crrns_control November 2, 2018

Opinion: What starts with Jews does not end with Jews. Those who threaten Jews pose a danger to broader society as well

By Martin Sampson

Though I am not Jewish, I have had the honour of working for a Canadian Jewish organization for the past five years. Like many readers, I did not understand the nature of anti-Semitism or the impact it has on our Jewish neighbours — until I began working for the community. As I reflect on the anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t help but return to three lessons I have learned in the years since I began working as a non-Jew fighting anti-Semitism.

First, many people have the mistaken impression that the Jewish community is concerned about anti-Semitism because it is offensive or insensitive. Though it is both, this isn’t why Jews devote energy to Holocaust education and other efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Rather, the community takes anti-Semitism seriously because history shows that hatred of Jews can lead to the murder of Jews. And as we saw in Pittsburgh, history has a painful way of repeating itself.

As we saw in Pittsburgh, history has a
painful way of repeating itself

Anti-Semitism is a reliable predictor of violence. It shatters communities, tears families apart, and fuels persistent fear and anxiety. Many Jewish Canadians have a direct connection to the Holocaust, which any historian will tell you began with words. When hateful people spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and call for the murder of Jews, Jews take note in a way that many non-Jewish people have difficulty comprehending.

Second, anti-Semitism thrives in an environment of political, social and economical anxiety. During complicated and turbulent times, like the one in which we are now living, Jews are convenient scapegoats for extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. What makes anti-Semitism so pernicious is that it can appear strangely rational, and even rooted in the language of a noble cause. Underpinning anti-Semitism is the belief that Jews are a threat to all we hold dear. Historian Bernard Lewis described this as the attribution of “cosmic” evil, an evil that controls the world, exists apart from humanity, at the root of all that ails society.

People attend a vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in North York, Ont., on Oct. 29, 2018. Tijana Martin/CP

Anti-Semites believe this, and that belief puts some of them just a step away from murderous action. In their mind, who could blame them for eliminating a “cosmic” evil? After posting anti-Semitic messages on social media, including one about a “kike infestation,” Robert Bowers took that murderous step and burst into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shouting “All Jews must die!” This atrocity is as heartbreaking as it is predictable.

The tragic flaw, of course, is that the anti-Semitism embraced by Bowers and others like him is dependent on an imaginary Jew. The Jew that rules the world, controls the money, pulls the levers of the media, has some evil plan to hurt you and your family, maybe even drink your child’s blood. The trouble is, that Jew doesn’t exist. So, who does Bowers target? Real Jews trying to live their lives, nurture their families, and build peaceful communities.

The anti-Semitism embraced by Bowers
and others like him is dependent on an
imaginary Jew

Does anyone really think Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old from Squirrel Hill, described by those who knew her as the “sweetest, lovely lady,” is controlling the world’s banks? Or that brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, described by ACHIEVA, a Pittsburgh non-profit that supports people with disabilities, as “two well-respected members of our community,” were pulling the levers of the global media?

No. Yet, along with eight other innocent souls, they were gunned down in cold blood in their place of worship at a baby-naming ceremony because they were Jewish.

If you spend any time scrutinizing the purported rationale of anti-Semitism you’ll swiftly conclude that it would be laughable if it were not so consequential. So fundamentally evil. And it’s on the rise because deluded, angry anti-Semites like the worthless Robert Bowers need someone to blame for their miserable lives.

Members of the Montreal Jewish community attend a memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack on Oct. 29, 2018. Paul Chiasson/CP

Third, I have increasingly discovered what many non-Jews — at our peril — often fail to grasp: anti-Semitism is not a “Jewish problem.” Law-abiding people of goodwill must speak out, because what starts with Jews does not end with Jews. Those who threaten Jews pose a danger to the health of broader society. Lest we think ourselves immune from these trends in Canada, one need only look at Statistics Canada hate-crime data. The Jewish community remains the most targeted religious minority when it comes to criminal acts of bigotry. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, an anti-Semitic hate crime took place roughly every 36 hours in Canada.

In 2016 an anti-Semitic hate crime took
place roughly every 36 hours in Canada

So, what do we do? We must call out, ridicule and marginalize anti-Semites in our midst. We must ensure we have the legal tools to hold them accountable and prevent the spread of hate propaganda, especially online — the primary arena for recruitment and incitement. We need a national strategy to counter online hate, bringing together the federal government, social media and experts in this field to tackle this phenomenon. And each of us must be willing to challenge our peers when we hear anti-Semitic stereotypes and slurs in conversation. Those who keep anti-Semitic notions alive — often hiding behind “humour” as a cover to do so — spread an ancient toxin that continues to endanger the lives of our neighbours.

There is too much at stake — for all of us — for good people to remain silent in the face of the world’s oldest hatred.

— Martin Sampson is the vice-president of communications at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). CIJA is the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada.