Yom Yerushalayim took place Sunday, commemorating the reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. The liberation of the Western Wall, a moment captured so powerfully through an iconic photo of three awe-struck young soldiers, is an unforgettable part of Jewish history.
The reunification of the city was by no means merely a symbolic or administrative event. Neither was it solely a national victory. In the millennia-long history of the Jewish people’s connection to the Second Temple, there have been just two decades when Jewish prayer at the Western Wall has been interrupted – the years between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and refused freedom of religious observance at Judaism’s holiest site.
Put mildly, the reunification of the city and its spiritual implications, as well as its political ones, represent a massive historical event. So, it is hardly surprising that emotions run high on the subject. Now, at a time when political extremism is sadly on the rise in so many places in the world, including in Israel, it is likewise hardly surprising that Yom Yerushalayim would be a lightning rod for the worst elements in Israeli society.
On Monday, top Israeli leaders condemned some of the words and deeds of a minority of participants in Sunday’s Yom Yerushalayim parade. Some of the men who marched through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter wore T-shirts with phrases like “Rabbi Kahane was right” and images of a machine gun emerging from a Star of David. Some marchers chanted calls for death to Arabs and slapped racist stickers on the shutters of Muslim storefronts that had wisely closed for the afternoon. Young men shouted “Whores” at a group of Arab women watching the passing spectacle.
Yom Yerushalayim is a day for celebration. While imperfect, Israel ensures freedom of worship at holy sites under its jurisdiction, something occupying Arab forces (that is, Jordan) refused to do. Most of the celebrants Sunday did not exhibit xenophobia and hatred.
Still, the best are tainted by the worst. In this space several weeks ago, in relation to the appearance of Nazi flags and other atrocities at the “truckers” protest in Ottawa, we said: “It is no less abhorrent to march alongside people carrying a swastika flag than it is to carry a swastika flag.”
To march alongside evil is to condone it.
To their credit, top Israeli leaders responded strongly, albeit a day after the abhorrent actions took place. Benny Gantz, the defence minister, said it is time to declare several of the groups involved in the mayhem as terrorist groups. Among them are extremist groups like La Familia and Lehava.
Israelis – and Jews – are very often held to a higher standard than other nations. This is a phenomenon with deep, discriminatory roots. Put simply, it may be a natural, though cynical, human reaction to adherents of the original form of ethical monotheism, i.e. if Jews cannot exemplify superhuman virtue, the justification presumably goes, why should the rest of humanity feel compelled to behave any better?
Conversely, though, the fact that critics (or enemies) of the Jewish people are hypocrites should not affect Jews’ own striving for ethical conduct. The bad behaviour of others is not an excuse for bad behaviour by anyone. Israel as a state – and Jews as a people – must roundly condemn the perpetrators of xenophobia and violence last Sunday.
And Gantz is right. It’s time to call out these perpetrators for what they are.
On March 30, Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti announced a new expert advisory group on online safety as the next step in developing legislation to address harmful online content.
While online platforms play a central role in the lives of Canadians, bringing many benefits to society, they can also be used as tools to cause real and significant harm to individuals, communities and the country. Harmful content, such as hate speech, sexual exploitation of children and incitement to violence, is published online every day. There are no broad regulatory requirements in Canada that apply to platforms regarding their responsibilities in relation to such content.
The expert advisory group will be mandated to provide advice on a legislative and regulatory framework that best addresses harmful content online. The group is composed of diverse experts and specialists from across Canada: Amarnath Amarasingam, Queen’s University; Bernie Farber, Canada Anti-Hate Network; Chanae Parsons, community activist and youth engagement specialist; David Morin, Université de Sherbrooke; Emily Laidlaw, University of Calgary; Ghayda Hassan, Université du Québec à Montréal; Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia; Lianna McDonald, Canadian Centre for Child Protection; Pierre Trudel, Université de Montréal; Signa A. Daum Shanks, University of Ottawa; Taylor Owen, McGill University; and Vivek Krishnamurthy, University of Ottawa.
The advisory group will hold nine workshops to discuss various components of a legislative and regulatory framework for online safety. They will also take part in additional stakeholder engagement, including with digital platforms. The work of the advisory group will be open and transparent. The group’s mandate, the supporting materials for each session, and non-attributed summaries of all sessions and discussions, will be published.
“We conducted a consultation last year and released the What We Heard Report earlier this year,” said Rodriguez. “It’s clear that harmful online content is a serious problem, but there is no consensus on how to address it. We’re asking the expert advisory group to go back to the drawing board. We need to address this problem openly and transparently as a society.”
Facts and figures on online violence in Canada include that:
62% of Canadians think there should be more regulation of online hate speech;
58% of women in Canada have been victims of abuse online;
80% of Canadians support requirements to remove racist or hateful content within 24 hours;
one in five Canadians have experienced some form of online hate;
racialized Canadians are almost three times more likely to have experienced harmful behaviour online;
there was a 1,106% increase in online child sexual exploitation reports received by the RCMP National Child Exploitation Crime Centre between 2014 to 2019.
