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Life for Jewish Canadians has become just about as good as it has been anywhere, at any time. Jews are widely accepted in society; all career options are open to us; we can live anywhere we wish and send our children to any school. This dizzying freedom was once unimaginable.
During the Second World War, Prime Minister Mackenzie King shut Canada’s doors to Europe’s Jews, dooming many to perish in the Holocaust. The war’s conclusion, however, did not end anti-Semitism in this country.
In the Canada of the 1950s, signs of “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” still abounded. Private institutions like Toronto’s Rosedale Golf Club maintained a policy of “No Jews” for subsequent decades.
Jewish members were finally admitted to Ottawa’s tony Rideau Club in 1964, and Pierre Trudeau named Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister, Herb Gray, in 1970. With the hard work of many, Jewish Canadians became widely accepted in society.
But while systemic discrimination decreased, individuals still faced anti-Jewish attitudes. Growing up in North York, I was subjected to anti-Semitism into my teens. And when I started visiting lumber mills in northern Ontario in my 20s, I was often accused of trying to “Jew down” prices. Still, things were changing in Canada and, by the 1990s, this style of prejudice—other than on the societal fringe—seemed all but eradicated. Or so we thought.
We were wrong.
Historically speaking, Jew hatred has always found a way to hibernate, and then resurge. Jews enjoyed hundreds of years under Spain’s Golden Age until the flames of the inquisition killed thousands, with the survivors being expelled, en masse.
Today, many look at that long era, and the acceptance of German Jews for almost two centuries before the rise of Nazism and are baffled: How could such a good situation deteriorate so fast? We may not have to look far for an answer—it always happens quickly.
According to a 2019 Statistics Canada report, Jews represent the most targeted group for religiously motivated hate crimes. The dangerous surge across Canada in anti-Semitism connected to the conflict in May between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, serves as an unfortunate wakeup call. Jews in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods in Toronto and Montreal were verbally and physically harassed. Rocks were thrown at attendees of a peaceful pro-Israel rally in Montreal.
What caused this dangerous spike?
First, the Jewish population accounts for only one percent of the general population, a tiny minority. Many people may not know or be aware that they know a Jewish person. Second, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has whipped up hatred, not just toward Israel, but toward Jews—and anyone with an affinity for Israel. Third, the fractured discussion in society and populism in general has made Jews a target both of extreme left and extreme right ideologies. Throw in the proliferation of anti-Semitism on social media, and the results are toxic.
In response, there are three steps that Canadian Jews, non-Jews, and policymakers need to take.
First, condemn anti-Semitism specifically. While Jews are certainly not the only group in Canada to face hate and discrimination, of which recent heinous incidents against our Indigenous and Muslim populations served as powerful reminders, Jews continue to be the most frequent target of religious hate crimes. We need our friends to speak publicly.
Second, enact concrete policy. Policy puts words into action. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted by the federal government, three provinces, and many municipalities. The definition is an important educational tool to recognize anti-Semitism and unmask those who attempt to hide behind a façade of “anti-Zionism” while really seeking to delegitimize Jews in general. The IHRA definition needs to be adopted broadly across Canada.
Third, reach out to our politicians. Each call, letter, and email counts. Elected officials consider public opinion when deciding policy. As individuals, our greatest contribution to combat anti-Semitism is to contact our elected representatives and tell them it has no place in Canada.
Most Canadians are peace-loving people who abhor hatred and discrimination. Policymakers, legislators, neighbours and all Canadians of good conscience must speak out. If you witness anti-Semitism, refute it, repudiate it, and relegate the hatred of Jews to the dustbin of history.
Just as the Jews of Spain learned long ago, a good situation can quickly deteriorate. As we recall from Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, “First they came for the Jews… ” What begins with Jews rarely ends only with the Jewish People.
There’s something fascinating about large charitable donors. Perhaps it’s because, while the corporate life that produces the resources required to be a big benefactor is transitory, your name on a building is forever.
Just think of the late Peter Munk—why is he still famous? A few old-timers might recall American Barrick, the gold company he founded. But, for the majority, the hospital wing and university campus bearing his name are the legacies that will last forever.
In the past, I was convinced that philanthropists were more exemplary in their personal and corporate behaviour. More recently, I’ve confirmed that large donors are no different from society as a whole. A donation generally causes one’s public image to improve, while simultaneously reducing the likelihood that the press will focus on your ESG fund’s poor performance. A cynic might say that this is why the contribution was made.
A leading Canadian Jewish philanthropist died recently. The charities he most actively endowed dutifully praised him, and perhaps one was 100 percent sincere in their tribute. But in the case of two of the larger institutions he supported, the real story is more complex. The benefactor constantly fought with them. He disagreed openly with most of their actions and was vocal in his criticism. At least one was on the verge of taking him to court.
The philanthropist isn’t guilty of any serious bad practices. He was just a nasty person.
I can’t blame institutions for saying nice things about a benefactor—if charities insist on only accepting gifts from saintly people, the results would be calamitous. But is it any different than sitting in synagogue and listening to a eulogy that’s a fairytale?
A new book about American reporting of the Pacific theatre during the Second World War discusses how it was a fantasy, as contrasted to the European theatre where there was more documented evidence of what was occurring.
I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.
Name and address withheld by request
I am not Jewish so I hope you will forgive me if I make any kind or error when addressing you or the Jewish community in general? I live in Mississauga and I have been trying for a VERY LONG TIME to find somewhere to buy a FLAVOURFUL CARAWAY RYE BREAD. I think that the best ones are made with sourdough, but I’ve never made it myself so someone might tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about! Does anyone there know where I might be able to find a bakery that makes caraway rye? I remember Open Window Bakery on Finch Avenue near Dufferin Street in Toronto used to make a “TRIPLE CARAWAY RYE BREAD.” It had an abundance of caraway seeds mixed into the dough and a lot more sprinkled over the top. It tasted sooo good! I have recently been buying caraway rye bread at a local deli, but I have been calling them for the past week and they keep telling me that they don’t have any. I SORT OF get the sense that they aren’t going to carry it any more, and I feel as if I’ve been getting the “brush off” the last couple of times that I’ve called… maybe I’m wrong, but I feel as if it is true? If you could reply to my message when you have a minute, I would appreciate it very much. If you know of anywhere that is situated towards the west side of Toronto, or better yet, here in Mississauga, I would be very grateful to know about them. Thanks a lot for reading this long message.