How antisemitic is Canada, really? A perspective from newish Jewish citizen Pheobe Maltz Bovy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy at her citizenship ceremony in September 2023.

When I read Franklin Foer’s opus on the decline of American Jewry, published by The Atlantic this month, I had to wonder about what this implied for other Jewish populations. If the Jews are now fleeing England, if continental Europe is uninhabitable by Jews (it’s not; getting to that), if Jews were expelled from Middle Eastern and North African countries in the postwar years, and if the message of Oct. 7 was (in part) that Israel is no physical safe haven for Jews, then where does that leave?

Canada comes to mind. Or does it?

The Globe and Mail just ran an editorial, “Canada’s dangerous slide into antisemitism.” It includes now-familiar data on antisemitic incidents, but also a line that summed up a more widespread, not exclusively Canadian but not not Canadian progressive approach to this moment: “On Monday, an NDP member of Parliament, Brian Masse, acknowledged the rise in antisemitism in Canada but said, ‘We’re not going to be able to fix anything right now until there’s a ceasefire [in Gaza].'”

It’s not just that there’s a bunch of antisemitism about. There is, but what matters more is a growing (?) consensus, at least on the left, that this is something you’d have to be a bigot to oppose. The utterly shortsighted view that putting up with a certain amount of antisemitism is acceptable because Palestine—a view that ignores that widespread antisemitism along the lines of unpublishing a lefty Israeli essayist isn’t just unacceptable and largely irrelevant to Palestinians as versus somehow helping them but also only makes Jews and many non-Jews more pro-Israel—seems, if I may gauge from my heap of anecdata, prevalent in these parts.

When I try to make such points online, I’m sneeringly quote-tweeted by one of Canada’s premier public intellectuals, Jeet Heer. At least he’s keeping busy.

But are such attitudes absent in, say, New York? A larger Jewish population may mean feeling less alone at such moments, but safety is its own question. Jewish institutions in New York have had airport-style security since I can remember, not just since Oct. 7. And it’s a daycare at Stanford, in California, doing its toddler crafts projects in service of antizionism, not the ones my own kids attend in Toronto.

The world is an antisemitic cesspool at the moment, either because Israel is mean and led to look what you made me do-style antisemitism or maybe it’s the reverse, maybe Israel’s being normal and its only options were to fight back and be hated or not fight back and be destroyed. (My geopolitical dimwit self would like to think there’d have been some more targeted version of fighting back possible.) This much is clear. What is less clear is whether Canada specifically is embarrassing itself in this regard.

My insights on this come from having the not-all-that-unusual vantage point of having grown up in an mostly-American but many-Canadians family in the United States, and then moving to Canada as an adult. I am deeply familiar with how American Jews view Canada, and indeed all non-Israel abroad, when it comes to Jews, namely that it is all a hate-filled abyss one is fortunate to have avoided. Sure, this flies in the face of certain facts on the ground—how does one explain Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky? But it feels true, from an American Jewish perspective.

I remember being a bit surprised, when I went to grad school to study 19th century French Jews, to learn that there were 21st century French Jews, hundreds of thousands of them, going about their lives. Not in Calais or Cherbourg waiting for a boat out. Not (necessarily) planning any moves to Israel. Just… living there.

I also remember sitting on a commuter train only to suddenly notice the graffiti I was seated under said, in French, “Death to the Jews.” Not something I saw in the New York City of my youth. Maybe that’s changed. Meanwhile, in Toronto…

The 1930s Montreal my maternal grandmother grew up in, this I interpreted as a kind of halfway point between the old world other relatives of mine had escaped from in time (or not) and the 1990s Manhattan where I lived. No, Canada didn’t participate in the Holocaust, but the daily-life antisemitism was rampant, alongside an overtly Christian public sphere (yes, even by U.S. standards) from which Jewish children were by no means spared.

It is only in retrospect that I realize how much of my understandings were coloured by a kind of American exceptionalism that made me overlook the way, for example, America’s Christianity-inflected social conservatism clashes with Jewish values—secular and even religious.

I don’t know who the above social media poster is, but this is, in essence, the way I understood Canada growing up.

The way I see it is, Jews, like all people, have to live somewhere. We do not have to pick a somewhere, collectively, but rather are going to live the places we already do.

But what about the West Bank? Hmm? Did you not think of that?

Oh, I did. And all I can say to this is that making the entire planet feel un-livable to Jews isn’t going to be what solves anything. It will simply be a pastime for the self-righteous, as it always was and probably always will be.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.