“Too many people and communities are victimized by harmful online content that is often amplified and spread through social media platforms and other online services,” said Lametti. “The Government of Canada believes that Canadians should have protection from harmful online content, while respecting freedom of expression.”
– Courtesy Canadian Heritage
Also on March 30, the Canadian Coalition to Combat Online Hate announced the launch of their new website, combatonlinehate.ca, providing youth, parents, educators and policymakers with strategic tools to be effective in their efforts to identify and combat online hate.
“Canadians are exposed daily to a barrage of hateful and divisive online messages that pollute social media forums with content that is antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous, misogynistic, Islamophobic and homophobic, and that promotes conspiracy theories. These posts, videos and memes are easily discoverable and readily shared, often masked by anonymity or given undue credibility,” said Richard Marceau, vice-president, external affairs and general counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “We know that online hate can become real-life violence. Hate-motivated murders at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue stand as notable examples. It is incumbent on all of us, before it is too late, to combat online hate with the most effective tools available.”
According to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 42% of respondents have seen or experienced hateful comments or content inciting violence online, and younger and racialized Canadians are significantly more likely to be confronted with this hate. The same study indicated that 93% of Canadians believe that online hate speech and racism are problems, of which 49% believe they are “very serious” problems. Findings also showed that at least 60% of Canadians believe that the federal government has an obligation to pass regulations preventing hateful and racist rhetoric and behaviour online. Only 17% prefer no government involvement at all.
“We saw COVID exacerbate online hate exponentially, as stress levels and political division rose amid lockdowns. By working together, we can make the communities we are building online – and, by extension, the communities we inhabit offline – safer places for all Canadians,” said Marceau.
The website combatonlinehate.ca is organized by the Canadian Coalition to Combat Online Hate, funded by Canadian Heritage and powered by CIJA.
Not fitting in. Being misunderstood and miscategorized. These are recurring themes in Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, edited by Loolwa Khazzoom, a Seattle writer, musician, activist and occasional contributor to the Independent.
The book was first released in the 1990s and was recently re-released.
“I wish I could say that this book is no longer as revolutionary, cutting-edge, or as needed as it was when I began compiling it in 1992, but, unfortunately, that is not the case,” writes Khazzoom, the daughter of an Iraqi Jew, in the new introduction. “Even though there have been changes – shifts in consciousness, language, and even representation – Mizrahi and Sephardi women remain overall excluded, in theory and practice, from spaces for women, Jews, Middle Easterners, people of colour, LGBTQI folk, and even Mizrahim and Sephardim. In addition, so many of the presumably inclusive conversations about us seem basic and superficial, with an undertone of it being a really big deal that these conversations exist at all.”
Khazzoom’s struggle to fit in led her to Seattle, in large part because it is home to one of the largest Sephardi communities in the United States. But even in that milieu she found herself an outsider.
“In June 2014, however, on the first sh’bath [Sabbath] after driving my U-Haul up the coast from Northern California, I was appalled by a sermon so sexist – where women were equated with ‘meat’ – that I walked out of the Sephardi synagogue, just 15 minutes after arriving,” she writes.
“I have been a hybrid all my life, forever caught between two or more worlds,” writes Caroline Smadja in her contribution to the collection. It is a state of being that is shared by many of the writers.
Yael Arami, born in Petah Tikvah to parents from Yemen, speaks of others’ perceptions of her.
“In Germany, I have had to avoid certain areas, fearing local skinheads’ reaction to my skin colour. In France, I have been verbally ridiculed and insulted for being yet another ignorant North African who does not know French,” she writes. “In California, people’s best intentions have resulted in a number of social blunders: When I left a tip in a San Francisco café, I got a courteous ‘gracias’ from the politically correct Anglo waiter. After a predominantly African-American gospel group sang at a Marin County synagogue, several members of the congregation approached me, to express their admiration for our wonderful gospel performance! It seems that wherever I go in white-majority countries, I am, in accordance with local stereotypes, seen as the generic woman of colour – Algerian in France, African-American or Puerto Rican in California.”
Rachel Wahba, an Iraqi-Egyptian Jew, calls out politically correct hypocrisy.
“Sometimes, when I bring up the oppression of Jews in Arab countries, progressive Jews get strangely uncomfortable – as if recognizing the Jewish experience under Islam would make someone racist and anti-Arab,” she writes. “During my mother’s cancer support group intake, I listened as my mother told her story of living in Baghdad and surviving the Farhud. She ended with an ironic ‘I survived the Arabs to get cancer?’ The Jewish oncology nurse was shocked that my mother was so ‘blunt.’
“Should we revise our history? Leave out the details of our oppression under Islam? Pretend my mother never saw the Shiite merchants in Karballah wash their hands after doing business with her father, because he was a ‘dirty Jew?’”
The book’s title comes from an essay by Lital Levy, “How the Camel Found Its Wings” and an Israeli film of the same name.
