive steps that may be our best way back – in conjunction with people of all backgrounds who share our views.
Two things are certain. There is no magic wand that is going to right the wrongs we see in the world – and hiding our identities is no solution.
The Eurovision Song Contest, like the World Cup, is one of those cultural phenomena that seems to enrapture huge swaths of the world while North Americans observe it dispassionately, if at all, wondering what it’s all about.
For Jewish North Americans, the annual international songfest gained attention last year and this year for the 2018 Israeli victory by performer Netta Barzilai, a victory that comes with the privilege of hosting the next contest. So it was that the world descended on Tel Aviv last week for the 2019 edition.
Commentary on social media was polarized. Anti-Israel activists called for a boycott of the event, while Israelis and Zionists (as well as tourists who are as attuned to Israel-Palestine politics as most of us are to the nuances of Eurovision or the World Cup) posted photos of a rapturous Mediterranean seaside celebration.
Calls to boycott one of the world’s most watched cultural events because it takes place in Israel represent a continuing effort to portray Israel as a nation apart from the rest, an untouchable among countries. To make this approach make sense, Israel has to be recast to fit the narrative. Notably, there was no serious discussion of a boycott when Eurovision was hosted by Russia, an autocracy guilty of terrible crimes and oppression.
For all its bluster and online ubiquity, the boycott-Israel movement has largely been a failure on the surface. Last week, activists called for a boycott of Israeli wines and, in response, there was a run on Israeli wines at Vancouver-area liquor stores. Similar campaigns have regularly produced far more sizzle than steak, with counter buycotts negating any large impacts that the boycotts might inflict.
What the BDS movement does successfully, though, is solidify in the minds of uninformed or unengaged people the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be blamed on one party. If peace, justice and coexistence were the real aim of the movement, they might choose to call out injustices and corruption by the Hamas and Fatah rulers in Palestine alongside wrongs perpetrated by the Israeli government and military. Indeed, boycotts need not have any actual economic success in order to succeed at planting a narrative – a fact the BDS movement has seized upon.
Meanwhile, there has been outrage from supporters of the BDS movement in response to legislative moves to block anti-Israel boycotts. The German Bundestag recently passed a resolution condemning BDS as antisemitic and calling it redolent of Nazi-era boycotts. Activists have responded with a classic goose/gander dichotomy, seemingly demanding the right to boycott while incensed that anyone might boycott them back.
As we have written in this space previously, legislative punishments for boycotting Israel, which have also been passed by many U.S. states, may come from the right philosophical place, but we’d prefer to see the basis of the movement countered intellectually, rather than with the blunt force – and unintended consequences – of these laws.
Ultimately, the message we should take from the Eurovision experience and the broader BDS movement is that misrepresentations must be met with truth, even if that seems like a Sisyphean effort. More specifically, the boycotts should be met with a forceful response that not only declares our opposition to the boycott itself. We must also loudly proclaim that the underlying assertion of unilateral Israeli guilt for this seven-decade conflict is a false premise upon which the entire BDS cause rests. Of course, Israel has responsibilities in the goal of a lasting peace, but so do Palestinians, a fact that BDS supporters and much of the world refuse to acknowledge.
Eurovision organizers tried unsuccessfully to keep politics out of the competition but they came anyway. The supposed controversies did nothing to detract from the “big show” and, in fact, could be said to have highlighted the complex entity that is Israel and its capacity to embrace diverse views.
While Israel’s entrant, Kobi Marimi, didn’t fare very well – coming in 23rd of 26 entrants – he gave an emotional performance, finishing his song “Home” with tears. He later told reporters, “I don’t have words to explain how much I love this country, and how proud I am for myself and my team.” We’re pretty proud, too.
There is a world of difference, needless to say, between the murder of a congregant in a California synagogue and the publication of an overtly antisemitic cartoon. But, while the incidents are incomparable in magnitude, they both implore us to action.
Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed Saturday morning during Shabbat services on the last day of Passover at Chabad of Poway, north of San Diego. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, as was her uncle, 32-year-old Almog Peretz, who was shot in the leg. Peretz was visiting family for the holiday from his home in Sderot, Israel, a city adjacent to Gaza that is under constant threat of bombardment and attack.
In the instant terror struck, heroism abounded. Kaye reportedly died intervening to protect the rabbi from the shooter. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, although shot in both hands, immediately teamed with Peretz, who was also wounded, to shepherd the children in the synagogue to safety. Army veteran Oscar Stewart chased the assailant out of the synagogue and Jonathan Morales, an off-duty border patrol agent, shot at the getaway car as the perpetrator fled.
