Dec 01 2009

Responding to Antisemitism. Are We Too Thin-Skinned?

Published by at 12:01 pm under Israel-Palestine,Middle East,Vancouver

There’s a forum tonight in Vancouver called “Responding to Antisemitism: Are We Too Thin-Skinned?” Sounds like a neat topic and I wish I could attend, but prior commitments are keeping me away. That said, I do have a platform conveniently handy in the form of this blog to get my word out, so here we go:

First of all, what is antisemitism? In Canada, you’ve got the extreme and obvious examples, like shouting “Jewish child, you are gonna fuckin’ die!” at a public protest. Spray-painting swastikas on Jewish cemetery walls also is clearly antisemitic. You get the idea.

Then there’s intimidation of Jewish students on North American campuses.

All of the activities described above are already dealt with under our existing laws (uttering threats, vandalism, assault). Not just Jews, but the vast majority of Canadian society already sees these things as beyond the pale.

Things get a bit more insidious when it comes to Israel. Ideological enemies of the Jewish state are always careful to preface their arguments by saying that “criticism of Israel is not by definition antisemitic” — which of course, is quite true, and I’m not aware of any supporter of Israel who has argued the point. Anyone can criticize Israeli policies, just like one can criticize Canadian policies, or Chinese ones, or Pakistani ones. Criticizing China for allegedly using prisoners to profit from organ transplant businesses is clearly not a racist slander against all Chinese; likewise, criticism of Israel for, say, building settlements in the West Bank, is also not a slander against all Israelis or all Jews in Israel for that matter.

But when Canadian “human rights” organizations, cultural representatives and other informal groups undertake continual letter-writing campaigns, boycotts drives, unending calls to prosecute Israeli politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, or more chilling calls to action that all Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are valid targets for killing, and do so without any corresponding calls to action on ending the brutal human rights violations of Israel’s neighbors, such as suicide bombings or torture carried out in Hamas jails (or in Egypt, or Syria, etc) — indeed, without any discussion of the context for behavior by the Israeli state — it seems clear that antisemitism likely plays a part in these types of campaigns. Antisemitism can be inferred, but is virtually impossible to prove — hence, it is that much more difficult to combat.

The event this evening is not about whether antisemitism exists (as it clearly does), but how one responds to it. Whether the antisemitism is overt (eg. shouting “Jews to the gas!“) or obfuscated in human rights jargon and letters-to-the-editor, the obvious answer is that it should be answered — in editorial pages, speeches, blogs and such, without relying on legal constraints such as human rights commissions that trample on our hard-won Western freedoms.

But if the end goal is to reduce antisemitism in Canada by shining a light on antisemitic acts and words, then the way to do it is not through a tribal, “let’s-stick-together-because-no-one’s-going-to-help-us” mentality of Jews as besieged victims.

A far better strategy for Jews in Canada is to reach out more robustly to fellow Canadians from all ethnic and political stripes; it is clear that so much of the modern antisemitism is also tied to an anarchic and extreme (mostly left-wing, but also far-right) movement that is at odds with Western democracy, civil rights (particularly freedom of speech) and what one used to call “Canadian” values.

When protesters shout slogans like “long live Hamas”, Jews should be helping Canadians from other groups to understand that these chants are not merely offensive to Jews (whom the Hamas charter advocates murdering — an odd clause for a legal constitutional document of a proto-state). These actions are offensive to all those who support real democracy, respect for the rule of law, respect for life — all those things which Canadians take for granted in their own country.

The offensive of boycotts and other activities against Jews, not just in Canada, but worldwide has gained a following not just among the predictable cultural centers of the Palestinian and Muslim diaspora, but across a wide range of groups. To put it bluntly, when Operation Cast Lead protests came to Canadian cities, those demonstrating were white, brown, black and every shade in between, representing a similarly diverse background of professions and politics. Sure, they seemed to be organized with the help of the taxpayer-funded Canadian Arab Federation and other groups, but the point is that they got their troops out.

In contrast, the failure of both Canada’s “official Jews” and other Jewish organizations to organize an effective, cross-cultural, pro-democratic response to antisemitism, particularly in open and public gatherings — without calling the cops, lawyers or HRCs — just isn’t working. Don’t help the other side present the debate as an intractable ethnic conflict with ancient roots — Canadians will simply tune out. And if it does become a slug-fest between two diasporas, the Jewish community will eventually lose, probably sooner than later. Simple demographics will see to that.

But if the Jewish community makes their response to antisemisitm about politics, with concrete calls to action, about something that transcends ethnic groups and victim-hood, about siding with a group that supports the Canadian way of life, freedom from war and violence, civil rights and all the rest, I believe Canadians will respond positively.

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8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Responding to Antisemitism. Are We Too Thin-Skinned?”