The metaphor involves the repair of a broken statue of a flying camel, which actually stood at the entrance to the international fairgrounds in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. In the film, the two wings of the camel become stand-ins for a dichotomy that mostly excludes Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews and yet still casts them in a negative light.
“By the end of the screening, the camel had found two new wings, and I got to thinking,” writes Levy. “I started putting my own pieces together – making my own flying camel out of the remnants of the past, borrowing missing pieces from the present, and using my imagination and willpower to try to make it all stick together. The pieces of my own American childhood, the histories that preceded it in Israel and in Iraq, and the challenges I see before me in my work are the various fragments I have been remembering and re-membering into an integral whole. I do not yet know its shape – camel, dromedary, llama, yak – but I do not care, as long as it will fly.”
Truckers and others ostensibly contesting government pandemic responses have laid siege to downtown Ottawa. In reality, the protesters seem to have a panoply of grievances, many of which manifest as antisemitic, racist, sexist and just plain obnoxious.
Those noxious traits spread across the country last weekend, as satellite protests took place in Vancouver and other cities. In Toronto, a handbill was distributed declaring that “every single aspect of the COVID agenda is Jewish,” followed by a litany of other antisemitic declarations. This is on the heels of the appearance of swastikas and confederate flags at protests, the appropriation of Holocaust imagery by anti-vaxxers and other inappropriate expressions from COVID skeptics.
The defence, such as it is, from organizers and supporters is that these cases are incidental, represent a minority within the movement and, in effect, should be ignored.
Racism, antisemitism and other forms of hatred should never be dismissed or overlooked. Ideas and images like these must be identified, isolated and removed from any movement that wants to be taken seriously by Canadians. It is no less abhorrent to march alongside people carrying a swastika flag than it is to carry a swastika flag.
Some cases, like waving the Nazi flag, are clear cut and easy to call out and condemn as antisemitism. Other cases, like (we suspect) Whoopi Goldberg’s, are more nuanced. Goldberg’s statement that the Holocaust was not “about race” set off a frenzy. As if more fuel was needed, a jokey recipe she submitted to a cookbook decades ago, called Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken, conveniently resurfaced. All of this seems to have opened a floodgate of previously muted concerns about Goldberg’s appropriation of a Jewish last name and even Jewish identity. Goldberg was called out and suspended for two weeks by her producers.
In fact, Goldberg may have been expressing some combination of contemporary “progressive” understandings of race, which sees a hierarchy of oppression based on skin colour. Before we get too self-righteous about the state of racial dialogue today, remember that a couple of generations of Jewish Americans and Canadians have spent a great deal of effort to downplay differences between ourselves and the (white) majority. There is genuine confusion about Jewishness as a religion, a peoplehood and a racialized group. While it should not always fall on minority communities to school others on issues of identity, neither should our default be to assume ill-will when confusion or ignorance remain possibilities.
While people who wave swastikas may be irredeemable, people like Goldberg – who has expressed solidarity with the Jewish community to the extent that she has said, “I just know I am Jewish” – are a different story. She may be misguided about where Jews fit into today’s conceptions of race and identity, among other things, but her flailing in the midst of the controversy suggests she is confused, not hostile.
There is an alternative to “calling out.” There is a term – “calling in” – through which the opportunity is taken to educate someone who has made an unfortunate remark, to encourage them to learn and adjust their outlook. The process has the potential for turning enemies (or perceived enemies) into allies – and it has worked wonders in countless cases.
Acknowledging intent is critical. Goldberg’s words were poorly chosen and she needs some education. People who wave swastika flags are on another level. Putting on a yellow star because you are asked to vaccinate for the health of yourself and others is contemptible. Handing out flyers blaming COVID on the Jews is as antisemitic as words get. There is a time for calling in and a time for calling out.
The organizers and supporters of the trucker protests need to call out the bad seeds among them. The legitimacy of any movement – whether it be against vaccines, for the rights of a group of people, for protection of the environment, or for whatever other cause – depends on well-intentioned members acknowledging and addressing the presence of those who are motivated by less well-intended objectives, not ignoring them.
And this brings us back to us. It is fine, indeed correct, to call out the hypocrisies of our critics and those with whom we disagree. But we have all been in conversations around the dinner table, on social media, in private messages and emails, where our friends, relatives or guests have expressed unacceptable ideas about others, including fellow Jews who look different or who practise Judaism differently. Racism exists in every community.
If we ask other groups to be vigilant about intolerance in their communities – and to be willing to “call out” or “call in” various comments and actions – we should make sure our own house is in order. We cannot demand that others do this if we do not practise it ourselves. It applies to our critics and enemies. It also applies to ourselves and our friends.
Rivka Campbell, co-founder of Jews of Colour Canada. (PR photo)
On Jan. 9, Rivka Campbell, co-founder of Jews of Colour Canada, spoke on the topic Harmony in a Divided Identity: A Minority Within a Minority, the third Zoom talk in Kolot Mayim Reform Temple’s 2021-22 Building Bridges lecture series.
