Daf Yoni: The lingering trauma of antisemitism

Put yourself in Sam Brody’s shoes for a minute.

You’re out walking your dog along a main thoroughfare in Toronto, a city that houses nearly 200,000 Jews of all stripes. It’s your usual morning routine, except today you see someone —someone big and tall—coming toward you. A second later, you’ve been shoved into a fence and knocked to the ground while your attacker, who has clearly noticed you are wearing a kippah on your head, yells, “F–k you, you Jew! You will never take Israel. Free Palestine!”

Or say you are a Jewish student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. You move into residence there, so you install a mezuzah on the door outside your seventh-floor unit. One day, someone knocks it to the ground. You put the mezuzah back up. It is vandalized a second time.

What would you do? How would you respond?

For sure, you’d call the police and organizations involved in documenting and fighting antisemitic hate crimes. You might take to social media, as Sam Brody did, to tell your story and raise awareness. Lots of people would show their support for you with crying emojis and a flurry of retweets. Jewish organizations would issue press releases. All of that support might help you understand that you are not to blame.

But after all that—after the media circus died down and a hundred other antisemitic events overtook the one you experienced—how would you move forward?

That’s when it gets really hard.

As Sam Brody told The CJN this week about his experience, “It shakes your idea of what it means to live in this city… I just don’t feel safe going into a large group. I don’t know who is going to do something to me or say something to me. I’m much more cautious leaving my house.

“Physically, I’m doing okay but mentally, it’s been a struggle. The idea of having to look over my shoulder now when I go out of my house is not a good thing or fun for anyone.”

Indeed. Now when he goes out, Brody wears a baseball cap over his kippah. And he tucks his Magen David necklace into his shirt. “I’m a very proud Jew,” he says, “I’m not going to be any less Jewish, but it does make me think a lot more about my own security and moving about.”

Meanwhile, a Jewish student in B.C. is forced to consider whether it’s worth putting up a mezuzah for a third time.

Antisemitism in the 2020s is compelling Jews, especially young ones, to hide their personal expressions of Jewishness, to wonder whether it’s really worth it—for their own safety and security. It is a question no Jew should ever have to consider in this country (or at least outside Quebec, where wearing a kippah is already verboten in many cases). And yet, here we are. Imagine facing that dilemma yourself.

The Brody and UBC incidents happened days apart and less than two weeks after the federal government of Canada held its first national summit on antisemitism, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a who’s-who of Jewish leaders and Liberal politicians (the leaders of other federal parties, including the only Jewish leader, were not invited—that was an error in judgment) that antisemitism “isn’t a problem for the Jewish community to solve alone—it’s everyone’s challenge to take on.” Less than a day after the summit concluded, Ottawa released a list of “initial actions” to fight antisemitism.

Sounds great, and surely Canadian Jewry can use all the help it can get. But while the summit emphasized the national and communal aspects of antisemitism in Canada, it generally failed to recognize the personal damage of antisemitism, the lingering trauma, the impulse to hide.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect from a seven-hour virtual summit (organized by any government, for that matter), but I suspect that if Sam Brody gets a chance to tell his story at the second national summit on antisemitism, it would put a real face to something people tend to regard as a theoretical construct.