A sociology professor’s new attitudinal study identifies Canada’s most antisemitic elements: Muslims, activists and university students

Palestinian protests
Pro-Palestinian supporters on the Avenue Road bridge, Jan. 6. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

Robert Brym, a University of Toronto sociology professor, was annoyed by the latest annual report on antisemitism in Canada.

The record numbers were released at a time when things seem very scary for Jews in Canada. Brym’s latest work, published in Canadian Jewish Studies, paints a surprisingly different picture—one which is more nuanced than the offering from B’nai Brith.

Brym concluded that most Canadians actually have strongly positive feelings about his own community.

“We’ve still got 83 percent expressing positive attitudes towards Jews. The number of people who express extremely negative attitudes towards Jews is very small,” Brym told The CJN Daily on May 9.

The results suggest a wave of antisemitism has not engulfed the general population in Canada.

B’nai Brith Canada presented its annual audit of antisemitism in Canada on May 6, covering the year 2023. Their figures showed 5,791 cases, which is the highest since these reports started being produced over 40 years ago.

A similar message was delivered in a report on global antisemitism by Tel Aviv University with the Anti-Defamation League, the American counterpart to B’nai Brith. “If current trends continue, the curtain will descend on the ability to lead Jewish lives in the West,” concludes that report.

Brym found that there are certainly more antisemites in Canada now—but almost all of the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate is coming from a small section of Canadian society: Muslims, political extremists on both sides of the spectrum, university students, and French Canadians in Quebec.

He also found something he didn’t expect: support for Israel has slipped significantly among Jewish Canadians.

For this study, which he calls attitudinal rather than counting incidents, Brym collaborated with EKOS Research. A group of 3,000 Canadians were polled with a series of questions about what they thought of Jews, and of Israel, after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

There were also questions in light of the Hamas health ministry’s reports about tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties as a result of Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza.

Robert Brym joined The CJN Daily host Ellin Bessner to explain why his findings mean Jewish Canadian leaders need to change their tactics in fighting antisemitism.

Robert Brym, emeritus sociology professor from the University of Toronto

We’re speaking as lots of “the state of the Jewish world” surveys have been coming out. I want to ask you, first of all, for your take on those big numbers for those surveys.

What goes through your mind when you see these numbers, up 100 percent, up 130 percent?

Well, first of all, I have no doubt that antisemitism and anti-Israel actions are on the rise. I mean, we read it in the newspaper every day and see it on the news. If they’re as extreme as portrayed in some of these reports, I’m not so sure.

There’s a big difference between the report that I did and the reports coming out of Tel Aviv and of B’nai Brith Canada and so on. They’re measuring incidents. I’m measuring the attitudes of individuals.

Now, one individual can engage in 100 incidents. Right? So, the number of incidents can be far larger and usually is far larger than the number of individuals who are engaged in those incidents.

The second issue is that particularly B’nai Brith Canada has quite a broad net, a wide net, when it captures incidents. For example, every tweet that is negative on Jews is counted as an incident.

So we get some very odd findings that way. In 2020, B’nai Brith Canada found there were 29 percent more antisemitic incidents in Canada than in the United States, which is a preposterous finding because the United States has a population that is nine times larger than Canada’s and it has a Jewish population 15 times larger. So how do you get 29 percent more incidents here? Only by casting a very wide net. So I have problems.

As far as the Tel Aviv study is concerned, you know, they are amassing information from various countries and every country has a different method of counting. So we don’t know how to compare them. So I’m not really a fan of the B’nai Brith studies or of the Tel Aviv studies. I think they’re methodologically very flawed.

And what I find, for example, is that the overwhelming majority of Canadian non-Jews have positive attitudes toward Jews.

And don’t forget that sample of adult Canadians, non-Jewish Canadians includes Muslims, Quebecois, students and so on. So yes, there are antisemites in Canada. Yes, there are more people who have negative attitudes towards Jews, but the overwhelming majority of Canadian non-Jews have positive attitudes towards Jews. So it’s a very different picture from what the B’nai Brith gives us.