A Jew of Jamaican descent, Campbell seeks to create a sense of community among Jews of Colour in Canada. At the same time, she works to establish dialogue with mainstream Jewish organizations and to provide a better understanding of Jewish diversity and the experiences of Jews of Colour.
Her opening remarks focused on what she labeled “the question” – that is, the unwelcoming, uninviting and off-putting line of inquiry Jews of Colour often confront when entering Jewish spaces. Though born and raised in Toronto, Campbell, like other Jews of Colour, is often asked, “Where are you from?” – the implication being that she is not Jewish.
This question, she points out, is alienating from the start and is not the kind of introduction that Jews of Ashkenazi backgrounds ordinarily face when, say, entering a synagogue.
A decisive period for Campbell occurred after getting married and starting a family. At the time, she wanted to introduce her children to their Jewish roots so that they could understand and appreciate every aspect of who they are.
“We leaped into the community with the assumption that I am a Jew and that this should be a non-issue. I am going to go to synagogue, put my kids in Hebrew school and just do stuff. I was wrong. What I didn’t reflect on was that I did not meet the stereotype, if you will, of what a Jew looks like, and it never occurred to me because I am Jewish, what’s the big deal? And I realized that for some people it was.”
The questions and comments would come even before a hello – Are you Jewish? How are you Jewish? But your last name isn’t Jewish.
“If I am a new face, then fine, we should welcome new faces. But the way to welcome new faces is with ‘Shabbat Shalom. My name is So-and-So, what’s your name? Here’s where we keep our siddurim.’ Welcome me first and the rest will flow naturally,” Campbell said.
She referred to these episodes, when she is singled out and her Jewishness is openly questioned, as “microaggressions.”
“Microaggressions are like mosquito bites at a summer camp. You might spray yourself and take other measures to prevent bites. Nothing works, so you spray yourself more and wear long sleeves and still nothing. After many efforts and layers, you finally say, ‘I can’t do this any longer,’ and you remove yourself from the place where the mosquitoes are,” she said.
For Campbell, there also have been more repugnant full-on aggressions, including having the derogatory term “Schvartze” directed at her.
“Would you continue to want to put yourself in that position? I have met and spoken to quite a few Jews of Colour who have said, ‘I am done. I can’t take it anymore.’ They do not want to subject themselves or their children to that kind of treatment. If we say there is no racism in our community, then we are fooling ourselves. All of us should feel they belong,” she said.
Campbell had a very good experience during an extended stay in Israel, where she met Jews from myriad backgrounds. In Israel, she did not feel she had to explain who she was and did not encounter the same questions she is asked in Jewish spaces in Canada. That trip caused her to realize that the Canadian Jewish community could do better and led her to start Jews of Colour Canada.
Things changed dramatically in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which, to Campbell, symbolized the banality of evil.
“That event made me not give a hoot whether people were comfortable or not with what I say because, until we are all uncomfortable, there won’t be change,” she said. “It really flipped the way I felt about diversity and the work that needs to be done. And that is where we sit today. And I see us as a community doing the work – we are listening and not just hearing what people are saying. You fix your own house first before you fix anyone else’s. And you cannot rest on the laurels of others, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”
Campbell is the executive director at Beit Rayim Synagogue in Vaughan, Ont., and a board member of ADRABA, Toronto’s first 21st-century Jewish high school. She also hosts the CJN podcast Rivkush, which focuses on diversity, Israel and other Jewish topics. She is the sole Canadian recipient of the inaugural JewV’Nation Fellowship from the Union for Reform Judaism. For more information, visit jewsofcolour.ca.
The next speaker in Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series is, on Feb. 6, poet, author, literary scholar and internationally recognized speaker on transgender issues Joy Ladin on the topic of Jonah, God and Other Strangers: Reading the Torah from a Transgender Perspective. On Feb. 13, Reverend Hazan Daniel Benlolo, cantor, rabbi and founder of the Montreal Shira Choir for special needs adults, presents The Power of Music. To register for either or both talks, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Tomorrow is Black Excellence Day. The day is adjacent to the birth date of Martin Luther King Jr. and is being recognized in at least 20 B.C. school districts.
Founded last year to draw attention to the lack of Black history being taught in Canadian schools and to highlight the struggles of racialized Canadians, it was originally named Black Shirt Day. The name followed the pattern of other social justice days, such as Pink Shirt Day (anti-bullying) and Orange Shirt Day (truth and reconciliation). Unfortunately, the name Black Shirt Day carries unintentional connotations. The Blackshirts were fascist paramilitary thugs in Italy, akin to the German Nazi Brownshirts.
Many people in the Jewish community expressed concern over the name, as did the B.C. Human Rights Commission. Among the Jewish groups that spoke with the Ninandotoo Society, whose members initiated the commemoration last year, were the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). In an interview with CBC, Geoffrey Druker, Pacific region chair of CIJA, said, “We were kind of gutted. It was painful because we still have Holocaust survivors among us and anybody who suffered from fascism and black shirts would have been hurt.”