The alleged perpetrator had posted on social media that he was willing to give up his life for the cause of white supremacy. He blamed “international Jewry” for a litany of perceived “crimes” and said that Jews “deserve nothing but hell. I will send them there.”
This shooting is the latest in a terrible string of attacks on religious institutions and the people within them, including the Easter attack that killed more than 300 in Sri Lanka and the mass murder of Muslims in a mosque in New Zealand, among many other attacks on people and institutions worldwide that do not make the front pages. While such incidents in the United States are partly a result of that society’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, the propensity to murder people in places of worship – like the endless stream of mass killings in schools – represents a particular manifestation of evil.
Six months to the day before the Poway attack, 11 people were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Given that horrific number, it is understandable that human nature would react to the latest news with an unconscious sense of relief that the death toll in California was not higher. But this reaction, however natural, must be resisted. The invasion of a religious sanctuary represents an assault on the most basic human instincts for goodness and stands apart from other crimes in its deliberateness and in the calculated impact it will have on the victimized community’s sense of security and belonging. Such attacks – no matter how frequently they seem to come – must never be responded to routinely. Each attack is cause for a fresh sense of revulsion.
While the situations are clearly not analogous, there was another episode recently that demands vigilance. The New York Times international edition last week ran a cartoon of Donald Trump as a blind man with dark glasses and a black kippah, being led by an elongated dachshund with the head of Binyamin Netanyahu wearing a Star of David around his neck. The cartoon exists as part of a long history of motifs that portray Jews manipulating guileless, gullible non-Jews to serve Jews’ devious ends. The New York Times apologized and blamed a lack of oversight.
If the editors of Der Stürmer were still among us, they could justifiably claim plagiarism, as numerous comparative memes on social media have indicated. Such images are extremely common on the internet, where there is no oversight. When they make their way into print in one of the English-speaking world’s most august media outlets, this is a new challenge.
Commentators have observed that the dachshund is a breed that rarely, if ever, serves as a seeing-eye dog. The choice by the cartoonist to use that breed was clearly deliberate. For at least a century, since the First World War, cartoonists have used a dachshund to represent Germany. In this way, the artist was adding insult to injury by equating Israel with the perpetrator of the gravest attack on Jews in human history.
The point of addressing the violent attack in San Diego together with a grievous but far less tangible affront in the pages of the New York Times is to make the case that vigilance should not be let down by the routinization of either violence or terrible imagery. These incidents seem to fly at us with such regularity that it is understandable that we as individuals and a community would have limited resources to respond to each case with the gravity it deserves. The memes and lies may become routinized, but our responses to them must never fall short.
Jewish tradition says that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The heroes of the Poway tragedy have done that. While we cannot predict how each of us would respond in such a crisis, we can promote small acts of light within our circles of influence, by advocating for understanding and peace and by supporting organizations that do good work. More immediately, we can take the advice of Rabbi Goldstein and do good in the world whenever and wherever possible. In a world with evil and intolerance, acts of goodness and understanding are their own type of heroism.
Let’s talk about goats. When I was doing research for my book Fiber Gathering, about U.S. fibre festivals, which attract thousands of people, I learned lots about goats. But what do goats, which produce milk, fibre and meat, have to do with Judaism?
In Leviticus, we read precise descriptions of the high priests’ clothing. One may scoff about the details, but I bet you’re wearing clothes. In many Torah portions, Jews think a lot about textiles. (If you don’t, you should! You’d be cold without clothes.)
We read rigid rules for sacrifice, how we should eat and how we should behave in terms of intimacy towards our partners and family. This is also the text that includes the most discriminatory and misunderstood interpretations of homosexuality.
Like any good Jewish parent, the Almighty offers us strict guidelines in Leviticus. There are things we should and shouldn’t do. However, there’s also an acknowledgement of our humanity. We make mistakes. There are times when we won’t understand how to behave, so here, too, is a Temple sacrifice procedure. This forgiveness process turns into part of our modern Yom Kippur service. We learn how Aaron makes a sacrifice to atone for the “strange fire” that his sons, Nadav and Abihu, brought to G-d and how they were killed for it. Part of Aaron’s prescribed ritual includes sending a goat named Azazel out into the wilderness. The goat carries away the people’s sins, and it lives.
My husband, a biologist, struggled a bit with this but felt comforted that, of all the domesticated animals to be cast out, goats could survive in the wilderness. I remembered the goat cheese we ate at the Taos Fibre Festival in New Mexico. We met the farmer who raised the goats and made cheese. He told us how he lived off the grid. He had to drive hours on a dirt road just to get to his mailbox, and several hours farther to get to town.
