May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls brings huge spike in antisemitic incidents. Condemned by politicians, lack of public reaction spurs concerns hate is now socially acceptable
By Robert Sarner, The Times of Israel, June 16, 2021
TORONTO — Last month’s armed conflict between Israel and Hamas set the stage for antisemites in Canada to unleash unprecedented, social media-fueled attacks — in-person and online — including physical violence, incitement, and harassment.
At pro-Israel rallies in several cities Jews were physically assaulted, verbally abused, spat upon, and pelted with rocks. Elsewhere, their businesses and neighborhoods were targeted. At anti-Israeli protests, demonstrators donned swastikas, gave Nazi salutes, and burned Israeli flags.
By June 11, the ongoing attacks caused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce he would convene an emergency summit this summer to address the crisis. The conference will be led by former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who is serving as Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism.
The severity and frequency of incidents in the current wave are on a different level than in previous years. B’nai Brith reports the number of antisemitic assaults recorded in May of this year far surpassed the total for all of 2020.
Canada experienced a record 2,610 antisemitic incidents in 2020, according to a B’nai Brith Canada report — up 18.3 percent from the previous year. Statistics Canada found that Jews were on the receiving end of the highest number of police-reported religious-based hate crimes in the country in 2019.
If there is any solace to be found, it is in the number of federal, provincial and municipal leaders, including the prime minister, who strongly denounced the hateful onslaught.
Less uplifting is the absence of support from the public, which has prompted 200 Jewish organizations and synagogues to call on Canadians to stand with the Jewish community in the face of one of the worst antisemitic waves in Canadian history.
“What is most frightening is not the brazen assaults, vandalism, and harassment our community has endured — as terrible as they have been — but the reluctance of many Canadians to stand in solidarity with their fellow citizens who are under attack,” said their appeal, which appeared online and as a full-page ad in Canada’s largest newspaper.
Concerns shared at highest levels
Ya’ara Saks, a Canadian-Israeli Member of Parliament from Trudeau’s Liberal Party, helped ensure the Jewish community’s concerns were heard at the highest levels. She facilitated meetings between Jewish leaders and the Prime Minister’s Office to share their alarm.
“The disturbing spike in antisemitism over the past few weeks can’t be ignored or normalized,” says Saks, who lived in Israel from 1995 until 2006. “Antisemitism is now at awful levels but hyperbole isn’t useful. This isn’t at all like the 1930s but we have to be clear-eyed and vigilant. There can be zero tolerance for hate. We shouldn’t be in a situation where Jewish communities and institutions feel unsafe and in need of protection.”
Based in Ottawa, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is the main advocacy arm of Canada’s organized Jewish communities. It played a central role in proposing the upcoming summit involving leaders of all levels of government to develop a program to fight antisemitism, to which Trudeau eventually agreed.
“We’re extremely concerned by the increase in antisemitism, particularly the intimidation and violence that characterizes many of the incidents reported over the last month,” CIJA president and CEO Shimon Fogel tells The Times of Israel.
“The recent uptick showed how quickly a conflict half a world away turned into a troubling security situation for Jews in Canada, who are understandably quite shaken,” Fogel says. “Disagreement isn’t uncommon at protests but when expressions of hatred turn into attempts to intimidate Jews in their neighborhoods, boycott their businesses, or viciously attack them online, that should be of deep concern to everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
Home to 400,000 Jews, Canada has the third-largest Diaspora community after the United States and France. About half live in the Toronto area, which has witnessed numerous acts of antisemitism this year.
“While we’ve seen antisemitic incidents in response to previous escalations in the Middle East, the volume and nature of this current spike seems exceptional,” says Adam Minsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation, Greater Toronto. “In the Toronto region, UJA Community Security recorded a massive increase in the number of antisemitic incidents reported by community members, from a monthly average of 10-12 to more than 50 in May. And this of course doesn’t include the incidents that go unreported, as well as the explosion of hate we’ve seen online.”
Latest form of antisemitism
There’s little debate over the main driver of the problem.
“Anti-Israel extremism has emerged as the main source of antisemitism in Canada in 2021,” says Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “Just as medieval Jew-hatred was based on religion, and 19th- and 20th-century antisemitism was largely derived from ostensibly ‘scientific’ concepts such as race, attacks on Jewish self-determination, i.e. anti-Zionism, have become the latest ‘excuse’ for attacks on Canadian Jews.”
He believes the events of the past month have served as a wake-up call for many Canadian Jews.
“There’s an urgent need for all segments of the Jewish community to acknowledge the severity of this crisis,” adds Mostyn. “Either we destroy antisemitism, or antisemitism destroys our community. Without swift, effective action, we are mere steps away from the situation in France of Jews being murdered on the basis of their identity and many fleeing the country out of concern for their physical safety.”
As the head of the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation (CAEF), which fights antisemitism through education, interfaith relations, and advocacy, Andria Spindel closely follows developments on the ground.
“The data shows a significant increase in antisemitic acts including attacks, online hatred, distorted and lying media coverage about Israel and the Jewish people, vandalism and harassment, and school and university biases. This is the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime in Canada,” says Spindel, who’s also the co-chair of the End Jew Hatred Canada movement.
Spindel attributes the spike to several factors.
“It’s most often associated with anti-Israelism, and is fueled by various forces — Islamism, Leftism, and supremacism on the right,” Spindel adds. “However, it’s taken a new shape using social media, street protests, and critical race theory, academia, progressivism.”