In response to the comments, the Ninandotoo Society created Black Excellence Day, which still focuses on the ongoing civil rights struggle of Black and racialized Canadians and the need for a mandatory curriculum on Black history.
Kamika Williams, president of the society (“nina ndoto” means “I have a dream” in Swahili), told CBC, “For us, it wasn’t a matter of should we change the name, it was what should we change the name to. It would be very hypocritical of us to fight against racism within the Black community and then turn the other cheek when other racialized groups inform us of the racist nuances within their community.”
She said most of the discussions focused on “building solidarity … how do we move forward, how do we work together, how do we stay unified and combat racism together.”
Despite the fascist connotations, however, another group, Anti-Racism Coalition of Vancouver, is still going ahead with a Black Shirt Day, with the imprimatur of Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, among others.
Black Excellence Day (Jan. 15) and Martin Luther King Day (this year on Jan. 17 though his actual birthday is Jan. 15) fall just over a week after Jan. 6. This year, Jan. 6 was a time of widespread reexamination of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a year earlier. CNN, MSNBC and other mainstream networks provided exhaustive reviews of the events of that day and insights into the larger meaning for its victims – Capitol police, elected officials, staffers, their families and so forth – while right-wing media perpetuated their line that the attempted coup was nothing more than rambunctious tourists.
The Atlantic magazine’s current issue, with the cover story “January 6 was practise,” devotes almost every word in the magazine to the events of that day and what it means for the future. Relatively obscure civil servants and elections administrators were, in some instances, the main bulwark against Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of voters in states like Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere. But, argues the Atlantic, supporters of the insurrection and the “big lie” that Trump won and the election was stolen are now taking their places at the most sensitive (if least understood) nexus of the election bureaucracy. The alarming, pessimistic tone of the magazine’s issue could be summed up as: American democracy has about three years to live.
Various media have raised alarms about these attempts to grab the election levers – and revisited how it was not so much institutions or constitutional niceties that prevented Trump’s coup attempt from succeeding but a very small number of stiff-backed individuals, including then-vice president Mike Pence, who provided the frail barricade around the will of the country’s voters.
The health and survival of American democracy, put mildly, is not a matter of concern for Americans only. Its demise would eliminate what moral suasion the country holds in the world – to say nothing of the potential for misuse of military power. For Canadians, chaos on the other side of the world’s longest undefended border would be cause for serious concern. And any threat to democracy is a threat, foremost, to the most vulnerable and marginalized, Jews included.
Sadly and scarily, this phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States – illiberal strains are gaining ground in various places in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. What is needed (among many other things) is a mass cultural movement recognizing these dangers and ensuring the health of democracy – or at least giving it a fighting chance if a chunk of the population rejects the outcome of future elections.
While the United States, Canada and pretty much every democracy have not always lived up to their promise – indeed, they have failed in serious ways – democracy is our collective best chance to achieve just societies. For countless Jews, and millions of others yearning to breathe free, America has been a beacon, despite its flaws. We must not just hope, but take action to help make sure its light – and that of other democracies – does not go out.
Left to right: Eve Barlow, Noa Tishby and Bari Weiss participate in a Nov. 3 panel hosted by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. (screenshot)
In a time of burgeoning antisemitism and anti-Zionism, Jews need to lean into their identities, says a leading voice in the fight against anti-Jewish racism.
“In other instances in Jewish history, we believed, wrongly, that the way to get acceptance, the way to get along, was to self-abnegate and erase who we are,” said Bari Weiss. “If there has been one lesson in thousands of years of Jewish history, it’s that that is a terrible strategy.”
Weiss is a former writer at the New York Times. She resigned her position there, citing a hostile work environment, and is the author of the book How to Fight Antisemitism. She was speaking as part of a panel convened Nov. 3 by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC). She was joined by Eve Barlow, a pop-culture writer who grew up in the United Kingdom and has worked in music journalism as deputy editor for NME New Musical Express but who, most recently, is using her voice to stand up against antisemitism. Also on the panel was Noa Tishby, an Israeli-American actor, producer and author of the book Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.
The three women have become prominent voices, online and off, in the fight against the latest upsurge of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The Nov. 3 discussion took place in Los Angeles, where all three women are now based. They were joined by Michael Levitt, president and chief executive officer of FCSW, and the panel was moderated by journalist Jamie Gutfreund, both of whom traveled from Toronto for the event, titled State of the Union: Fighting Back Against Hate.
Weiss said the first step in confronting the problem must be vocal and unequivocal pride in Judaism and Zionism.
“The mere act of doing that is radical and contagious and changes the whole conversation,” she said. Doing grassroots work building alliances is another overlooked key to confronting the issue, she added.
“Let’s take a page from the book of our political opponents,” she said. “How have they done what they have done? Deep work inside communities on a grassroots level.”
The Black Lives Matter organization – not the wider movement, Weiss stressed, but the leadership of the organization – has exhibited problematic approaches to Jews and Israel. But no one should concede that there are not plenty of African-Americans (and Canadians) who are allies, she said.
