How evil becomes banal

Recent data on the evolution of public perception in Canada has shown a shifting acceptance of anti-Jewish activity.

Xenophobia - man getting beaten kicked 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Xenophobia - man getting beaten kicked 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the past 29 years, the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada has been helping governments, law-enforcement agencies and research institutes around the world understand anti-Semitism in that country, as public opinion vacillates between prejudice and tolerance. In 2010, 1,306 anti-Semitic incidents were reported to the League – a 3.3% increase over the 2009 data, indicating that there are specific fault lines in civic interaction when it comes to anti-Jewish prejudice in Canada.
While the metaphors and imagery used to propagate anti-Jewish hatred have changed little in recent years, the findings for 2010 confirm once again that this type of racism is of increasing concern. Indeed, the League has documented more than a fourfold increase in just the past 10 years.
An explosion in new technologies has made the delivery of anti-Semitic propaganda even easier, giving hatemongers access to previously inconceivable audiences. The technologies have also become more sophisticated, allowing propagandists to produce material with a misleading air of authenticity.
In fact, there has been a sea change in the way people communicate. Today’s tech-savvy generation understands only too well the power of bullying via tools of technology that are ever-present, invading and violating even their most private space. Hate monitored by the League in the past used to be expressed through graffiti on community or public buildings, posters, leaflets, protest placards, public meetings, letters sent via Canada Post, phone calls and faxes. Now there are many additional choices: websites, emails, text messages, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, message boards and blogs. Death threat by Twitter is no longer just a theoretical option.
FROM THE accumulated League data over close to three decades, we can glean information about the evolution of public perception in Canada, as seen in the shifting acceptance of anti-Jewish activity. When one moves the taxonomy away from the label ‘extremism’ toward the notion of radicalism and revisionism, and political correctness starts to come into play, provocative ideas – couched as ‘new thinking’ – start to seem more palatable, and attract less comment.
Borrowing from the Overton Window Model, as the “window” of the politically possible shifts to encompass newer forms of anti-Semitism within society’s ‘acceptable’ range, a new norm is created, and attitudes to actions once seen as unthinkable are in danger of being viewed with apathy.
When public perception moves in this manner, we see parallel shifts in responses within the Jewish community. For example, there has recently been a concerted effort by certain elements in the community to prevail upon institutions such as synagogues, as well as individuals, not to come forward when targeted. The idea that the Jewish community is, in effect, being intimidated into silence is a highly retrograde step that skews data, and impedes the efforts of government and law enforcement to analyze the true proportions of the problem and find workable solutions.
This move toward ambivalence in reaction to anti-Semitism – and other forms of racism – feeds off a reluctance to admit that there might indeed be problems in that country where, after all, rights and freedoms are sacrosanct. Such an acknowledgement would force us to face the fact that multiculturalism has not solved the problems of innate bigotries and prejudices. A 2008 study on attitudes toward Jews in Canada issued by the Association for Canadian Studies noted that while one-fifth of respondents felt anti-Semitism was on the rise in Canada and in their province, few agreed that anti-Semitism was a problem in their own neighborhood. It is always easier to ascribe such biases to other people than to face the reality in one’s own backyard.
And we know what that reality is. We know, for example, that anti-Semitic bullying is a key ingredient in many of the cases documented in this audit under the classification of harassment – a category in which the number of reported incidents increased in 2010. Conversely, the number of incidents classified as vandalism went down, and while this is due in part to better security at Jewish community organizations (aided by federal funding), there is also a perception, which serves as a deterrent, that there are more stringent consequences to vandalism. Vandalism might leave actionable evidence, but harassment virtually guarantees anonymity.
Acknowledging prejudice unequivocally is clearly the first step to overcoming it. However, there is a tendency to unintentionally marginalize the Jewish community when commenting on anti-Semitism. Recent press commentary on blog postings to the pro-sovereignty site operating out of Quebec noted that these “were deemed anti-Semitic by the Jewish community,” as if this assessment were just a Jewish point of view. The remark suggests that society no longer recognizes comments on the site such as “Jews control nearly all states through international banks”… “suck the lifeblood out of the countries in which they live” and… “it’s no surprise they were hated wherever they lived” as anti-Semitism. What a preposterous notion! While anti-Semitism continues to gain traction even in the best societies, only forthright opposition will counter it. As urged recently by McGill University’s Gil Troy: “Can we stop being so polite about anti-Semitism?” The findings of the League’s 2010 audit indicate that the time for such politeness is long past.
The writer is national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada and executive director of the National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. These comments are taken from the 2010 Audit Of Antisemitic Incidents in Canada, which has just been released by the League for Human Rights and can be found at