Is Gaza an impetus or an excuse?
Berlin: “Jews to the gas!”
Paris: “Death to the Jews!”
Milan: “Nuremberg trial for Israel!’
Montreal: “The Diaspora is scattered around the world where they take economic control, provoke the hatred of local nations…They make Washington, Paris and Ottawa submit.”
These are not comments from the history books but examples this summer of an ugly, Hydra-headed phenomenon experiencing a dramatic surge since the most recent Hamas-Israel conflict broke out in June. A new wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping Europe whose roots would seem to go far beyond-and beneath-the political passions stirred by the latest Gaza-Israel conflict. And it’s reaching Canadian shores.
In actions reminiscent of 1930s Germany, comments are complemented by actions. British police have recorded more than 100 anti-Jewish hate crimes since the Gaza conflict began, double the usual number, including an attack on a rabbi and bricks lobbed through the windows of a Belfast synagogue. In Wuppertal, Germany, Molotov cocktails firebombed a synagogue and in Berlin, an imam openly called for the destruction of every last Jew. Europe would appear to be the leaving point of a new Exodus as increasing numbers of Jews plan to emigrate to Israel.
In May, a U.S. Anti-Defamation League poll of 53,000 people in 102 countries reported that 26 per cent are “deeply infected with anti-Semitic attitudes”-including 24 per cent of Christians and 14 per cent of Canadians.
As the conflict in Gaza dragged on this summer, Toronto pro-Palestinian protesters beat Jewish supporters at a rally. A Montreal woman carrying an Israeli flag was trampled at a pro-Palestinian rally; a Jewish man was punched in the face outside a restaurant; a Jewish community building was invaded by anti-Israel protesters. “They accused us of complicity in massacre. They took political discourse to an inappropriate level,” says Eta Yudin, director of public affairs and community relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Quebec.
If you thought such phenomena died with the destruction of the camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, you may find the resurgence surprising. But for Yudin, these flare-ups are nothing new. “Every time there’s a conflict in the Middle East we see these actions,” she says. What concerns Yudin about the current spike is the new climate of tolerance in Canada: “There’s a feeling that people are free to express classic anti-Semitic views without being called on it. It goes unchallenged.”
She referred to a recent Montreal talk radio show in which a hateful email was unapologetically read out on air. “Someone should have screened this or stepped in and challenged this, but there wasn’t even an apology. The host thanked everyone for their comments.” In her view, there’s a new comfort level with anti-Jewish remarks not seen before.
It’s that complacency rather than individual comments that Yudin finds more disturbing, and she urges all Canadian citizens to condemn such remarks. “Anyone who takes a stand makes the atmosphere less conducive to expressing anti-Semitic views,” she says. “It’s the responsibility of everyone to create a society that fits with our democratic values. This is not just a Jewish problem.” She adds that it’s one thing to take issue with Israel’s Gaza operations-the proximate cause for this summer’s Judeophobia-and quite another to question its fundamental legitimacy and call for its destruction.
To do anything less than stand up against anti-Semitism, Yudin says, is to invite the bleak scenario described in German pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous words stemming from a 1946 speech: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Archdeacon Bruce Myers, the Anglican Church of Canada’s co-ordinator for ecumenical and interfaith relations, echoes Yudin’s call to fight back against anti-Jewish acts and utterances. “Anti-Semitism is an insidious thing, and it needs to be challenged at every turn,” he says.
The church, in fact, categorically condemns all expressions of anti-Semitism. “We have consistently denounced acts of discrimination or violence against the Jewish people, and have sought through education and dialogue to demonstrate how anti-Semitism is both a denial of Christianity’s kinship with Judaism and a violation of our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being,” says Myers. He notes General Synod’s 2013 passage of a motion on peace and justice in Palestine and Israel that specifically included a commitment “to resolutely oppose anti-Semitism.”
And in 1992, the church expunged from the Book of Common Prayer a Good Friday collect that was pejorative of Jews. “Our liturgy for that day now asks forgiveness for the church’s complicity in its persecution and scapegoating of the Jewish people throughout history,” adds Myers.
The church has been distressed to see the conflict between Israel and Hamas result in anti-Semitic acts in other parts of the world, says Myers. “We seek to be vigilant in naming and condemning it [anti-Semitism] when it rears its head here in Canada.”
A historian’s perspective on anti-Semitism
First of all, says Dr. Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish studies at the universities of Toronto and Oxford, “Anti-Semitism is ill served by a single word to describe such a broad range of phenomena. This is too limited and cheap a word.” He admits he cannot think of a better one.
Over the centuries, Judeophobia’s manifestations have ranged from the Old Testament expulsions of the Jews from Jerusalem, the Roman Diaspora, persecution in medieval Christian Europe, the Russian pogroms, the Holocaust and even the exclusion of Jews from 20th-century Canadian country clubs. And today, of course, the obsessive, heated animus against Israel.
Why are people so angered about Israeli military actions and occupations?
“Location, location, location,” says Penslar. “Israel’s address is the heart of the world. The Holy Land is of religious significance-terra sancta-to more than half of humanity.”
Furthermore, though situated in the Middle East, Israel is a Western-style democratic country. “We have a lot of information about it; it’s accessible,” he says. And people have moral expectations of its behaviour.
Personally, Penslar deplores the tragic consequences to the Gazans of current Israeli operations-“Unlike the fantasy conspiracy theories about Jews’ controlling the press and the Communist parties, these deaths are real tragedies”-and he feels Israel has overreacted in its tactical responses.
Still, he maintains that Jews and Israel are easy targets for obsessive anger because they have Western ideologies. With its Western democratic values, “Israel is accessible and understandable,” he says. And unlike larger countries engaged in military operations, “it is small enough to be vulnerable.”