COVER STORY: Is religious extremism a threat in Canada?

Yehuda Assaraf, left, and Yinon Reubeni, two of the suspects in the firebombing of a Galilee church, are pictured in Nazareth Magistrate’s Court on July 29. BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90 PHOTO

After the murder of a Palestinian baby and his father at the hands of arsonists widely believed to be extremist Jewish settlers, many in the international Jewish community are still reeling, rushing to distance themselves from the ultra-right-wing agenda of the purported assailants, the so-called “hilltop youth,” a radicalized group known for flouting Israeli law and plotting violent attacks against Palestinians and Christian religious sites.

Jewish groups spanning the political and religious spectrum have roundly condemned the July 31 firebombing of a home in the West Bank village of Duma, which killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh and his father, and left his mother and brother seriously injured. 

The attack followed a church bombing in the Galilee earlier this summer.

Over the past week or so, 12 alleged extremists have been detained without charges in connection with the incidents, including Meir Ettinger, grandson of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the outlawed Israeli Kach party.

In Canada, organizations such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and Canadian Friends of Peace Now released statements denouncing the Duma firebombing, which they called a terrorist act, with the former group stressing the attackers “violate[d] the fundamental values of Israelis” and the latter that the Israeli government’s “continued occupation and permissive attitude towards the settlements” contribute to Jewish extremism.

Concern among many Canadian Jews about the perceived rise of extreme national Zionists in Israel is apparent, but should the Canadian Jewish community also be concerned about growing Jewish extremism in Canada?

The short answer is probably not. 

Calls to destroy Arab property and Christian holy sites, or rhetoric about overthrowing the Jewish state – activities that allegedly characterize the hilltop youth – aren’t in evidence here. And yet, some claim the growth of radical religious Zionism in Canada isn’t a totally far-fetched prospect.

Six or seven years ago, the controversial Jewish Defence League (JDL) – a far-right group established by Rabbi Kahane in New York City in the 1960s to protect Jews from anti-Semitism and later deemed a “violent extremist Jewish organization” by the FBI – was revived in Toronto by national chairman Meir Weinstein.

Earlier this year, mainstream Jewish groups, including CIJA, spoke out against attempts to form a JDL chapter in Montreal.

In 2011, the RCMP investigated members of JDL Canada amid rumours the group was planning to bomb Palestine House, a Mississauga-based educational and cultural centre for the Canadian Palestinian community. No charges were laid at the time, and the RCMP won’t comment on the case.

Andrew Majoran, general manager of the Mackenzie Institute, an independent Canadian think-tank that focuses on domestic and global security matters, said it doesn’t currently have a profile on JDL Canada, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t done research on the group in past.

As political conflicts such as the one in Israel wear on, he said, extremist groups of all kinds tend to rise up, and it’s possible Jewish extremism could become an issue in Canada. “It’s not to say it isn’t something on the horizon if you look at everything going on with the ultra right-wing or ultra-Orthodox attacks in Israel over the past days,” Majoran said, though he noted that far-right-wing violence in North America has tended to be perpetrated by “lone wolves” rather than co-ordinated groups.

There’s long been an underbelly of extremism – both on the left and right – in the Canadian Jewish community, said Bernie Farber, a social activist and former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.

“Both at times bubble to the surface, depending on what’s going on,” he said, noting that the JDL, a group that “sometimes borders on racism,” has “risen from the ashes” in recent years.

While he’s seen no one in the Canadian Jewish community openly express sympathy for extremists such as the hilltop youth, Farber said much of the community’s silence on the issue is troubling.

“I think we must be clear that the settler movement taken to extremes can be very dangerous for Israelis and Jews.”

There may also be elements of the Canadian Jewish community, he said, that wouldn’t engage in extremism of the sort recently seen in Israel, but “might take bizarre pleasure in it.”

“When the prime minister of Israel – who’s no left-winger – stands up publicly and condemns Jewish extremism and the JDL doesn’t, I think that tells CJN readers all they need to know,” Farber said.

Weinstein, chairman of JDL Canada, told The CJN his group focuses on anti-Semitism in the Diaspora, but supports Jews’ right to live anywhere “in Israel,” including Judea and Samaria. “There’s no Palestinian land, no Palestinian state… [The hilltop youth] aren’t breaking any laws,” he said. 

He stressed there have been no convictions in connection with the Duma incident and that it’s up to the police to investigate and arrest the appropriate people, adding, “it’s very possible Arabs are responsible.”

On violence generally, Weinstein said if someone wants to defend Israel, they should join the IDF, but “if anyone’s going to try to take a swing at you, you have the right to defend yourself.” 

Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, who chairs CIJA’s security committee, has been vocally opposed to JDL’s expansion into Montreal. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, he said, a small component of the religious Zionist community – both in Israel and North America – have lost faith in Israeli democracy and “abandoned the normative Zionist dream.”

There are certainly religious Zionists who attend Orthodox synagogues in Canada – his own included – who Rabbi Poupko said were “deeply shaken by the spectacle of 7,000 or so Jews moved out of Gaza.” 

The real danger, he stressed, would come from the segment that’s so focused on the settlement politics that they set themselves apart from the rest of the Jewish community. “When you feel the [Israeli] government has no legitimacy, this gives rise to extremism and vigilantism,” he said.