First national summit on antisemitism seen as the beginning of a long process

Participants in the first national summit on antisemitism, July 21, 2021.

Now, the work begins.

Jewish advocacy groups, community officials, politicians and observers who attended the July 21 National Summit on Antisemitism are glad for the chance to be heard but say sleeves must now be rolled up for years of hard work ahead.

With 24 hours of the summit’s end, Ottawa released a list of “initial actions” to fight antisemitism.

The seven-hour virtual conference, which was closed to media except for opening statements and one afternoon session on how municipalities can fight antisemitism, began with an address from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said his government “will always stand” with the Jewish community against antisemitism.

Citing the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May that triggered a dramatic spike in antisemitic incidents here and abroad, Trudeau said Canada “stands firm in its support for Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries, and for Israel’s right to defend itself.”

He said this country condemns “the indiscriminate barrage of rocket attacks fired by Hamas into populated areas of Israel, putting civilians and children at risk,” and repeated Canada’s support for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

Trudeau sent a message that was a red thread throughout the summit: that antisemitism “isn’t a problem for the Jewish community to solve alone—it’s everyone’s challenge to take on.”

The opening of the conference also heard from Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth; Quebec Senator Marc Gold; Karina Gould, Minister of International Development; and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, named by Trudeau last November as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Anti-Semitism.

Cotler and Chagger co-chaired the summit, which was organized by the federal Anti-Racism Secretariat. All three levels of government took part and several MPs and federal cabinet ministers tuned in to all or parts of the program.

An ongoing concern for Canadian Jewry—shoring up security at synagogues, schools, and communal buildings—was addressed on the day of the summit.

That morning, Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Mary Ng, Minister of International Trade, announced funding for 150 projects representing $6.4 million to support communities at risk of hate-motivated crime through the Security Infrastructure Program (SIP).

The announcement was made at Chabad Lubavitch of Markham, which is seeking $40,000 from the program to upgrade its fencing.

Following the summit, the Canadian Heritage ministry released a list of actions to combat antisemitism to which it said the federal government is committed:

• Engage with Jewish communities on the government’s next anti-racism action plan, which will be launched when the 2019–2022 Anti-Racism Strategy ends;

• Explore potential adjustments to the Security Infrastructure Program, Anti-Racism Action Program (ARAP), Community Support, Multiculturalism, and Anti-Racism Initiatives Program (CSMARI) and other relevant or related programs “to enhance effectiveness and to be more responsive to community needs. These programs will continue to dismantle white supremacist groups, monitor hate groups, and take action to combat hate everywhere, including online;”

• Improving digital literacy and tackling misinformation;

• A “renewed focus on dedicated resources” to support the work within government to combat antisemitism and all forms of hate, including Cotler’s work;

• And to work with departments across the government to take further action.

Chagger also announced support for two projects through the Anti-Racism Action Program that address antisemitism and hate. They aim to tackle online hate and employment-related barriers facing religious minorities, as well as support “inter-community outreach and cultural sensitivity training.”

In an interview from Jerusalem with the CJN just as the summit ended, Cotler said at least 10 government ministers attended, and “they were in listening mode and undertook to act…The most important thing is the commitment by the government, the respective ministers, to act. I’m very much encouraged by this. I’m looking forward to the implementation of a national action plan to combat antisemitism.”

Some of the specific undertakings were to combat hate crimes against Jews, which this year have already surpassed all those in 2020, which itself set a record, Cotler noted.

There was a commitment to combat hate crimes using what Cotler called “the four Ps:” Prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership with other governments.

Others were to hold social media companies to account for their content, and a commitment to mandate teaching about the Holocaust and antisemitism in public schools, he added.

“It’s these specific commitments and undertakings that encourage me so that we can now monitor them down the line. It’s the beginning of a process, not the end.”

He said that of the 10 “foundational principles” he proposed for a national plan to fight antisemitism, he was able to tick off “almost all of them.”

