Rise in anti-Semitism spurs local mother to act

Agnes Imani (Dave Gordon photo)

As anti-Semitic incidents were happening one after the other around the world, Agnes Imani feared for what could happen in Canada. As these clashes unfolded with startling regularity, and with desire to see a safer world for her children, she wanted to do something, to be a part of the solution.

So she took it upon herself to take action. And in a big way.

To help combat Jew hatred here at home, she planned six conferences in the span of a month, and she did it all without connections in the community, without event planning experience and while caring for her three young children.

Earlier this year, she organized the Anti-semitism Toolbox series, attracting hundreds of people to Chabad Romano, north of Toronto. She brought speakers from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, B’nai Brith Canada, Herut Canada, Hasbara Fellowships and others – an unprecedented event, where these groups for the first time spoke on the same platform. Another session focused on self-defence strategies.

And with that, nearly overnight, she became an in-demand Israel activist.

Her journey to activism began at synagogue services last Yom Kippur, as she was reflecting upon the rise in global anti-Semitism.

“I’m looking at the door, and I was afraid for the first time in my life that someone was going to walk in and attack,” she said. “That’s the same day there was an armed attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany. The fear that I felt that day made me realize that something needed to be done.”

She recalled being inspired by the sermon given by Rabbi Mendel Bernstein of Chabad Romano, on the topic of how a single person can change the world, and the importance of being pro-active.

“I was going to make a difference by doing something – I didn’t know what, but something.”

The turning point, for her, was the spate of attacks in New York around Hanukkah, when she leapt to action to create her organization – Jews Against Antisemitism Canada. Its purpose was to fill what she believed to be a void in educational programming.

“I founded this toolbox because I was afraid for my children’s future, and I felt that nothing of relevance was being done to educate us, as a community, or to make us feel secure and prepared, in the event of a mass casualty incident or anti-Semitic attack,” Imani said. “It was to empower the community, and bring awareness.”

She designed the series to cover a variety of topics – including learning about anti-Semitism, self-defence, campus hate and facts about Zionism.

Developing the program from scratch was “very difficult,” especially given her lack of connections in the Jewish community. Speakers were found from Google searches.

“I just kept calling and emailing, until they paid attention to me. I got one on board, then I got the second on board and then it just snowballed from there,” she said. “I started from the ground up, and I did it all on my own, organizing it, to distributing flyers, promoting it on social media, setting up the chairs.”

The result was an “excited and empowered” room of attendees. “They told me something like that was lacking, and had to be done. I think it inspired them to want to also stand up, and make a difference in the community, and fight anti-Semitism.”

Since that time, organizations in other parts of Canada have sought her assistance to plan similar events. “I’m full of hope, because I see that communities do want to take action. They just don’t know what to do. I’m inspired to help change that.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, shortly after the Toolbox, she organized a packed house with vlogger and Israel activist Rudy Rochman, at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda in Toronto. Rochman, a former Israeli soldier, began his activism at Columbia University, in New York, where he founded the Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel.

His approach is to engage critics with a cool head, seeking points of agreement, while still boldly defending the state of Israel. Arguments about Israeli advances, like cherry tomatoes, or Waze, do nothing to further the cause, he said. Rather, the point is to learn and debate the hard facts of Israel’s right to exist.

“I knew bringing in Rudy – a young, cool, strong activist – would empower other young people, to teach them that being a Zionist is nothing to be ashamed about, that it’s OK to stand up. This is someone young people can be inspired by, someone they can identify with,” Imani said.

Since entering the activism fold, she is often asked how to best fight anti-Semitism.

“What I’ve heard from a lot of people is that they don’t want to come to a lecture and hear that there is anti-Semitism. They know there is. It’s about what can they do: teach your children to be proud Jews and proud Zionists, don’t be afraid to show your Jewishness; speak up and educate others about the Jewish people,” she said.

“If you don’t have facts, you can’t win the argument. We all need to learn the history of Israel, and of the Jews. If we don’t have that, then we never win the battle.”