Ottawa’s civil servants unite to fight antisemitism on the job with a new network of their own

After years of enduring antisemitic jokes and thoughtlessness, a new network of federal bureaucrats wants to tackle the problem head-on.

The Jewish Public Servants’ Network includes about 250 members in the Ottawa area. It has taken on the challenge of changing a culture of antisemitism throughout the public service.

It was formed last year in response to a global spike in antisemitism following the most recent Israel-Gaza confrontation.

Founders Jonathon Greenberg and Kayla Estrin say that in addition to giving public servants a safe space from the antisemitism they face on the job, the network also hopes to work with government to change that culture.

“With this we are actually doing something to help public servants deal with the antisemitism they experience,” Greenberg said in an interview. “I think there has been a real lack of awareness about what Jewish public servants have been experiencing.”

Greenberg, an analyst for the CRTC, said while the public service has made great strides in recent years dealing with many forms of prejudice, action against antisemitism has struggled to find a place on the public agenda.

“Antisemitism has not been included in Canada’s anti-racism agenda,” he said. “A ton of progress has been made in many areas, but management needs to know that this is an issue that still needs to be addressed.”

Artur Wilczynski, Canada’s former ambassador to Norway, sees that issue. He is Jewish and gay and has found the antisemitism he faces on the job far greater than the homophobia.

He tells of one incident during his posting to Norway when a member of his embassy staff thought it would amuse his coworkers to share a vile joke. The ambassador’s objections were dismissed with the usual “Can’t you people take a joke?”

“I was made out as the person who could not get along with others because I was insisting that there be consequences for that person,” he added.

Wilczynski said the drive to form the new network followed years of individuals trying to get on-the-job antisemitism handled by their own managers—efforts that often proved pointless.

“It finally reached a point where a lot of our colleagues needed a space to come together and share their experiences and look at how we can address this issue of antisemitism in the public service,” he said. “We decided we need a more direct action because doing it individually in our various departments and agencies was not being successful.”

The network’s push for action has included meetings with the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board—the formal employer of federal public servants—as well as with Irwin Cotler, the country’s special envoy for antisemitism.

Aside from supporting each other in taking stands against antisemitism, the network wants education to stamp out Jew hatred among their colleagues.

“A lot of it is education,” said Estrin, who works for Health Canada. “People need to learn about this and we hope to resolve the issue over time by working with good people.”

“This problem won’t be solved in a day, but this network is a good start,” she added.