The hate beneath the surface
In terms of continued prejudice towards religious minorities, the attitudes of Canadians have not undergone any radically transformative change.
Canadian flag [illustrative photo] Photo: Thinkstock/Imagebank
It is 30 years since the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada first
started to document anti-Semitism through an annual “Audit of Anti-Semitic
Coincidentally, this year also marks a seminal anniversary in
Canadian jurisprudence: the 1982 enactment of the “Canadian Charter of Rights
and Freedoms,” legislation that promised the constitutional entrenchment of
freedom of religion.
Although there have been important advances that
make Canada one of the best places in the world for a Jewish community to enjoy
that freedom, in terms of continued prejudice towards religious minorities, the
attitudes of Canadians as they contemplate neighbors with different customs and
traditions, have not undergone any radically transformative change.
fact, available data show that the number of anti-Semitic incidents has
increased in the intervening years; compared to just 10 years ago, the number of
incidents has increased almost threefold. In 30 years, it has risen more than
Clearly, an underlying thread of bigotry still runs through both
public and private discourse, whether explicit or nuanced, reflecting
continuing, deeply rooted, underlying prejudice.
The 1,297 incidents in
2011 offer a cross-section of what anti-Jewish prejudice looks like in Canada,
illustrating a darker side to the advance of multiculturalism. There are clearly
still quarters where anti-Jewish ideologies find resonance, prompting
hate-motivated activity – vandalism, harassment and even violence – in a variety
of sectors of society.
One has only to look at ongoing prejudice against
the most visible of Orthodox Jews, hassidic communities in Quebec for example,
to see that differences in dress and custom still have the power to drive
And even where obvious religious differences were less visible,
anti- Semitic slurs were never far beneath the surface in several cases reported
in Ontario of disputes between neighbors where one party knew – or assumed –
that the other was Jewish.
Adding fuel to the fire, populist movements
searching for supporters often find it expedient to co-opt the type of rhetoric
and imagery that oils the wheels of anti-Semitism.
Hence the conflation
of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic themes in the rank-and-file rallying cries of a
variety of unrelated anti-globalization, anti-poverty, campus, church, union and
other such coalitions, or the anti-Jewish bent of many modern- day conspiracy
Demonization of the Jewish state, delegitimization of its
right to exist and defend itself, and selective and obsessive preoccupation only
with Israel’s alleged human rights infractions while ignoring actual human
rights abuses elsewhere, go well beyond the type of constructive criticism of
state policy that could – and should – be directed against any
As emphasized before, legitimate critiques of Israel are not
considered anti-Semitism by the League, nor are they included among the
incidents documented in this study.
Denying the collective right of the
Jewish People – alone out of all nations – the right to self determination in
their own homeland, in much the same way as Jews were denied individual human
rights in the past, is another matter.
As part of a reframing of public
discourse on anti-Semitism that has taken place over the past 30 years, we
increasingly see attempts by the far Left to deny that this pernicious age-old
hatred is even a form of racism, along with claims that Jews are unable to
understand the concept of victimization since they are universally
This goes hand in hand with Holocaust denial from the far
Right, commonly presented under the guise of “scholarly discourse,” which is
bent on denying the reality of historical truth regarding the Nazi era, and
tries to rehabilitate the image of the perpetrators and give new currency to the
anti-Jewish ideologies of the past.
At both extremes of the political
spectrum we see alliances being made with yet a third group – a global
propaganda movement that attempts to recast Jews as “oppressors,” “colonialists”
and “despoilers” in the Middle East. This group excuses threats from Islamists
against Israel, Jewish communities and individual Jews, and even rationalizes
attacks such as the Toulouse school massacre, and threats against Diaspora
communities, on the grounds that Jews who will not dissociate themselves from
the Jewish state, and instead insist on its right to exist in safety and
security, are legitimate targets for violence.
Despite the diverse
ideological underpinnings of these three distinctly separate movements, they
seem to find common ground on the “Jewish Question.” It is as if there were a
natural affinity on the subject between these incongruous allies when they come
together to attack both the individual and collective rights of the Jewish
People from multiple directions at once. All three elements of this dubious
partnership were reflected in the incidents documented by the League in Canada
Anti-Semitism does not end with the traumatic impact on
individual victims and their families, but instead spreads outwards in
Sometimes this is sparked by hate messages shared in
online chat groups or through social media networks.
When such messaging
goes viral, it can reach a potential audience of massive proportions. Today the
sheer volume of hate being propagated via a range of new technologies defies
quantification, but that does not mean it should be ignored.
We need to
ask, in the past 30 years, have attitudes changed? Or have they just
crystallized into something apparently more socially acceptable, with prejudice
seeping into the fabric of society, so that distasteful opinions and attitudes
have now become part of the cultural landscape? Is the excuse “it’s just kids
acting out” to become the standard justification for vandalism against religious
institutions and even violence against those that are different? Are we to
tolerate teens who swarm and beat up an individual on the way to synagogue? Is
the case of students setting fire to a Jewish teenager’s hair in an ugly burst
of anti-Semitism to be dismissed as merely a prank? And where does an elementary
school pupil learn to identify himself as a Nazi and call another child a
“Jew-boy”? These are questions that merit close consideration as we consider how
behavior in society has evolved and the directions it may yet take, and try to
navigate boundaries that have become increasingly blurred between what is
acceptable and what crosses the line.
The writer is national director of
the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada and Executive Director of it
National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.