Anti-Semitism hits close to home

Sara Berger, president of Queen’s Hillel, said she wasn’t surprised by last week’s anti-Semitic vandalism north of Toronto.
Sara Berger, president of Queen’s Hillel, said she wasn’t surprised by last week’s anti-Semitic vandalism north of Toronto.
Photo: 

The recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents in the Greater Toronto Area does not come as a surprise to Sara Berger, president of Queen’s Hillel.

“Jews are always aware of the possibility of anti-Semitism,” Berger told the Journal. “It’s always there no matter what.”

Between Mar. 15 and Mar. 21, several incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism were reported to police in York Region and North York in the Toronto Area. Swastikas and racist messages were spray-painted on cars, houses and a Jewish community centre. The windows of a synagogue were also smashed and signs erected by the United Jewish Appeal on roadsides were defaced.

A recent article in the Toronto Star included numbers from a report released by the Canadian chapter of B’nai Brith, an international Jewish human rights and public policy group, that said hate crimes against Canadian Jews increased by 27 per cent in 2003 compared to 2002. Most of the incidents were classified as harassment or vandalism.

Gerald Tulchinsky, professor emeritus of history and a former head of the Jewish Studies department at Queen’s, said he was also not surprised by the recent increase in anti-Semitic acts.

“Anti-Semitism seems in the past to come in waves and in the last few years there [has] been a lot of anti-Semitic expression ... in various countries,” Tulchinsky said. “Some of it has been linked to what are believed to be questionable or dubious policies carried out by the government of Israel in relation to the Palestinian question.

“There is some reaction in various places to those policies and it sometimes is the case that various individuals, for reasons of their own, decide to do something about it to express their opposition and their animosity to Israel [and] to Jews in general,” Tuslchinsky said.

Berger said she thinks the conflicts in the Middle East and specifically the recent flare-ups between Israel and Palestine might be related to the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Canada over the past year.

“I think that it’s obviously one issue,” Berger said. “People that would align themselves with their cause may feel the need to express themselves.”

Frank Dimant, vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, was quoted in the Toronto Star as suggesting there was a possible relationship between the increase in the number of immigrants to Canada from Arab countries with anti-Semitic presses and the increase in hate crimes against the Jewish community.

“We have many immigrants who come here from countries where the norm is intolerance,” he told the Star. “We have to teach the values of Canadian society to the new immigrants.

“That’s absolutely crucial for society as a whole and, in particular, for a safe and secure Jewish community,” Dimant said.

Dimant said B’nai Brith has evidence that some of the anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2003 were committed by people of Arab origin.

“We do not have proof that they were mainly Arab,” he said. “But we do have enough evidence to suggest that a percentage, for the first time, was attributable to those who are identified as being of Arab origin.” Shukri Sharif, treasurer of the Queen’s Arab Students’ Association, said he thinks it was wrong for B’nai Brith to accuse the Arab community.

“There’s no proof ... it’s just putting the blame on another minority,” Shukri said. “It’s just not right.”

Maysoon Sharif, president of the association, agreed.

“Members of B’nai Brith claim that they want to root out hate, but how do they plan on doing that when they’re blaming or singling out a single community?” she asked. “You’re just exchanging hate from one direction to the other.

“It’s just promoting hate toward the Arab community.

“After 9/11, Arabs and people in the Muslim community have been victimized as well, so it’s difficult to believe that a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes is due to a rise in Arab immigrants,” she said.

Berger said the governments of some Arab countries ingrain anti-Semitism in children through their media and school systems.

“Right now you’re having people who are educated in Arab countries with textbooks that are brutally anti-Semitic,” she said. “They immigrate here and they’re bringing their background with them.

“It’s not their fault, it’s their government’s fault. They’re being groomed this way,” Berger said.

She said the anti-Semitic press in some countries acts as fuel for immigrants from those countries to engage in racist behaviour when they come to Canada.

“There are people who come here for university and have seen the textbooks [promoting anti-Semitism] and that doesn’t go away easily,” Berger said. “When you’ve been taught that all through your childhood, how could you forget something like that?”

Tulchinsky said he does not believe there is any significant relationship between the anti-Semitic incidents in Canada and the number of immigrants from Arab countries.

“That’s not the way it strikes me,” he said. “My sense is that the overwhelming majority of people coming from those countries have no exposure to anti-Semitism.”

Tulchinsky said immigrants come to Canada because it is a peaceful country.

“Immigrants, generally speaking, want to get on with their lives,” he said. “They don’t want to attack anybody and they don’t want anybody to attack them for their religion or culture.

“They welcome the fact that they come to a country that prides itself on peace, order and good government, and they want to be law-abiding citizens.”

He said immigrants coming from predominantly Muslim countries were not necessarily more likely to be anti-Semitic.

“It’s probably no more common amongst people who come from the so-called Muslim countries than it is amongst people who come from the Eastern European countries like Poland.”

Tulchinsky told the Journal that expressions of anti-Semitism today are not usually visible, but occur in private amongst like-minded people, and are based on the remains of a combination of prejudices historically-centred in religious or racial ideologies.

“Overt expressions of anti-Semitism since the Second World War became socially unacceptable,” Tulchinsky said.

Tulchinsky and Berger both said they think education is an important part of eliminating anti-Semitic attitudes in society.

“I think more exposure to ideas about multiculturalism and acceptance and toleration can probably be injected into the school programs,” Tulchinsky said. “I’m sure teachers and education professionals are working on that and I have nothing to say to them except good luck and Godspeed.” Berger said anti-Semitism is more prevalent in people without education.

“Uneducated people are less likely to understand things,” she said. “I don’t really think the problem at Queen’s is anti-Semitism, I think it’s just a lack of education on the issue.

“They fall into anti-Semitic behaviour because they don’t know any better,” Berger said, adding that one of Hillel’s main focuses is to educate Queen’s students, especially in the wake of the incidents in Toronto.

“Part of the platform of Hillel is to educate people about anti-Semitism,” she said.

“When things like this happen, people understand why it’s such an important part of Hillel.”

Education can only go so far, though, Tulchinsky said. “You push against the frontiers of ignorance and prejudice when you’re teaching, or you think you should be,” he said. “But all the while you recognize that it isn’t necessarily going to work in all cases because some ideas, prejudices, [and] attitudes are so ingrained.”

—With files from the Toronto Star

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.