“There are huge parts of the Black community that the Jewish community in America can still be allied with; there are other parts of it that we would be extremely foolish to try and ally ourselves with,” Weiss said. “There are other communities though. I’m thinking about Hispanics, I’m thinking about Hindus, I’m thinking about all kinds of other groups that I don’t see our community actively and affirmatively reaching out to and trying to build relationships with based on our mutual interests.”
Weiss warned that the polarization of politics in the United States and across the West does not bode well for Jews.
“That puts Jews in a deeply uncomfortable position because, I believe, where the political centre thrives, Jews thrive because, if the political centre is thriving, it means that there is room for nuance, that there is room for disagreement, that it’s not a kind of Manichaean, black-and-white, pure-impure, red-blue thinking. Right now, that is the world we are living in and – guess what? – we Jews don’t easily slot into either of those categories. We are both hyper-successful and also we are the victims of more hate crimes than any other group in this country. We are white-passing and yet white supremacists hate us because we are the greatest trick the devil has ever played. We predate the newfangled notions of ethnicity, of race, of religion. We are before all of that. I think that there is a dovetailing between fighting antisemitism and fighting Jew-hate, and standing up for liberalism, broadly defined, because, where liberalism thrives … Jews thrive too.”
Much of the panel’s discussion was about flourishing anti-Jewish hatred online, but Barlow warned that no one should assume there is a substantive difference between what happens online and what happens offline.
“We have seen how [online hatred] has contributed vastly to the amount of physical violence that happens offline and you would have to be extremely ignorant to … say right now that what happens online does not have offline ramifications,” said Barlow.
Tishby agreed, but suggested that offline violence may not be inspired by online hate but rather is part of a broader battle.
“Social media is just the tip of the iceberg of a well-funded political campaign that has been waged against Israel in the past 20 years,” Tishby said. “This is not by accident. This happened by design. The language, everything that we are seeing right now, originated in the Durban conference against racism in Durban in 2001 that was so antisemitic that the U.S. and Israel pulled out of it…. They have been putting a lot of money, a lot of effort and a lot of groundwork in going into these social justice causes, going to Black Lives Matter, going to the Women’s March, going to gay and lesbian marches in San Francisco, going to unions and actually slowly changing their minds and poisoning them basically with lies to make them shift against Israel. These are nefarious powers and nefarious countries that want to dismantle the Jewish state, period, end of story.”
Acknowledging that some of the most prominent anti-Zionists are themselves Jews, Barlow called the phenomenon “koshering antisemitism.” However, she advocates a compassionate response.
“I believe that how we deal with them has to be different than how we deal with non-Jewish antisemites because they are part of our people, we love them regardless and they are part of our tribe and I think we have to really understand the nuances of why people become anti-Zionist,” Barlow said. “I think a lot of what I see is trauma from the Jewish community and a rejection of the Jewish community that presents itself in this anti-Israel fashion.”
She offered up what she acknowledged as a controversial joke: “Don’t blame Israel for your daddy issues.”
Tishby laid much of the blame for anti-Zionist Jews on the Jewish education system.
“We need to take a good look at ourselves and what we did in order to allow for this,” she said. “We took our kids, put them through … this beautiful Jewish education, we give them all the values and we tell them Israel is the most amazing people and place in the world and we send them off to college without ever acknowledging the concepts of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘apartheid.’ We let college talk to them about this for the first time.… Nobody ever [said], let’s talk about why people call Israel an apartheid state. Let’s have a conversation about this, not when they get to college, [but] when the kid is 12, 13, 14, bring it up. Say, here’s the argument, here is where it’s completely false, here are the facts. Let’s talk about what’s happening in the West Bank.”
Weiss, who has spent her career in mainstream media, said those media outlets are “the most intellectually homogenous environment I’ve ever been in in my entire life.” But she warned against swallowing conspiracy theories.
“I think sometimes people in the Jewish community who are frustrated by this bias imagine some kind of secret conspiratorial meetings where they’re cooking up how to screw the Jews and the Jewish state,” Weiss said. “It’s just a reflection of the consistent bias among all the people that work there.”
The power of social media giants like Facebook and their haphazard responses to hate speech are a problem, Weiss said, but Jews and Zionists may be hastening their own defeat by pressuring them to censor certain messages.
“I think it is a genuinely knotty and complicated question whether or not the Jewish community should be going to these big tech companies and saying, in the same way that you’re censoring x, y and z, also censor the people who hate us,” she said. “My fear is that, in asking these companies [to] do more censorship on our behalf, then, in a way, we are actually feeding the fuel that will come to burn all of us. The ideology that is currently dictating the choices at many of these companies is an ideology that says Zionism is racism. That is part of that broader worldview.… What happens six months from now when … they want to go and censor Zionists because now they have decided that Zionism, to follow the Soviet lie, is a form of racism? Would we be happy with that? I don’t think so.”