Cotler was confident that the Liberals’ Bill C-36, introduced last month and designed to tackle online hate, will be reintroduced when a new government takes power after an expected election. He called the bill an improvement over a similar one he introduced as an MP 11 years ago.

Some of the initiatives proposed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) at the summit included more investment in the SIP program to boost security at communal institutions; improving education about antisemitism in Canadian schools; launching a national initiative to address online hate; and, as in some European countries, to make Holocaust denial a criminal offense in Canada.

Speaking to The CJN post-summit, CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel pointed out that tackling online hate has been a priority for his organization for years.

He said any changes must come slowly, and he likened the process to the government’s legalization of marijuana, which was not simple.

Fogel said the government understood and acted on the many complexities of legalizing pot with a massive public information campaign over many months. The goal was to make Canadians aware of what the potential risks of marijuana use were, how to use it responsibly and appropriately, and what constitutes its abuse.

“What we propose,” said Fogel, “is that the government undertakes a national social media literacy campaign that is going to do the exact same thing. Social media itself is neutral, and I think that we’ve all experienced the powerful positive benefits that social media platforms provide. But it has a darker side, and people have to be able to distinguish between the benefits of social media and (its) abuse.

“They have to understand how they can use social media responsibly and what to do when they encounter irresponsible abuse. So that will be an important element of the campaign that will extend beyond the Jewish community.”

B’nai Brith Canada also recommended concrete ideas at the summit, including:

• Regular consultations with like-minded partners involving the provinces, territories and municipalities;

• That ideologically motivated violent extremism, particularly Nazi and neo-Nazi manifestations, must be addressed. Similarly, there must be an acknowledgement that anti-Zionism is a new driver of antisemitism in Canada.

• A long-term effort involving education, awareness-raising and applying tools that seek to understand why Canada’s Jewish community increasingly feels threatened, and explain to Canadians the value of the Jewish contribution to our society.

• That Canadian education institutions and governments implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism;

• And the creation of a National Holocaust, Genocide and Antisemitism Advisory Commission to hold regular consultations with representative Jewish community organizations and Holocaust education/research institutions, and report on the progress of these efforts.

In a statement, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn also noted that the summit was a start but that there must be a “mechanism for follow-up and consideration of further action.”

A good time for that, he pointed out, would be the Sept. 8-10 annual conference of federal, provincial and territorial leaders, followed by the meeting of Canada’s premiers in early October.

He said B’nai Brith will be offering additional proposals, including a national action plan to “mainstream” the fight against antisemitism across federal departments, agencies, and Canadian society as a whole, “enshrining the concept that confronting antisemitism is not being left only to the Jewish community.”

Mostyn later told The CJN that among his arguments at the summit were to consider the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel as antisemitic, as is denying Jewish indigeneity to Israel.

Also attending the summit were Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) CEO Michael Levitt, director of education Melissa Mikel, and director of policy Jaime Kirzner-Roberts. They submitted a slew of ideas, including the need to adopt and implement the IHRA definition of antisemitism in provinces, municipalities, school boards, universities, law enforcement, military and other public institutions.

FSWC also suggested criminalizing Holocaust denial, more funding for the SIP program, urging social media platforms to adopt and implement the IHRA definition of antisemitism, cooperating with provinces to develop a national strategy on Holocaust education, and ensuring that international development funding, particularly to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is not used to promote antisemitism or incitement against Jews.

Fogel said that despite a sizeable Jewish contingent who had an opportunity to engage in the conversation, “I think we could have done a little better with regional representation. But we are enormously grateful that (organizers) undertook this. It was still a big deal. It took a lot of organizing, and we can’t be dismissive of the effort that they put into it.”

Other Jewish officials addressing the summit included human rights advocates Yaffa Tegegne and Karen Mock; Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network; former Quebec Liberal MP Jacques Saada; Adam Minsky, CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto; and Yair Szlak, CEO of Montreal’s Federation CJA. Also in attendance for a session was the mayor of Vaughan, Ont., Maurizio Bevilacqua.

Names of others taking part were not disclosed “to ensure the safety of those participating,” the Canadian Heritage ministry explained.

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