Every day, his goats are sent out into the desert to forage along with their guard dogs. Some shepherds keep dogs, others use donkeys or llamas to protect their flocks. This man described how his goats were free range and how they returned each night. He milked these goats and his cheese varied according to where they had grazed and the season. It was truly “wild” cheese – and most of his goats did fine, despite the desert predators.
While we try to follow rules, we are also aware that things change in our world. Like the goats, we are susceptible to danger. A recent JTA article (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) pointed out ways that congregations are preparing for “the next Pittsburgh” by changing the ways congregations protect themselves. The first 911 call in Pittsburgh came from the Sabbath-observant rabbi, who was persuaded the year before to carry a cellphone for emergency use. In the Poway shooting, Steve Vaus, Poway’s mayor, indicated that congregants acted quickly, using training they had received right after the murders in Pittsburgh.
A few years ago, I heard an upsetting story about our responses to potential danger. One day, a religious man was praying when the congregation’s alarm went off. He was concentrating. Although he knew how to shut off the alarm, he didn’t stop praying to silence it. A woman who worked at the shul lived nearby, heard the alarm and came running to help. Perhaps she wasn’t perfectly dressed (according to her community’s standard). She wasn’t calm – but she took her responsibilities seriously and rushed towards the emergency to help. Later, the praying man belittled the woman for being flustered and for not dressing properly. He didn’t acknowledge her speed and bravery. When she ran, she didn’t know it was a false alarm. She made herself vulnerable for the sake of her community.
I didn’t witness that “false” alarm, nor was I there when people acted bravely during the Pittsburgh or the Poway tragedies. However, we must read these situations critically, in the same way we read Leviticus. We continue to face conflicts and emergencies. Along with the rigid everyday humdrum, there’s a vulnerability that we face in the wilderness (the world).
Some feel Leviticus’s rigidity can make us wary of making mistakes or of finding solace in religion. Others suggest these rules create life’s order. We are all different. Yet, we must all cope with changes, surprises and danger. We might get cold in our environment and need to know what to wear. We might be surprised or do the wrong thing in the midst of prayer. We face danger. We are truly vulnerable out there in the world and before G-d, just like the goats.
Parents, like goatherds, have to trust that, after we offer our kids structure and skills, they will make it out there and come home again. We have to hope that our children and congregations will be sturdy and flexible enough when danger arises.
In Leviticus, the goat, Azazel, bore our sins and was alive and at risk. In a sense, we are those goats. We seek divine rules and structure, while at the same time coping with a world that requires us to think critically, adapt and be ready for whatever may happen next. It’s a wilderness out there. We must think on our feet.
I applaud those leaders who run towards the danger as Lori Gilbert Kaye, z’l, did, risking everything, and who follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers saved lives because he made an emergency cellphone call. Our religious traditions evolve. We no longer make sacrifices at the Temple. It’s important to reconsider our habits at many other occasions other than just Yom Kippur.
I’ve been belittled sometimes because I write about knitting. Yet, we wear clothes. According to Leviticus, that’s important. Also important? Being vulnerable to both the Divine, and to change. I keep that goat-in-the-wilderness image alive. We can meet these real-life challenges if we open up our minds to what’s really out there, bring a guard dog and avoid embracing rigid biases.
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.
Springfield Collegiate Institute students walking into Auschwitz. (photo by Jim Osler, SCI)
Holocaust education is commonplace in Jewish schools. But, in public schools, discussion about the Shoah is at each teacher’s discretion. Some 14 months ago, teachers at Springfield Collegiate Institute public school in Oakbank, Man., decided they would take 30 Grade 11 and 12 students to see Second World War sites firsthand.
Despite that Oakbank is home to few Jewish families, the school has been inviting Holocaust survivors to speak to students and has been educating its students about the Holocaust for years. Last year, teachers Jim Osler and James Chagnon made the decision to take things further.
“While this was not on a topic brought up in a regular class, we organized activities outside of class time for these students in the evenings and on the weekends to educate them a little more,” said Chagnon of preparing the students for the 12-day trip, which started March 20.
“We visited a synagogue and talked to a rabbi about what it means to be Jewish, because we don’t have any experience with that,” Chagnon told the Independent. “We went and met two Holocaust survivors, who talked about their experiences in the camps. And we went to a conference on antisemitism hosted at the Rady JCC [in Winnipeg]. So, we did a lot of prep work outside of the school with these guys to make sure they’d be ready for what they’d be experiencing.”
