Canada recently made several important commitments to the Jewish community, with plans to target hate and fund initiatives to educate and fight antisemitism. While good news, for some of us, these also feel like vague promises. Many of us have felt vulnerable because of our Jewish identities. It has gotten worse recently, with a sharp rise in both physical violence and hate online.
This fall, I signed up for a virtual program run by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, featuring Rabbi Matt Liebl in conversation with Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) chief executive officer Shimon Koffler Fogel. The event was called Antisemitism in Canada: Pushing Back against Hate. The conversation was intellectual and insightful but, when it ended, I was unsatisfied. The overall message was that perhaps 80% of the antisemitic events in Canada were due to ignorance. To fix this, we must educate people. So, I asked a question during the Q&A period. It was something like, “What resources are available to us, as we go forth to educate, both online and in the Canadian context?”
The answer didn’t meet my needs, although it wasn’t wrong, either. Koffler Fogel responded by first saying that the internet (Facebook, etc.) had no borders, so we needed better Canadian policy and international law around hate online. Second, he suggested that “we” older folks had no real power to stop this antisemitic stuff on social media, but that, if it was possible to enlist some 17-year-old influencers, they could help.
Right, I’m just a middle-aged nobody. I’m no big name social media influencer. However, as a Gen Xer, I’ve lived with email since its infancy. I’ve been on the web for more than half my life. I’ve also been the target of hate online, as well as through the (far more retro) postal service and telephone. Some might say this is because I write on Jewish topics, but I’m just not that famous. Right after I moved to Canada, my Winnipeg house was egged on Chanukah when somebody saw the menorah in the window. I wasn’t even writing Jewish articles here yet, and I doubt the people who egged my house had read any of the ones published in the United States.
I could produce a list of bad experiences that occurred before moving to Canada, and these had nothing to do with being “public” about my Jewish identity. Yet, too much has happened since moving here in 2009. Recent attacks on social media this spring and summer, including being harassed and banned by a Canadian knitwear designer who strongly supported Palestinian issues, weren’t my first Canadian antisemitic experiences. I’ve mostly kept this to myself, even though the harassment was scary and painful. These attacks were directed towards me because I’m Jewish and spoke up for Israel’s right to exist. I was harassed even though I don’t vote in Israel and don’t always agree with Israel’s policies. Being Jewish and speaking out was enough.
The October anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shootings reminded me of what greeted my family that awful Sunday morning in 2018. My kids and I went to a playground near where a lot of Jewish families live. It was easy to see an enormous swastika and other hate graffiti on the side of the nearby swimming pool building. The senior citizens, many of them Jewish, living across the street in apartment buildings, could see those hate symbols, too.
When my twins were done playing, I walked them, one holding each hand, indoors to the pool front desk to report the swastika graffiti. I then drove home and spent way too long trying to report what was obviously a hate crime to the police, the B’nai Brith and one of my editors at the time. The worst part was hearing, “Well, did you take photos?” The answer was no. I didn’t have a third hand to let go of my kids and take photos, which would have signaled to them how very distressed I was. It was another chance to feel isolated, vulnerable and angry. Not only did I experience the hate but, apparently, I should have documented it (to prove it existed) and take on the task of reporting it multiple times. The graffiti was cleaned up but, for me, the hateful message lingered.
After the virtual CIJA/Jewish Federation event, there was a follow-up note with a couple of links. One offered an entire page of antisemitism resources to read. Another link was “Report an antisemitic incident.” While I deeply appreciated the form online as being easier than what I’ve gone through previously when trying to report hate, the form didn’t say where the submitted information went. It didn’t suggest what supports were available. It didn’t say who would read submissions or when. I contacted the Winnipeg Jewish Federation to ask that this be added to the site but haven’t received a reply.
For me, the worst part of dealing with hateful messages, graffiti, assault or social media attacks is feeling alone and unsafe. Maybe most antisemitism comes from ignorance. That doesn’t make it any less hurtful or intimidating.
So, what are solutions? Yes, we need to educate others and invest in better laws and in security for Jewish institutions. We also need to invest in ourselves. Advocacy organizations and community institutions should be part of the solution. Give everybody useful tools and information for how to combat hate – because we never know who will need it next.
Also, let’s follow up and support those in our community who have faced hateful incidents. We may never erase all the hate in our midst, but our communities can offer better security, kindness, counseling or, heck, a (COVID-safe!) hug to those who experience antisemitism.
We need non-Jewish allies, too. Intellectually, I know that these incidents – graffiti, the egg on my window and even reporting a threatening email to the police – were not a big deal. These incidents can shake us up anyway. If those affected by hate crimes feel afraid, isolated and vulnerable, we can help by showing up for one another more consistently. There’s safety in numbers. Next time somebody submits one of these antisemitic incident forms, here’s hoping a friend in the community follows up, too. We can deal with the after-effects when we’re not alone. We can do that for one another. It’s time to try.
Joanne Seiff has 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. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.