The U.S. Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is limping along in the face of a near-total absence of cooperation from the Republicans who make up almost half of Congress and of the American voting public. Despite reams of video evidence, there is legitimate worry that justice will not be served in the case of an attempted coup at the heart of American government.
Those who tried to overthrow the will of the people and who even called for the murder of the vice-president of their own party are venerated by their supporters as patriots, while those who seek justice for those events are vilified as traitors.
The very people who tried to subvert the democratic decision of the American people last November – those who are trying to steal the election from President Joe Biden – chant “Stop the steal!” apparently without a hint of irony or self-awareness.
But the fight over Jan. 6 is a small puzzle piece in a larger social disorder. We are seeing verifiable truths dismissed as lies and what should be summarily debunked as lies revered as gospel. Listening to some of these voices, it is difficult to tell whether they are trying to create a reality based on what they wish were true – Trump won, Democrats eat babies, whatever – or whether they truly believe these falsehoods. It’s probably some of both.
Are we approaching a tipping point where a healthy society that has at least a modicum of shared consensus on what is true and what is false slides into a moral terrain that has no agreed-upon truth or lies, right or wrong, good or evil?
The pandemic has brought this problem into clear relief. Doctors say that they are treating people who, on their deathbed, continue to insist there is no such thing as COVID. There is a spectrum, from outright denial of the existence of the virus to conspiracies that it was invented for nefarious purposes to the idea that the virus itself is legitimate but is being exploited by governments (or other disreputable entities) to take away some amorphous “freedoms.”
Recently, parents opposed to mask mandates chased fellow parents (and their kids) at a school in California, screaming that the kids could not breathe through the masks. When some parents responded with what, by any fair measure, is common sense, one protester screamed back: “You were propagandized.… You are not being told the truth!”
To put a fine point on it, people who have been propagandized and who are convinced of a lie are shouting at others that they have been propagandized and do not know the truth.
Recently, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking to a Republican crowd that should have been in his back pocket, said, “If you haven’t had the vaccine, you ought to think about getting it because if you’re my age –” At this point, he was drowned out by screaming and booing. When he was able to speak again, he told the Republican crowd, “Ninety-two percent of the people in the hospitals in South Carolina are unvaccinated.” To this, some audience members began screaming “Lies!”
The New York Times Magazine’s ethics columnist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, wrote recently of the “strange mirror game” being played by conspiracy theorists and hucksters. “They peddle hoaxes that warn of hoaxes, scams that warn of scams. They dupe their victims by cautioning them not to be duped.”
Lies have been around forever. But it seems we are in another realm now. When Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, defended then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s false claims that attendance numbers at Trump’s 2016 presidential inauguration were the largest in history, Conway asserted that there were facts and then there were
“alternative facts.” This was not the genesis of a culture of gaslighting, but it did represent, along with Spicer’s lies, a turning point. The Trump administration operated in a world that rational observers would view as existing in an alternative universe of alternative facts.
Jews and supporters of Israel who forgive Trump’s many affronts because they deem him to be on “our side” on one issue suffer from something that might be equated to the difference between the weather and the climate.
Trump may indeed have taken steps that people view as being to Israel’s advantage. But, in nearly everything else Trump and his supporters have done, they have assaulted truth, facts and rationality. They call black white and up down. Legitimate media are “fake news” and darkweb rantings are trustworthy sources.
In a story in the last issue of the Independent, the commentator Bret Stephens said: “We now have come to a place where, increasingly, we are a nation that can bring ourselves to believe anything and a nation that can bring itself to believe anything … sooner or later, is going to have no problem believing the worst about Jews.”
Trump, Spicer, Conway and their crowd did not invent the situation where lies are gospel and truth is rejected, but they did their best to perfect it.
It should not need saying that such people should not be trusted, since their loyalty and sincerity are worthless. Republicans who, on a dime, turn into an angry mob screaming “Hang Mike Pence!” should not be trusted when it comes to something as sacred as the security and the fate of Israel and its people.
More gravely still, there is a reason why Jews are often referred to (as dehumanizing as the term is) as “canaries in a coalmine.” When antisemitism emerges, it is a sign of broader societal disorder. It is no surprise that the spike in antisemitism we are witnessing coincides with a phenomenon where verifiable facts are regarded as debatable assertions and the most ludicrous assertions are not only accepted as truth but defended with fanaticism and violence.
In the late 20th century, Canadian Jewish Congress and other groups adopted an approach premised on the idea that the best way to ensure the safety of Jewish people was to advance an ideal that protects allminorities. There might always be people with antisemitic motivations, but, if we can inculcate in society a transcendent commitment to equality for all, we may create a firewall against the worst antisemitism.
As CJC and others did several decades ago, it may be time for Jewish people and others who care about fighting antisemitism to rededicate ourselves to strengthening the most fundamental principles of our democratic societies, the very foundations that we too often have taken for granted, even after Jan. 6. This includes not only ensuring basic things like civil and voting rights and protecting the institutions of democratic government, but it calls on us to contest outright lies and to defend basic truth. If, in the process, we manage to yank our democratic societies back from the abyss of lies and the frightening places they lead, we will have made things better not only for the Jewish future, but for everyone’s.
