Irwin Cotler spoke Sunday at a virtual event convened by National Council of Jewish Women of Canada. (photo from raoulwallenbergcentre.org)
Canada is set to make a number of significant commitments to combat antisemitism, as are other countries that participated in a summit on the issue last week in the Swedish city of Malmö.
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and fighting antisemitism, spoke Oct. 17 at a virtual event convened by National Council of Jewish Women of Canada. The human rights lawyer and former federal justice minister, who is also international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said that, in the aftermath of the conference, the Canadian government would announce a number of pledges.
These will include enhanced teaching and learning about the Holocaust across generational lines, combating the increasing Holocaust denial and distortion, and battling hatred on social media. Reducing an alarming rise in hate crimes will also be among the pledges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to make, according to Cotler.
“Twenty-twenty was the year for the highest rise in hate crimes targeting Jews ever,” he said. “But, by May 2021, we had reached the level then of all the hate crimes in all of 2020.”
The government will recommit itself to protecting the security of Jewish institutions, he said.
“Here, the government recently made commitments in financial terms for this purpose,” said Cotler.
Zero tolerance for antisemitism in the political discourse is also an objective, he added.
“That means not just calling out antisemitism in the other’s political party but calling out antisemitism in our own,” Cotler said. “In other words, not weaponizing antisemitism or politicizing it, but holding each of us, respectively, our own political parties, accountable.”
In addition to Trudeau, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken were among the leaders who addressed the conference. The Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism was hosted by Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Trudeau announced at the conference that Cotler’s role of special envoy would be made permanent.
Cotler contextualized the Malmö forum in a two-decade era of what he calls “demonological antisemitism,” which began at the 2001 Durban conference against racism that devolved into an antisemitic carnival.
“What happened at Durban was truly Orwellian,” said Cotler. “A world conference against racism and hate turned into a conference of racism and hate against Israel and the Jewish people. A conference that was to commemorate the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa turned into a conference calling for the dismantling of the ‘apartheid state’ Israel.
“Those of us who personally witnessed this Durban festival of hate have been forever transformed by the pamphlets and posters of hatred and antisemitism, by the cartoons and the leaflets portraying not only the Jews as Nazis, but the classical antisemitic tropes of Jews with hooked noses, with fangs, with fingers dipped in blood from the killing of children. Where we were accosted with pamphlets of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Where we witnessed demonstrators with signs – incredibly for a human rights conference or for any conference – signs which said, ‘Too bad Hitler didn’t finish the job.’ Where we witnessed Jewish students – and I witnessed this personally – being physically assaulted and being told, ‘You don’t belong to the human race,’” said Cotler.
Durban was the first tipping point and the global surge of antisemitism during last spring’s conflict between Hamas and Israel was a second, he said.
“Jews were targeted and threatened in their own neighbourhoods and on their own streets,” said Cotler. During and after that conflict, Cotler said, Jewish memorials were defaced, synagogues were torched, cemeteries were vandalized, Jewish institutions found themselves under assault and incendiary hate speech – such as 17,000 tweets that “Hitler was right” – exploded.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated antisemitism, or at least has been exploited by antisemites, who have “instrumentalized one of the more ancient tropes of the Jews as the poisoners of wells,” said Cotler. The health crisis has also seen conspiracies of Jews profiting from vaccines and anti-vaxxers posing “as if they were victims of Nazi persecution,” he added.
Cotler lamented what he calls “the mainstreaming, the normalization – in effect, the legitimization of antisemitism in the political culture.” During the conflict last spring, convoys of vehicles in London, U.K., drove through Jewish neighbourhoods screaming, “F–k the Jews, rape their daughters!” This was a convoy and a message that was replicated in Toronto days later and which resulted in, Cotler said, an “utter absence of outrage.”
The legalist also spoke of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.
“If you can’t define it, you can’t combat it,” he said. The IHRA definition was adopted after 15 years of discussion and debate by intergovernmental bodies, governments, parliaments, scholars and civil society leaders, he said.
The task of fighting antisemitism must not fall only to Jews, Cotler stressed.
“As we’ve learned only too painfully, and have repeated too often, that, while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews,” he said. “Therefore, we need this collective global constituency of conscience to combat it.”