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LET’S START A CONVERSATION

In recent years, Canadians have undertaken discussions about race, gender, Indigenous reconciliation, sexuality, oppression, privilege, power and other challenging topics.

 

All the achievements we have realized on these issues emerged, in significant part, from civil discourse and societal conversations.

 

The experiences of one people stand out as exceptional: Jews.

 

We have not had a conversation about antisemitism.

 

But antisemitism is often called “the longest hatred.” How can anyone argue that we not have had this conversation?

 

In a way, we have been discussing antisemitism. But, after 1945, we mostly treated antisemitism as if it were a museum piece. We assigned antisemitism to the discipline of history.

 

Many people have little knowledge about Jews, and what they know of anti-Jewish discrimination may be limited to the Holocaust — and surveys indicate that huge swaths of people, especially the young, know little or nothing about this history, either.

 

Moreover, we must understand that the Holocaust was not an aberration — it was part of a long history of Jew-hatred, othering and scapegoating, made possible in scope by the industrialization of mass murder and the geographic reach of the perpetrators.

 

By viewing the Holocaust as something separate from millennia of anti-Jewish discrimination – before and after the Second World War – we make the mistake of assuming that antisemitism is a thing of the past.

 

Additionally, if we associate antisemitism only with the Holocaust, we may encourage apathy – since contemporary antisemitism does not approach that horrific magnitude, people may not feel it deserves our attention.

 

But we do not contest racism, homophobia, misogyny or other forms of discrimination primarily because these biases could lead to genocide – we do it because every instance of discrimination is wrong.

 

In addition to these problems, the discussion of historical antisemitism allows us to convince ourselves that antisemitism is a significant topic of conversation when, as a contemporary phenomenon, it remains comparatively unaddressed.

 

THE PROBLEM

 

Antisemitism, which was presumed to be largely dormant in Western societies[1], has exploded back to life. Statistics report that anti-Jewish hate crimes in Canada have skyrocketed.

 

Too often, we assume this is a by-product of overseas events.

 

We must challenge the prevalent belief that antisemitism in Canada is a consequence of the Middle East conflict. Other international conflicts do not create this level of intolerance, social discord and even violence here in Canada. Why does this one?

 

Assuming that antisemitism here is a by-product of conflict abroad is one reason we have not had the conversations we need to have.

 

To be fair, though, there are other reasons why we haven’t had this discussion.

 

For one thing, it’s complex and difficult. But so is dialogue around race, gender and sexuality.

 

This hasn’t stopped us from talking about them.

 

Importantly also, Jewish identity is different from other identities and, consequently, antisemitism is different from other forms of discrimination and bias. These differences complicate the discussion.

 

However, the fact that a particular group does not fit neatly into the boxes we like to place people does not grant us immunity to discriminate against, exclude them, or overlook their experiences with racism.

OLD AND NEW

 

Some people use the term “new antisemitism.” While 21st-century antisemitism does have some unique characteristics, antisemitism has always remade itself to suit the needs of the perpetrator or the society where it flourishes. Therefore, arguing over whether antisemitism is “new” or “old” may be a circular debate. Antisemitism, often called “the oldest hatred,” has grown old by constantly renewing itself.

 

A NON-JEWISH PROBLEM (THAT AFFECTS JEWS)

 

Racism is a problem that affects members of racialized communities – but it is a problem of racists. Misogyny is a problem that affects women – but it is a problem of men. Homophobia and transphobia are problems that affect LGBTQ+ people – but they are problems of heterosexual and cisgender people.

 

In a way, antisemitism has nothing to do with Jews – except that Jews are the collateral damage in a world poisoned by antisemitic ideas.

 

While it is difficult to generalize given the complexity of antisemitism, we can say that “the Jews” in the antisemitic imagination are not actual Jewish people. They are a caricature, a scapegoat, an invention of the antisemitic mind. “If the Jews did not exist,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “antisemites would have had to invent them.”

 

For too long, it has been left mostly to Jewish people to confront antisemitism. It is the responsibility of non-Jewish people to contest antisemitism in ourselves, in our circles, and in our society.

 

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

 

Most of us understand intuitively why fighting discrimination, bigotry and bias matters: If we are to be the individuals and society we seek to be, we must contest these ills and strive for reconciliation and a better world.

 

When it comes to antisemitism – which crime statistics, studies, surveys and other evidence indicate is among the most pernicious and growing problems in Canada and elsewhere – there is sometimes a hesitation. As a society, we are not confronting this problem in ways that are commensurate with the challenge.

 

One reason may be that many people do not know how to define Jewishness. By extension, this creates confusion about the nature of discrimination Jewish people experience.

 

Is Jewishness a race? A religion? A culture? An ethnicity? Is discrimination against Jews a form of racism? Or is it something else? (We address this below.) This basic lack of understanding makes Jewish concerns and antisemitism difficult to address in the context of the larger dialogue.

 

These factors, among others, lead some people, when confronted with evidence of antisemitism, to respond, “Yes, but …”

 

Let us agree up front that dedicating ourselves to fighting discrimination in all its forms is not served when we respond to it with an equivocation.

 

AT OUR OWN PERIL

Antisemitism doesn’t only harm Jews. It harms our multicultural society.

 

Throughout history, antisemitism has emerged parallel to social upheavals and is often a warning signal of a society going off the rails.

 

Hostility toward Jews is often a redirected attack against ideas that are at the heart of liberal democracy. Antisemitism often emerges alongside anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism and other reactionary strains of negative, hostile and violent ideologies. The dramatic increase in antisemitism, whatever its causes or effects, must be a warning to all who value democracy, pluralism, multiculturalism, tolerance and liberal values.

 

Notably, antisemitism is a major accelerant of white supremacism and anti-Black racism. Civil rights strategist Eric Ward has outlined some key ways that anti-Black racism and other forms of hatred depend on antisemitism for sustenance. White supremacism is a fractious ideology, Ward writes, but antisemitism is a unifying through-line that helps unify and sustain it.

 

Antisemitism also harms all equity-seeking peoples. Antisemitism is a distraction that keeps people from recognizing and confronting social, economic and political problems. Antisemitism empowers the status quo, allowing injustices and oppressors to go unchallenged by distracting from actual problems and redirecting attention onto a scapegoat (Jews).

 

In an ideal world, people would stand up against antisemitism for no other reason than because that is the right thing to do.

 

As antisemitism reaches levels unseen in decades, however, it is at our own peril that we disregard or downplay it – for the sake of ourselves, our movements and our society, if for no more altruistic reason.

 

This page is part of BE AN UPSTANDER: HOW ALLIES CAN RECOGNIZE AND CONTEST ANTISEMITISM.

 

Click here to return to the main document.

 

Click here to proceed to the next section.

[1] The perception that antisemitism was dormant was a false one. Antisemitism during the second half of the 20th century remained widespread and often systemic in Muslim societies, the Soviet Union, Poland and other communist countries. In the West, in addition to extreme outbreaks of antisemitic violence, such as the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community centre, which killed 85 innocents and injured more than 300, there were many other incidents throughout the decades. After 2000, however, these mostly isolated acts of violence became more common, along with a massive upsurge in anti-Jewish rhetoric not only at society’s fringes but in erstwhile mainstream spaces.

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