During the election campaign, Green leader Annamie Paul was surprisingly candid about her precarious position at the helm of her party. She acknowledged that she spent almost all the campaign in her home riding of Toronto Centre because she might not be welcomed by Green candidates across the country. She suffered a near-defenestration just before the election and the simmering internal strife the Greens barely managed to conceal through the campaign will inevitably boil over now, especially after her own poor results in Toronto Centre.
Paul faced horrific online racism and antisemitism during and after her campaign for the party leadership. We trust that she will share more of her experiences without reservation now that her tenure is almost certainly at an end. Rarely has so talented and qualified an individual offered themselves for public office – and even more infrequently has any political figure been so ill-treated by their own party.
Canadians, but especially Green party regulars, must examine what happened. Paul and other members of the party owe it to Canadians to examine the entrails of this affair and determine what roles racism, misogyny and antisemitism played in the matter. If there are Green activists who have legitimate grievances against Paul, they should be transparent and demonstrate that their extraordinary treatment of their leader was based on policy or strategic differences and not on her innate identities.
Bard on the Beach’s Done/Undone, written by Kate Besworth, co-stars Harveen Sandhu and Charlie Gallant. (photo from bardonthebeach.org)
Throughout COVID, Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach has been unable to mount its popular summer festival at Vanier Park. However, it is easing its way back into the hearts and minds of Shakespeare fans with its innovative film production Done/Undone, written by Kate Besworth and starring Bard veterans Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu, who take on multiple and diverse roles. The creative team includes community member Mishelle Cuttler as sound designer.
The film raises many probing questions. Is time up for Shakespeare’s works in the #metoo, woke, cancel culture era? Is there room today for plays written 400 years ago that can be interpreted as misogynist (The Taming of the Shrew), racist (Othello) or antisemitic (The Merchant of Venice)? Are the Bard’s works not just the reflections of a white, privileged male, written for colonial audiences to glorify British mores and culture? Or was English writer Ben Johnson, who died in 1637, right when he said Shakespeare was “not a man of his age, but a man for all times?” Should any form of Bardolatry continue or should Shakespeare and his folios be laid to rest as we move forward with contemporary artists telling contemporary stories?
To answer these questions, the film, set against the backdrop of a working theatre, uses snappy vignettes to showcase the pros and cons of the debate with interesting and perhaps unexpected results.
It opens as the two actors arrive at the theatre to prepare for a production of Hamlet, and the question first arises. Sandhu appears as Shakespeare to state that the purpose of writing is to “hold a mirror to humanity,” as she lists off the myriad subjects that the Bard explored – the sea, star-crossed lovers, a donkey in the arms of a fairy queen, an exiled warrior, an emperor of Rome, a triumphant king, how choices matter, and how governments fail us.
We then are spectators to a battle of wits between dueling professors, explaining and emoting from their respective lecterns. Gallant emphatically argues that Shakespeare is a product of a white, patriarchal society, using words as a tool of cultural imperialism written, originally, for white men to perform (women were not allowed to act in Shakespeare’s times, so male actors would take on the female roles) and that there is no place today for his work. Sandhu counters that Shakespeare’s texts still evoke emotions that resonate within the contemporary world – his topics of love, hate, greed and lust are timeless and embedded in the human character, she argues. She sees Shakespeare as remarkably progressive, with many of his characters in gender-fluid roles and with his portrayals of strong women – Rosalind, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, to name a few. His works can provide teaching moments, says Sandhu, giving the examples of Taming of the Shrew to show the harm that misogyny causes, King Lear, the scourge of elder abuse, and Othello and Merchant as vehicles to elicit tolerance and empathy in society.
Other vignettes in the film include a Bard board member – a neurosurgeon – who, during an opening night audience address, poignantly recounts the solace he found in the dark spaces of the theatre during a production of King Lear after the loss of a patient. He says that darkness was the escape from the reality of his grief.
Another scenario depicted is a couple taking in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, where the woman is clearly more into it than her male partner, who finds the Shakespearean language highbrow and difficult to understand.
Then there are the gothic, spectre-like creatures who denounce the Bard’s portrayal of women and Blacks in a macabre pas de deux; a talkback session after a Measure for Measure performance, where the female actor embarks on a scathing indictment of colour-blind casting; and the finale, in French, as the two actors attend an inventive Shakespeare festival in Montreal.
Shakespeare’s influence is global. At any given time, somewhere on the planet, one of his plays is being produced, either in its original form or as an adaptation. Do we judge him with our contemporary lens or should we remember the times in which he wrote and appreciate his genius? Done/Undone is a thoughtful and intelligent production that seamlessly blends the worlds of cinema and theatre, and considers some difficult questions. It leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
Done/Undone, with a run time of 76 minutes, is available for streaming online until Sept. 30. Tickets can be purchased at bardonthebeach.org or from the box office at 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.