So, is it just that there’s more noise from smaller, fewer actors? And we’re seeing the media focus on it a lot, because being in the media, I have to know if I’m making it worse or I’m just documenting what’s happening?

I think that’s a large part of it, Ellin. There’s more noise. There are probably more antisemites around, too, but we are not living in Weimar Germany in 1932.

And sometimes when I read some of the headline stuff about the number of incidents, I get the feeling that they think we’re on the verge of a collapse of society because everybody hates Jews.

OK. Let’s get back to the story you were telling before about who are the ones that are making the most [noise]. Who got the most negative attitudes towards Jews.

The number one group are Muslims. By far, they have the strongest anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments.

And it’s actually a little frightening to read the details on specific issues concerning Israel and Jews. For example, on the Israel scale, people were asked, how strongly do you agree or disagree with the opinion that Israel is an apartheid state, or that Zionism is racism? On the Jewish scale, they were asked questions like, how strongly do you agree or disagree with the view that Jews have too much power in Canadian society? Those kinds of things.

I found that a worryingly large percentage of Muslims believe, for example, that the suicide bombing of Israeli civilians is justified. When you see percentages like you see in this study, it’s very upsetting. Or that nearly half of Muslims in Canada believe that Jews are the cause of all of the negatives involved in globalization. Nearly half! The figure for the population in general is 5 percent. You know, this is the anti-Soros people. But when you see that it’s over 40 percent among Muslims, that’s really a serious issue.

We have a lot of serious outreach to do, and rather than attacking these people, we need to be talking to them. When the attack occurred on a Quebec mosque seven years ago, members of Holy Blossom [synagogue], including me, went to a mosque, and we surrounded the mosque in a circle of friendship and we went to their service. And that’s a kind of outreach I’m talking about. Because when the Tree of Life (synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018) incident happened in the United States, they came to Holy Blossom, the Muslims came and did the same thing.

We have to create that kind of camaraderie and understanding between the two groups in order to lower the animosity, which is really widespread, especially among younger Muslims in Canada. Because it’s there, it’s real.

Then we have university students. I was shocked by this.

You know I can list 100 studies that show that when you go to university, you become increasingly tolerant of various minority groups: ethnic, racial, religious, gender and so on.

With an exception. The exception is that when students go to university, they apparently become more antisemitic.

I’m not saying anti-Israel. They become more anti-Israel too, but antisemitic. They have more negative attitudes toward Jews. So that’s very troublesome. This is a reversal of a pattern that’s existed for a long time. They’re not as extreme on the whole as the Muslims tend to be. But there is a significantly higher level of anti-Jewish sentiment among university students than there is among the non-Jewish population as a whole, and about anti-Israel sentiments, a lot more.

And I’m sorry to say that there are more than a few university professors who are teaching that hatred of Israel and negativism towards Jews. There’s a professor at Brock University who’s been spewing all kinds of nonsense. And I was asked by the St. Catharines’ newspaper to comment on what he had to say. I read some of it.

It’s really appalling. And obviously this is affecting students who don’t know, who are impressed with smooth talk and the fact that there’s a PhD degree, that this person has achieved.

McGill University in Montreal on May 1, 2024. (Credit: Amanda Polese-Lovgren)

The third group I singled out are the Quebecois–and now we’re moving from the most anti-Jewish and anti-Israel to the less negative. If you know anything about Jews in Quebec, you know that there’s a long history of anti-Jewish feeling. And the Quebecois to this day have more negative feelings, significantly more negative feelings towards Jews and Israel, especially towards Israel, than the Canadian population as a whole.

You go to university, you’re a professor at UofT.

I retired in December.

Still, you’re in a university environment. Your wife is president of York University. You see the campus pro-Palestinian tent encampments that are up. These are small groups of people, making lots of noise. And yet here you just said, you’re very worried and shocked about what’s going on in the university milieu. But then earlier, you said it’s not all Canadians. How can both be true?

First of all, university students are not all Canadians. Or they’re not all non-Jewish Canadians. These encampments are not all university students, for that matter. It’s organized, not just by students.