Some in the community, while acknowledging the problem, are more measured in their response.
“Antisemitism is cyclical,” says Bernie Farber, former CEO of the defunct Canadian Jewish Congress and current chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “There have been times in postwar Canada where anti-Semitism was very prevalent, usually as a result of white supremacist activity. What we’re witnessing today, especially in response to the Israel-Palestinian crisis, has led to antisemitic activity at greater levels than we’ve seen in the past. But we need to be careful not to overreact and spread fear while being cognizant that world issues always have a significant impact on Jews in the Diaspora.”
The media often makes matters worse, much to the ire of former MP Michael Levitt, president and CEO of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center organization.
In the aftermath of anti-Israeli demonstrations marked by violence and anti-Jewish invective, Levitt published a column in the Toronto Star titled, “One-sided media coverage is helping fuel antisemitism in Canada.” He took issue with the press and those targeting Jews as part of their pro-Palestinian ideology.
“This past weekend was unlike any other as Jews across Canada experienced a deeply disturbing display of violence, antisemitism, and hate,” Levitt wrote. “Such was the degree of hostility, it calls into question the safety of Canada’s Jewish community. Lamentably, one-sided, biased media coverage of events in the Middle East is helping fuel this toxic situation. Like many across the country, I watched in dismay and disbelief as anti-Israel protests in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal degenerated into ugly scenes of loathing.”
As the executive director of Honest Reporting Canada (HRC) since 2003, Mike Fegelman is an expert on Canadian media coverage of Israel and related issues. He monitors Canadian media daily, spotlighting egregious cases of journalistic malpractice that cast Israel in a negative light.
“During the recent clashes between Israel and Hamas, Jews were randomly stalked, assaulted, and harassed in cities across Canada,” says Fegelman, a former journalist. “Many of these incidents have been ignored by Canadian media or excused. This ‘open season’ on Canadian Jews becomes possible when the world’s only Jewish state is defamed and libeled, especially in the media, and its very existence is called illegitimate.”
Fegelman often raises the hackles of editors by publicly calling out their publications or newscasts for what he sees as tendentious, factually dubious anti-Israeli coverage. In conversation, he cites a litany of examples, most of which he’s posted on the HRC website and on social media.
“Antisemitism has been cloaked in anti-Zionism and Canadian media have become complicit by fanning the flames of hatred,” says Fegelman. “I could give many recent examples, here are just two. The Globe and Mail [Canada’s national newspaper] published an op-ed that fundamentally denied Israel’s right to exist. And in the Toronto Star, columnist Shree Paradkar held Israel responsible for American police using excessive force and being racist, falsely claiming they were trained by Israeli police. That’s a bona fide antisemitic trope if there ever was one.”
The political arena is also seeing fallout from the situation in Israel. The Jewish head of Canada’s Green Party, Annamie Paul, who last fall was targeted by antisemites while running in the leadership race, is now harshly castigated by party members for not denouncing Israel. In mid-May, her senior adviser, Noah Zatzman, defended Israel in a Facebook post in which he accused many politicians (including in his own party) of antisemitism against Paul and himself.
He then faced a backlash of online harassment, some of it antisemitic, which resulted in him leaving his position.
In the ensuing brouhaha, some in the party contested Paul’s leadership. She narrowly avoided a no-confidence motion by the party’s governing council which could have ultimately forced her out of office. At the same time, the party council voted a separate motion asking Paul to renounce Zatzman.
“This current antisemitism is the worst I’ve ever witnessed in Canada,” says an Ottawa-based Jewish strategist for one of the federal parties who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. “The upsurge across the country has led many Jews to talk about making aliyah [immigrating to Israel], since Israel may be the only safe place. I never thought anyone would say such things about multicultural, diverse Canada, but Jews in every field have felt abandoned by their colleagues and friends.”
It left many disillusioned and surprised.
“It may feel very sudden to many of us but when you look at the stats from various Jewish institutions from recent years, it’s clear antisemitism has been consistently growing,” the strategist adds. “But no Canadian Jew could have expected this explosion.”
Campus life goes from bleak to worse
Jewish students and student groups are also reporting that Canadian universities are proving a particularly toxic environment for Jews of late.
“I can name you a dozen universities in the past month where there’s been some sort of statement or some sort of action from student groups that have made Jewish students feel unsafe,” says Daniel Koren, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, a pro-Israel advocacy organization working with Jewish students. “Students are promulgating misinformation and outright propaganda that affects Jews on campus. Students don’t need to support Palestinians at the expense of Jews in Canada. And this is what we’re seeing.”
“Antisemitism is increasing across university campuses and there’s no end in sight,” says Chaim Katz, a PhD student at the University of Toronto. “Jewish students are scared and we don’t feel we have a place to turn to, either in our student unions or with the administration. It’s not a safe space to be in as it’s become socially acceptable to hate Jews. It’s almost socially encouraged on social media.”
Without discounting the nasty outburst of antisemitism of the past month, Jewish MP Saks urges her coreligionists to keep things in perspective.
“We should remember Canada is one of the best places in history to live as a Jew,” she says. “We’re lucky to live in a liberal democracy with an enshrined Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s a big reason why so many Jews live in Canada, having come from countries where civil rights didn’t exist or weren’t extended to Jews. It’s a testament to Canada that the Jewish community has grown and thrived here as Canadians and as Jews.”