Dec 01 2009
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.