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 Canada flag 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Canadian Canada flag 390
(photo credit: 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 Incidents.”
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.
In 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 20-fold.
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 hatred.
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 theorists.
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 country.
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 “privileged.”
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 in 2011.
Anti-Semitism does not end with the traumatic impact on individual victims and their families, but instead spreads outwards in concentric circles.
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.