In January, Jonathan Kay officially took over as editor-in-chief of the Walrus, a national Canadian general-interest magazine. He comes to the position after 16 years as the National Post comment-pages editor, where he wrote on everything from North Korea to e-bikes and, regularly, Judaism and Middle Eastern politics. The CJN sat down with Kay to better understand his stance on modern Canadian Judaism, and how he will carry that into his new position.
To start: do you consider yourself a Jewish journalist?
I consider myself a journalist who’s strongly influenced by my Jewish background. When I look at the way a lot of Jewish writers write, there usually is some aspect of their background that comes out, and the dominant elements for me are cultural self-awareness and humour – that’s important, because people who feel at least a slight bit as an outsider within their societies, usually, are better observers of those societies.
You write a lot about Americans and religious extremists, sometimes together. Do you think being a Canadian Jew gives you a good vantage point to look at that subject?
I spent five years in the United States, which was enough to learn about the United States, but not enough to feel like I was an American. When I wrote my book about 9/11 conspiracy theories and political extremism in the States [Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground], a lot of the stuff I was writing was stuff people just kind of take for granted. “Oh yeah, down the road there’s a bunch of gun nuts who think Obama is trying to impose a UN dictatorship.” And that claim has become sort of the right-wing political fabric of some parts of the United States, to the extent that a lot of Americans just ignore it; one of my advantages for this book, because I’m from Canada, was like, “Wait, this is weird. This is interesting. I want to interview these people.”
I wrote an article about Jews in relation to some of these extremist movements, and one of the very interesting things is that, up until the late 20th century, Jews were often the target for political extremists. One thing that changed after 9/11 was that Muslims replaced Jews in a lot of conspiracy theories. And because Jews have a history of opposing Muslim extremism in the Middle East, Jews, for the first time in the history of the United States, were welcomed to the very heart of the political foreign policy in mainstream media.
And you see this a little bit in Canada, too; sometimes I’ll give a speech in a synagogue, and you’ll get some middle-aged guy get up and start saying stuff about Muslims that really resembles the stuff people used to say about Jews, like, “These guys can’t be assimilated in our fifth column.” Jews used to worry about this kind of political rhetoric in their society, rightly, because they were often the target of it. And to a certain extent they’re still the target of it. But I don’t like to go to synagogues and see that kind of thing, or to see it in the comment section of a newspaper. I don’t like to see it as part of the casual conversation. But now, unfortunately, you see it in the synagogues and you see it online, sometimes you see it out of the mouths of op-ed page writers and even on Sun News, where Jewish people, who should know better, have become the extremists.
You’re talking about Ezra Levant.
I’m talking about Ezra Levant, but I’m also talking about the thousands of people [who] email me on behalf of Ezra Levant. And I hate to say it, but a lot of them happen to have Jewish names.
Do you think there’s a global narrative about Israel that news outlets feel a need to conform to, with Palestinians as victims and Israelis as oppressors?
I think some of the vestiges of Marxism still exist in the way people think. People often divide the world between who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and sometimes we make very arbitrary decisions. That’s kind of the way we see foreign policy. There are a lot of things about Israeli society that conform to that narrative – Israel is rich, most of the people speak English, most of the people are white. So because those people look like our own society, we kind of assume they’re colonialists.
Do you think it’s possible for Jewish journalists to be impartial about Israel?
It’s harder to be objective about Israel. Like, in my case, my parents took me to Israel when I was seven. And we went on the usual two-week tour, and I have very powerful memories. They took me to the border with Jordan, which, at the time, was a dangerous place. And they said, “This is where terrorists infiltrate.” However, that said, intellectually self-aware people, regardless of their background, are capable of being objective. But as a Jew reporting on Israel, you have to try harder.
There is something we don’t talk enough about in Jewish society: one of the things people love about Israel is it’s high-tech, it’s a wealthy society, it’s well organized. The problem is, we now have a substantial proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not answer any of that description. When I see these communities, the way they treat women – to my mind, those people are no different from superstitious, misogynist Muslims or ultra-religious Christians. I don’t think a lot of Jewish communities in the West have come to terms with what a threat this is to, on a superficial level, the Israeli brand, but on an existential level, the Jewish people. Montreal has a bit of that. I lived in Outremont, very close to where they were – they were really cut off from the outside world, and it disturbed me.
Western society was lethally aggressive in going after Catholic priests and the cover-ups within the Catholic Church, and I’d like to see some of that light shone on these ultra-Orthodox communities. The mainstream Jewish community should do a better job of bringing those to light.
But it’s not really the mainstream Jewish community’s job to start investigating these communities.
Well, right now, whenever I write articles about this subject, Jewish friends would send me emails, “Oh, write about the Muslims, don’t write about this stuff!” And I say, “Doesn’t this bug you?” And they say, “Yeah, it bugs us, but you shouldn’t write about it.” That, to me, is what I’d like to see change. I would like them to say, “You should especially write about this.” This is our community we’re talking about. Ultimately, my primary identity is as a Canadian. I was born Jewish, I acknowledge that I’m a Jew, but I’m primarily Canadian. I don’t like practices that go against Canadian values.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.