Chagnon referred to a recent study that found that only about 30% of Canadian high school students had awareness or knowledge of the Holocaust.
“I had always taught English here in the school in addition to history – novels like The Diary of Anne Frank – and these seem to be getting pushed to the wayside,” said Chagnon. “The younger generations these days, especially in a community like ours that doesn’t have a big Jewish population … it’s just something I don’t think parents have a lot of experience with and, so, it’s not passed onto the kids. So, if they don’t learn about it in school or as part of our programs or clubs, they maybe aren’t going to learn about it at all.”
The school had wanted to take more than 30 students on the March trip, but had to stick to that maximum for logistical reasons. Participating students had to fundraise to pay their way.
Madison Stojak, in Grade 12, and Anna Palidwor, in Grade 11, were both born and raised in rural Manitoba, and had little knowledge or interaction with Jews prior to attending Springfield Collegiate.
“Hearing Holocaust survivors’ stories and then going to the camps, like Auschwitz and Birkenau … you could remember what the survivors said and picture it, what they must have gone through while they were there,” Palidwor told the Independent. “How we felt while we were there has stuck with everybody after we came back. Also, we’re more aware of the race issues that are out there… That’s definitely stuck with me … realizing it’s still here, wherever we go, the hate.”
While the school group was at the Warsaw Ghetto, a man on a motorbike drove by and gave the middle finger to a group of Israeli students who were standing beside them. “After all that, you’re just more aware of it, anywhere you go,” said Palidwor.
Both Stojak and Palidwor have talked about their experiences with family and friends.
“When I shared it with my family members, it was kind of surreal to them,” said Stojak. “They were like, ‘How could other people treat people like this? How could this happen? How come no one stopped it?’ They were questioning the same things I think all of us were questioning on the trip.”
“One of the strong points we really tried to push on the students, in terms of their learning, to understand, is that this isn’t the first time this has happened,” Chagnon said. “We definitely want it to be the last time, so we can’t just sit by and be passive bystanders anymore. When you see antisemitism, you are now obligated to call it out, draw attention to it, so we can change the way the world works.”
When the students returned from the trip, they were taken aback by some of the reaction they heard from fellow students who did not go.
Stojak said, “I hadn’t heard any comments before the trip like these – until they realized we were there … people started making rude comments … hateful comments. I think they were saying it to get us upset, and I also think that they’re really undereducated and don’t understand how serious it is.
“One comment someone said to me was, ‘Don’t touch me with your Holocaust hands!’ That’s what someone said to me. And, as soon as he said that, I said, ‘What did you just say?’ And he repeated it. I looked at him and said, ‘You didn’t just say that to me. That’s ridiculous. Do you know how many millions of people died there? That’s not something you should be saying.’
“I stood up immediately and shut it down,” said Stojak. “It made me feel sick to my stomach. How could someone make a comment like this? When he said that, I pictured standing there at Auschwitz or Birkenau and thinking, how could someone be so ignorant to say that?”
“These kinds of comments are making us want to be more active,” said Palidwor, “and to explain it to more people who weren’t there and tell them what the Holocaust is.”
One of the things that stuck in Chagnon’s mind from the trip was the incident with the Israeli students. He noticed that there were a dozen security personnel with the Israeli student group but none with the Canadian school group.
“One of my students said, ‘Wow, I didn’t understand how bad it was – that these kids on a school trip from Israel have to be accompanied by security guards,’” said Chagnon. “That kind of struck me and I made sure to point it out to my students. It gives you a bit of perspective for the Jewish community – how scared they must be all the time – that they can’t send students to learn about the history of their people, their culture and religion, without having to send security with them.”
Another thing that stood out for Chagnon occurred when the group was visiting a Jewish cemetery and noticed that locals use the cemetery as a bathroom stop for their dogs.
“I’m a guest in their country, but I was shaking, I was so angry,” he said. “I couldn’t believe people would show such indignity to a group of people who suffered so much already.
“We had a nightly debrief at the end of every evening,” he continued, “where we sat around and talked about the day, how we felt about it and our reactions to it, and that’s one thing I brought up … that some of this stuff may seem to have gone away … maybe it isn’t as bad as it was, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, just bubbling under the surface, waiting for an opportunity to pop up.
“For me, that’s the reason we did a trip like this, and I know Jim [Osler] feels the same way.… They say people who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it and, for me, that’s very true. You have to talk about these things, even the ugly things in history, so we don’t let it happen again.”