A lot of the students who are involved in the encampments are themselves Muslims. Yeah, there’s a lot of noise. It’s from a particular segment of the community, but it’s not a mirror of what’s going on in the larger society.

But you’re saying it does help make Canadian Jews feel unsafe.

Of course it does. They see the noise, even though it’s smaller (numbers of) people. Especially many Jewish students, especially Jewish students with a strong attachment to the State of Israel. We’ve seen students in tears over what’s happening in the universities.

Can you explain it? Is it because of social media, that they don’t understand about the Holocaust? They didn’t have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors? They didn’t live through it, they don’t understand Israel’s right to independence.

They missed that whole historical context. All they see is YouTube and TikTok and that’s where they get their stuff?

And they’re living through the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, and carnage among the civilian population of Gaza. And that’s what they see. That’s what they know and they don’t know the history. They haven’t been taught the history.

We’ve done an awful job of educating the public about the history of the Jews in that region. About the 3,000 years of continuous Jewish presence, the fact that we’ve had three Jewish states in ancient times, in the region. The fact that 850,000 Sephardim and Mizrahi were kicked out of the Arab and Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s and most of them wound up in Israel. That half the Israeli population is non-white.

I mean, none of this is known and we’ve done a lousy job of teaching it. So, I mean, we’re to blame, the professors are to blame.

Not a pretty picture.

Not a pretty picture. That’s why I’m saying that the community needs to reach out and explain itself and not just be on the defensive and not just being anti-Muslim. Of course Hamas is a terrorist organization. I understand. Let’s not dwell so much on that, and dwell more on reaching out, finding common ground, trying to discuss how this terrible situation can be resolved in Canada and in Israel. 

So is there anything else you want our readers and listeners to understand?

Yes, I would like to mention the surprising finding. I looked at the correlation between attitudes towards Jews and attitudes toward Israel.

It is not true that they’re perfectly or even strongly correlated. The two groups where there’s the strongest correlation between attitudes towards Jews and attitudes toward Israel are first of all Muslims. And the other group where this correlation is strong are elderly conservative voters: they have strong positive views toward Israel and towards Jews.

But here’s what I found surprising: if you look at the left, NDP supporters, young people, non-Jews. What that means is that it’s possible and it is apparently quite common for students to have negative attitudes toward Israel. But not towards Jews. Anti-Israelism is not the same thing as antisemitism for them.

For them. Because our community, the majority, thinks it is the same thing.

It’s a little hard to understand, but as far as I can tell, an accurate finding is that many students have strong negative attitudes toward Israel, but not toward Jews.

But it doesn’t come out in a wash? In other words, maybe it’s just some hate Israel, some hate Jews, Some don’t.

You know, it’s important because it falsifies the statement that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. That is not an accurate statement. It’s true for some groups. It’s truest for the Muslim population of Canada.

In your survey, you’ve made references many times to the fact that there were 20 percent, even 30 percent of people who either didn’t want to answer the question, or didn’t know. Maybe people don’t want to say? Maybe they’re not educated? Maybe they haven’t thought it through? They don’t even know what the river is, to the sea and things like that?

There’s a lot of ignorance. We need to do something about that. 

So you also surveyed how Canadian Jews are feeling in February. How are Canadian Jews feeling since Oct. 7?

Most Canadian Jews, not all, are feeling frightened, threatened and they believe that antisemitism has risen to unheard of proportions. In other words, the tendency of the majority of Canadian Jews is to agree more or less with the findings of the B’nai Brith audit and the Tel Aviv University study.

Is it Jew hatred or is it Israel hatred and Zionism hatred or both?

Really important question. They’re interpreting it as antisemitism. Period. They interpret extreme rhetoric and action concerning Israel as antisemitism. And I think that’s what counts.

When you try to determine the level of prejudice that’s being expressed or the level of discrimination being experienced by people, you have to ask the people themselves. You can’t rely on anything else other than the opinions of Jews.

The fact is that in a very large proportion, two-thirds of Canadian Jews feel that the situation is serious, dire and it will probably get worse. One-third don’t feel that way.

