Emma Cunningham, a former NDP riding president, unravels the long and sad tale of antisemitism in the party

Emma Cunningham (Credit: Noel Moxon)

One week and one day.

That’s how long it’s been since Jan. 19 when I quit volunteering for the NDP and Ontario NDP after years of funnelling an unfathomable amount of time into building the Pickering-Uxbridge Riding Association and sitting as president of PUX for three terms. I’ve donated thousands of dollars, both to my riding, other ridings, and the central parties.

It’s been a very, very long week and a day.

So why did I leave? Because despite their claims to speak for minority groups, they exclude Jews from their advocacy.

Oh sure, they say all the right words. They talk about stamping out antisemitism and pose for pictures with local congregations on Hanukkah.

But they let candidate after candidate get through vetting despite histories with antisemitism.

In 2015, a tweet by candidate Alex Johnstone came to light calling a photo of Auschwitz a photo of “infamous Pollish (sic), phallic, hydro posts” and she admitted when questioned about it that she’d never heard of Auschwitz. This is a school trustee.

In 2018, the party nominated Tasleem Riaz, who had in the past shared a pro-Hitler meme. Whether or not she actually personally posted it seems to be an area of debate, but regardless of how it got there, the post was on her timeline for anyone, including a vetting team, to find.

In 2020, there was Sidney Coles who accused Israel of stealing vaccines, and there was Dan Osborne who as a teenager asked Oprah if Auschwitz was a real place.

Complaints of antisemitism under the anti-harassment policy have not been acted upon. These are just some examples of a pattern. I have tried to work with the NDP on this issue, but it seems I’m stonewalled at every turn.

Antisemitism comes out in the grassroots, too. There was a federal convention where non-Jews put forward a motion challenging the IHRA definition of antisemitism and wanted to rewrite it. Thankfully, the motion didn’t hit the floor, but not because the party stood up against it, only because of timing.

While I understand the perceptions and perhaps reality of the IHRA definition being weaponized to prevent critiques of Israel, the only people who should be defining antisemitism are Jews.

Now, there’s Steve Parish. Right next door to me, in Ajax.

In 2007, he named a street in Ajax after Nazi naval commander Hans Langsdorff. Langsdorff was not a member of the Nazi Party to the best of my knowledge, but he was a supporter of Hitler and called him a prophet and the right person to shape German youth. He committed suicide in 1939, six years after the first concentration camps were established and long after Jews were being put on the trains. Jews were even rounded up at the docks where he worked. Kristallnacht was in 1938. He again praised Hitler in his suicide note. His son was, in fact, raised in Hitler Youth and went on to fight for the Nazis until his death in 1944.

In 2020, Jews in Ajax, including Auschwitz survivor Max Eisen, asked the town council under Mayor Shaun Collier to rename the street. A local rabbi—my rabbi!—spoke out detailing the specific incidents of trauma in the Ajax community. Steve Parish spoke as a delegate after them and doubled down, wanting to keep the street named after Langsdorff.

What’s especially traumatizing for me is that the Ajax members of the party officially nominated Parish after all these stories hit the news. Not only the party let this stand, but my friends and allies just one city over. Had I not quit, these are people I would have spent the next four months with leading up to election day, attending the same events, sharing resources. They voted in someone who supported glorifying a Nazi.

At this point, I’ve exhausted myself speaking out against Parish. I don’t want to focus on Parish. I want to focus on the pattern that’s gotten him to where he is.

What I want from the party right now is for them to plug the hole in their vetting process. I wish I knew where it was. I know the vetting process asks people to remove things they said when they were young because it made them look “immature.” So having been a teenager at one point is a problem, but antisemitism is not?

Do vetters not look for words like Israel, the Holocaust, Auschwitz, Nazi? Are these things in their backgrounds being caught but vetters aren’t trained to recognize their significance?

We do know Holocaust education isn’t mandatory in Ontario, and that a third of Canadian youth are learning about it from movies and video games and not understanding its true impact.

Or, the worst possible scenario, are the vetters flagging these things but those at the top who ultimately sign off on candidates are deciding that these issues aren’t deal breakers?

Our best case scenario is incompetence. Our worst case is deliberate antisemitism. Which is it? The NDP needs to come clean and publicly tell us how they are going to correct this.

I’ve heard from so many Jews inside the party over the past week, reaching out to me with their own stories of antisemitism being disregarded by the party. I’ve spoken to the party many times myself. I’ve seen senior party staff cry when hearing the stories of New Democratic Jews. And yet…nothing. Their response is to bring on yet another candidate with a dark spot in his background just because he can probably win the seat in Ajax.

For a party that speaks out against racism and other bigotry at every possible opportunity, where is the support for Jews?

Emma Cunningham is an advocate for social justice living in Pickering, Ont.

More on The CJN Daily podcast: Why Emma Cunningham quit the Ontario NDP over antisemitism