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.
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Joe Lieberman, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Cory Booker address attendees of last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference. (photos by Dave Gordon)
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, in addition to other ranking American politicians, spoke of their unwavering support for the Jewish state to 18,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, in Washington, D.C., March 24-26.
Speech themes revolved around recent rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, the Golan Heights being recognized as Israeli sovereign territory by the United States, and sanctions against Iran. Every official who mentioned BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, condemned it.
Much was said about the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar. Her statements – including “Israel has hypnotized the world” and that AIPAC has influenced U.S. policy through money – have been interpreted as antisemitic by some Jewish leaders.
Pence said, “History has already proven [Donald Trump] to be the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Among the pro-Israel bona fides of Trump, Pence said the United States shut down the Washington branch of the Palestinian Authority as a consequence for funding terror; ended tax dollar funding for United Nations-funded Palestinian schools; moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values,” he said.
In addition, Pence talked about the end of the “disastrous nuclear deal with Iran” that has been replaced with “a maximum-pressure campaign” of sanctions, thereby causing Iran’s economy to dip.
“There’ll be no more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran,” he said.
In a swipe across the political aisle, Pence said, “It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the state of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank antisemitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Without mentioning her name, he referred to Omar as “a freshman Democrat in Congress” who “trafficked in repeated antisemitic tropes.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s first comments were about what she believes is the UN’s hypocrisy.
“You know, what’s interesting is, at the UN, I can guarantee you this morning it is radio silent,” she said, in reference to the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. “They are not saying anything about Hamas, they’re not saying anything about the lives lost, they’re not saying anything. But, if it was any [other] countr[y], they’d be calling an emergency Security Council meeting.”
David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, claimed that Trump is “Israel’s greatest ally ever to reside in the White House” and, to those who think otherwise, “please, take a deep breath and think about it some more.”
How America is now sanctioning Iran was one example of an Israel-friendly policy. Friedman criticized the previous administration for paying the Islamic Republic $100 billion in the hopes that country would “self-correct.”
“What did Iran do with all its newly found treasure?” he asked. “Did it build up its civilian institutions? Did it improve the quality of life of its citizens?” Instead, he said, it “doubled down on terrorist activity in Yemen, in Iraq and in Lebanon. It increased its stock of ballistic missiles and it invested in military bases in Syria, on Israel’s northern border.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered an address via satellite, initially planning to take the podium in person, but returning to Israel to deal with the rocket attacks.
“The Golan Heights is indispensable for our defence,” he said of the recognition by the United States of the northern land seized by Israel in the Six Day War, in 1967. “It’s part of our history. When you put a shovel in the ground there, what you discover are the ruins of ancient synagogues. Jews lived there for thousands of years and the people of Israel have come back to the Golan.”
Netanyahu said he thought comments like Omar’s are antisemitic.
“Again, the Jews are cast as a force for evil,” he said. “Again, the Jews are charged with disloyalty. Again, the Jews are said to have too much influence, too much power, too much money. Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins.”
In the session Canada’s Relationship with Israel, the panel included Liberal member of Parliament Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole and former Conservative foreign minister John Baird.
Housefather said he believes Israelis do not think there’s a negotiating partner for peace, but they share some blame in the conflict: “The more they create settlements, the less likely there will be peace … they should think carefully before expanding settlements.”
A questioner asked him when the Canadian prime minister would do something “real” for Israel and Housefather noted that, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forcefully condemned the BDS movement in a town hall meeting.
Another audience member asked why the Trudeau government continues to fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. While acknowledging that UNRWA has “curricula problems” that involve “anti-Jewish, anti-Israel comments, misogynistic comments and anti-gay comments,” he said that the $50 million in funding was just.
Housefather said he had spoken with the head of UNRWA and voiced his “concerns at the slow pace they are making changes in the curricula,” but added that their schools make children “a lot less likely to become terrorists against Israel.”
“Yes to helping them with UN aid programs; no to funding their schools,” said O’Toole. And Baird agreed.
On the topic of a peace plan, O’Toole said he “kept hearing from Palestinians their want for a ‘one-state solution,’” while their government “exerts violence, and does not take care of the needs of their people.”
“I think you’ll see from Israeli leaders that they’re prepared to experience real pain [in concessions],” Baird said, but “Palestinians have to stop the incitement” and the “hate-mongering.”
While several candidates for the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential nomination skipped the conference, leading Democratic figures were prominent at AIPAC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who insisted no one will be permitted to make Israel a partisan wedge issue.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
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.
“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.