  1. Blazingcatfuron 01 Dec 2009 at 2:09 pm

    The fight against anti-semitism in Canada has deteriorated to the point where it is now simply another front in the Mid-East proxy war, or as you so aptly put it “a slug-fest between two diasporas”. I perceive it to be both irretrievably political and an intractable ethnic conflict at this point. Support for Section 13 (1)? Simply another front with the Canadian Islamic Congress and CAF on one side and the CJC & B’nai Brith on the other, each hoping to use the law to their advantage.

  2. truepeerson 01 Dec 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Good post, and I’m aiming to attend tonight and will hopefully be able to get something up on the blog about it before too long. I don’t know about you, but I think invoking “thin skin” is only to invite the “anti-Zionists” to chant, yes that’s what Israel is, looking for excuses in Jewish victimhood to justify killing Palestinians.

    Two thoughts about antisemitism: logically, criticism of Israel need not be considered antisemitic, but when you look at the form of much “anti-Zionism”, one only has to substitute the words “dirty Jew” for “Zionazi” to have a statement that is the equivalent of those made against Jews historically. So while many honestly believe they are not being antisemitic in criticizing Israel, they are in fact simply naive about what motivates them.

    That’s why it’s important as you to say to foment a larger discussion about the nature of antisemitism. It really doesn’t have anything to do with an ethnic group. Jews aren’t hated to such an extent for their various ethnic traits, be these East European, North African, Ethiopian, whatever. They are hated as the symbolic carriers of a historical role – that started with the Jews’ being the first in the Western tradition to conceptualize the One God, and the necessary idea of chosenness that went with this – a role as “the first”, the keepers of the law that precedes the “law” of Christianity and the law of Islam. But the resentment of those marked as “the first” today transcends Judaism, as we are regularly reminded with the chants of “Death to Israel, Death to America”. Somehow we need to get people thinking about the problem of freedom and firsntess in history that is the reason for so much anti-Western anti-American anti-Israel resentment today, from those who feel left behind or under-appreciated as believers in a new and better version of the law: in my mind, that is all a variation on the theme of antisemitism. But I’m not sure if this kind of argument makes sense to very many people…

  3. Stephen Reeson 01 Dec 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Truepeers – you are right. You argument does not make sense – to me at any rate. I do not accept that the root of hatred of Jews arises from any historical role. Anti-semitism is no different to any other kind of bigotry or prejudice. Except to the extent that this particular bigotry got built into various state systems – but then so did bigotry against skin colour. Gypsies and Armenians have experienced the same kind of treatment. As have people with disabilities, or gays, or other kinds of oppressed minorities. The common theme is the creation of a stereotype – a refusal to recognize common humanity – and the need for a scapegoat. And you cannot deal with bigots as though they were rational. And all of us have to stand together and denounce all kinds of hate directed at identifiable groups, whether it is based on religion, or ethnicity, or colour or any other characteristic. You may recall that recently some idiots in the UK managed to organize children into physically attacking kids with red hair!

    Yes, there are some people who have leapt onto the “anti-zionist” bandwagon who are clearly enjoying the apparent licence that gives them to vent their anti-semitic feelings. But that does not warrant responses that confuse quite legitimate repulsion against some current Israeli government policies with hatred directed at Jews. Any more than revulsion against stoning, whipping and beheading justifies anti Islamic behaviour.

  4. Blazingcatfuron 01 Dec 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Tru I look forward to your post on the forum.

  5. truepeerson 01 Dec 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Stephen, i think whether or not all bigotry is the same depends on what question you are asking. If it is a strictly moral question then one bigotry may be just as bad as another and you may well be uncomforatble drawing a moral distinction between them. But if you ask, why is this group hated and why this one, can you really give the same answer for each? Are Jews really hated for the same reasons some people hate, say, Blacks, or Chinese? Consider, the central document in antisemitism, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Can you think of any other form of racial bigotry in which the targets are regularly accused of organizing a world-wide conspiracy to control the marketplace, politics, etc?

    Here’s a good talk on the Protocols, if you’re interested: http://vimeo.com/7704797

  6. Robyn Urbackon 01 Dec 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Well put. As you’ve said, legal attempts to silence anti-Semitic rhetoric (via HRCs and the like) will only serve to quarantine the Jewish community, instead of unite Canadians against extremist ideology. It’s just too bad some of the louder Jewish voices haven’t caught on.

  7. advocateon 06 Apr 2010 at 1:13 pm

    On the need for louder Jewish voices it seems that Canada’s “official Jews” are too complacent. History tells us there is no future for complacent “official Jews” . In the face of anti-semitism the Jewish community needs active and vocal leaders.

  8. jnarveyon 06 Apr 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Advocate, the more important point is that Canadians are too complacent.

    It’s not for the very small Jewish community, or those who call themselves the official representatives (based on, well, their own estimation) to rescue the country from a slow slide into violence and condoned fascism. Rather, Canadians of all backgrounds ought to be mobilized by attacks against the usual canary in the coal mine of civil society. Jews certainly ought to respond more robustly, but they are no doubt hesitant to lead the charge when the majority population of civil libertarians largely remains silent.

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