Jewish refugees ~from~ Canada? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the limits of legitimate antisemitism concerns amidst the comeback of Donald Trump

White House photo of Justin Trudeau meeting with Donald Trump on Feb. 14, 2017.

I moved to Canada from the United States in 2015. Given that most people I meet know me to be a new arrival but aren’t thinking about exactly when I’d arrived, I have gotten a lot of the following: You moved here because of Donald Trump, right?

And the fact of the matter is that I did not. I couldn’t have made a 2015 emigration decision based on a 2016 election result.

No, I moved here because my husband—forgive me, this is Canada, my partner—got a job here, and Toronto seemed like a nice place to live. Trump’s non-presidency of Canada did add to its appeal, and I suppose will do so again if he’s re-elected, but doesn’t hold decisive-factor status.

The same cannot be said of Joe Roberts.

In his recent essay, Roberts, who “has served in senior leadership positions in Jewish communal organizations across North America,” fleshes out what the headline accurately sums up. (“I left the U.S. fearing antisemitism under Trump. Oct. 7 has me rethinking my place in Canada, too.”) He’d bought into the idea—commonplace in progressive American circles—that Canada is a merely a kinder version of the U.S., only to realize, once living here that every country has its plusses and minuses.

While the U.S. might be rife with gun totin’, universal health insurance rejectin’ cowboys, Canada might not be quite as friendly to its Jews. Oct. 7 was, of course, a tipping point, one that has left Roberts in a bind. Should he stay? Leave? If leave, for where? Israel, he suggests, although as of this article, he plans to stay put.

“The idea of becoming refugees, thanks to the scourge of antisemitism in a country like Canada, is a forfeiture of everything that Canada promises,” Roberts writes, leading me to contemplate, for I must admit the very first time, whether a Jew moving away from Canada in 2024 would belong to the same category of humanity as new arrivals to Canada from places like Syria or Ukraine. It seems a bit much. Antisemitic incidents are real, and more than vibes, but the reason they’re so jarring is that this is Canada, so…

And yet these lost illusions aren’t unique to the Anglosphere.

French newspaper Le Monde ran a big article—big, and controversial enough to become one of those Quebec media things—about French Jewish families living in Montreal. They’d heard good things about Canada and imagined it would be an escape from French antisemitism. Now they’re not so sure. (As someone who did a doctorate about French Jews, and whose late grandmother grew up Jewish in 1920s Montreal, I’m… not picking a team on this one.)

Discussions of immigration choices lend themselves to conclusions more pat than the realities. Push and pull factors, it’s called, and unless you are literally fleeing a war zone, that’s kind of the deal. Inertia supports staying put. (If you’re American, so does the tax code; wherever you live, unless you renounce your U.S. citizenship, you still need to do your U.S. taxes.) Other countries may seem like lands of opportunity, or may offer concrete opportunities in the form of job offers, university admissions, or a spouse. The same things that draw French people generally to Montreal will be of interest to French Jews.

Oh, and contrary to the belief of antisemites across social media, not all Jews hold multiple passports. The notion that any of us could simply up and ‘return’ to Europe, simply on the basis of pale skin or Ashkenazi or Sephardi heritage, would be news to European governments.

As for where antisemitism fits into any of this, it’s clear enough—in retrospect, certainly—where it would have in Nazi Germany, and in Second World War Europe more generally. As for today, it’s far more subjective. Antisemitism may be measurably worse in Toronto, where I live, than in New York City, where I’m from, but it is not enough worse for this to outweigh such things as, I live here now, and it would take a lot to pry the socialized medicine card from my hands. The differences in antisemitism in Canada and the U.S. seem rooted more in demographics (relatively few Jews, relatively more people with personal ties to the Palestinian cause) than in anything fundamental to Canadian values.

And then comes the question of what it means to flee antisemitism, as if such a thing were possible. New York City has its share, and it’s all the more unnerving because it is where you’d least expect it. Or maybe Israel is where you imagine Jews would be safest as Jews, a stance challenged by Oct. 7 itself.

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.