Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Ben Wexler considers a complicated relationship

Two different billboard trucks recently sighted driving around Toronto.

A truck was recently circulating around Toronto, inciting fear and hatred against Muslims. “Is this Yemen? Is this Syria? Is this Iraq?” reads the video billboard on the side of the vehicle, interspersed with videos of Muslims praying.  “Wake up Canada. You are under siege.”

The billboard on wheels drew strong condemnation from Toronto mayor Olivia Chow and Muslim community leaders. Toronto police opened an investigation. Islamophobic rhetoric of this kind has led to deadly violence in Canada, including the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017 and the car ramming of a Muslim family in London, Ont., in 2021. Canadian Muslims are understandably wary, with a dramatic rise in Islamophobic violence since Oct. 7, including a recent arson attack against a home in London in retaliation for a pro-Palestinian sign on the family’s lawn.

These incidents are symptomatic of a country rapidly moving rightward on immigration. For Canadian Jews, another problem arises: internal and external changes place Jews and Muslims in increasingly opposed positions, to the detriment of both communities.

The police investigation didn’t take long to determine a culprit for the truck, registered to the far-right news outlet Rebel News, because publisher Ezra Levant loudly defended the truck and its message. He says that the ad was created by a group called “Canadians Opposed to the Occupation of our Streets and Campuses.”

Levant—breathy, pugilistic, and proudly reactionary—has a long and messy history with Canada’s Jewish community. He’s Jewish and positions himself as a Zionist and opponent of antisemites. But he also associates with and publishes white supremacist antisemites like Proud Boy Gavin McInnes. Mainstream Jewish organizations have by and large kept Levant at arms length, neither approving nor condemning. He and Rebel News take recent acts of antisemitic violence and concerns around antisemitism in Canadian pro-Palestine organizations as an opportunity to blame Canadian Muslims and to push against immigration.

Levant’s position remains minoritarian among Canadian Jews. A recent Angus Reid poll, for example, finds that 75 percent Canadian Jews consider anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice a problem (compared to 66 percent of Canadians generally, and 88 percent of Canadian Muslims). There is nonetheless an audience within the community for such a message. Toronto was a hub for the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a racist organization with heavy influence on Israel’s fascist far-right. The city now hosts the JDL’s successor organization, Israel Now. An intensifying siege mentality provides cover for xenophobic politics to fester without organized pushback. The replacement of the democratic Canadian Jewish Congress in favour of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in the late aughts privileged conservative and stridently pro-Israel elements within the community.

Levant also appeals to a bigotry gaining ground as pro-Israel strategy. A recent report by Haaretz and the New York Times accuses Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs of conducting an Islamophobic propaganda campaign aimed at Canadian and American audiences (Israel denies the allegations). The state appeals to a Western fear of Islam and a devaluation of Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab life to justify its military campaign. The callous and dehumanizing speculation about human shields, child soldiers, and faked casualty numbers, indulged by American and Canadian politicians, has knock-on effects to the safety of associated minority groups here in North America.

Israel’s self-interest is not necessarily that of the diaspora; the Jewish state can afford an alliance with the antisemitic far right, even at the risk of endangering Jews elsewhere. But the political draw of the right for Canadian Jews has a more proximate cause in the collapsing consensus within Canadian multiculturalism. It is no longer obvious that Jews and Muslims can make common cause in defense of a multiethnic, multi-religious state; partly because of the continued defence by Canadian Jewish institutions of an increasingly radical Israeli state, partly because of high rates of antisemitism among Canadian Muslims (a recent study by Robert Brym finds that 28 percent of Canadian Muslims agree to some extent with the claim that “Jewish people are largely to blame for the negative consequences of globalization,” compared to 4 percent of the general non-Jewish population).  

In a recent essay on antisemitism in Canada, I argue that certain antisemitic trends redirect Muslim alienation from the Canadian state towards Jews. The slur of “Go back to Europe” is emblematic: Jews are treated as the source of white racism in Canadian society and thus aliens to a truly multicultural Canada. Regular antisemitic violence forces Jewish institutions to seek police protection, intensifying an association of Jews with the state and police. A political alliance with the right risks further dichotomizing Jews and Muslims in Canada—a move that might be of benefit to right-wingers, but that is totally unsustainable for the small Jewish population.

There’s no short-term resolution to the bind we find ourselves in. Decreased tension between two pieces of the Canadian “mosaic” would require slow, structural changes within communities, and a shared willingness to come to the table despite disagreement, and a serious plan for expanding Canadian infrastructure to include our growing immigrant population. Rebel News and Ezra Levant offer the opposite: a head-to-head collision between Jews and Muslims over the carcass of Canadian multiculturalism. It’s a violation of our responsibility to our Muslim neighbours, and a dangerous, stupid gambit, for all of us.

Ben Wexler is a McGill University student who contributes freelance columns to The CJN.