Your study also found something extremely concerning for people who support Israel. And that is: although 70 percent of Canadian Jews are deeply attached to Israel, that has dropped from before Oct. 7. Can you explain why you’re concerned about that and how that plays forward in policy for the future?

Well, it’s true. In surveys conducted in 2018 and in 2023 before Oct. 7, about 77 percent of Canadian Jews expressed emotional attachment to Israel. In the 2024 survey, the figure was 70 percent which is a statistically significant drop.

And I think that what’s happening is that a substantial proportion of Canadian Jews are feeling detached from Israel, more detached than they used to, because of the policies of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, and because of the conduct of the Israel-Hamas war.

I think that I know from the study that Israel has lost the public relations battle in terms of the Canadian population, with 50 percent of Canadians now having negative attitudes toward Israel. But support is also eroding in the Jewish community and it’s eroding particularly among younger Jewish Canadians. And that’s an issue because if you look at younger Jewish Canadians, that’s the future. So, I’m not happy about those findings at all.

I was surprised to see the magnitude of the drop, from an average of 77 percent having good, warm emotional ties toward Israel, to only 70 percent.

I can’t predict if that’s temporary. I don’t know if it’s temporary. I don’t know if it’ll persist. I don’t know if it’ll change after the war is over. One hopes that it will. But that’s what it was in February 2024, which is worrying enough.

So full disclosure: you are on the advisory council of a progressive Jewish organization, the New Israel Fund of Canada. And so our listeners should know that you’ve done surveys for them, too. About how Canadian Jews feel about the political divisions in Israel before Oct. 7, which we reported about.

I wanted to ask you, did you drill down into the several hundred Jewish Canadians that you interviewed about their support for Israel declining, whether by age or by political affiliation or by whether they’re Israeli or Russian immigrants or where they came from?

Certainly by age and political affiliation. First, age. Yes, there’s a decline in support for Israel in the younger age cohorts. It’s strongest in the oldest age cohorts. That’s a pretty clear finding. There’s absolutely no doubt that Jewish supporters of the NDP are less attached to Israel on the whole and more critical of what’s going on in Israel than are people in the other two main political parties. And the Conservative Party of Canada supporters are most pro-Israel and most attached to the Israeli state, emotionally.

You were also critical of the gap or the disconnect between the Canadian Jewish leadership and what people on the ground who are in your survey are feeling towards the possibility of a two-state solution, peace with the Palestinians, rights for both sides.

Can you tell me why you felt the need to say that, and to criticize the leadership like CIJA, B’nai Brith and Wiesenthal and all the people who are speaking for the Jews.

You already know how I feel about some of the so-called research that’s been done. I insert “so-called” because it doesn’t meet the standard, professional standards.

But I would say in addition to that, I get the sense that all of these organizations are in defensive and “hair on fire” mode. And I think that there is not enough of an attempt being made by these organizations to reach out to people, to try to talk to the Muslim community, for example, which has the highest level of antisemitism and the highest level of anti-Israel feelings of any group I could find in Canadian society. All I see is being defensive and quite aggressive in the defence.

I don’t see there a lot of talk about important parts of Palestinian suffering and history. For example, we have a problem of a lot of settler violence on the West Bank right now and that gets played down in a lot of the rhetoric of the Jewish establishment, let’s call it. Similarly with other issues, with judicial reform, which is actually progressing now in in Israel.

I want to get back to what your study found, that it’s not fringe Jewish people anymore. What are the numbers that you found of people who feel that way?

It depends on what question was asked. I asked a question: Do you think that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legal or illegal? And 51 percent of the Jewish respondents said illegal. That’s nothing you’re going to hear from the leadership of the community. And yet, the opinion is drifting in that direction. We want to see peace. And we know that peace can exist only if both nations are satisfied with sovereignty.

We’ll put the link to your study in our show notes as well as to your new book, which just came out as well called The Ever-Dying People?

With a question mark!

With a question mark. Which we have to talk about too, in another podcast.

Look forward to it.