Home Perspectives Opinions Not all incidents deserve equal outrage: Serious anti-Semitism vs. annoyance

Not all incidents deserve equal outrage: Serious anti-Semitism vs. annoyance

Quinn Dombrowski FLICKR

In this post-Charlottesville period of heightened awareness and vulnerability, it is critical that Jewish communal organizations distinguish between episodes of anti-Semitism that pose real threats, and those that spring from ignorance. In all cases, our reaction must consider intent, impact, and proportionality.

Several recent incidents illustrate the spectrum of circumstances and the importance of nuanced, strategic and thoughtful response.

Last month, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), along with other organizations, applauded the decision to charge Sheikh Muhammad bin Musa Al Nasr with the wilful promotion of hatred, following a Montreal sermon in which he was videotaped saying that Jews are “the most evil of mankind.” He also quoted from a religious text that states: “Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me – come and kill him!”

Few would argue that this was an incident requiring swift and decisive action on the part of the organized Jewish community. And the condemnation and call to action was unanimous and immediate.

This is not an isolated case, and it is important that we continue to demand that authorities enforce Canadian laws and defend our values. But not every incident requires the same response. Community safety must guide us and be our primary concern.

Over the last weeks, CIJA has been alerted to racist graffiti in Winnipeg, Halifax, and most recently, in playgrounds in Montreal and Toronto. The Toronto graffiti, lauding the Ku Klux Klan and equating Zionism with Nazism, was properly denounced in social and mainstream media. We are grateful that local police are investigating.

Without minimizing the event, it is important to note that no one will be immediately safer because there was an outcry about a slide in a park that was defaced. At most, public attention to such incidents can cumulatively help drive the public policy process, supporting arguments for expanded public funding for community security infrastructure and education.

Another category of incident deserves a different approach. Two cases come to mind. The first involved the marketing of a designer dress bearing an unfortunate and highly evocative five-pointed yellow star.

Alerted discreetly to the issue, the store chose to voluntarily and swiftly remove the problematic merchandise. Indeed, both the store and the designer immediately acknowledged the offensive “trigger” of the yellow star. This action was taken before the issue became public; there was thus no compelling advocacy rationale to publicize the incident and provoke anger and anxiety in our community.

‘Our research has shown that anti-Semitism is the number one concern among Jewish Canadians’

A second case involved the discovery that an outdoor park in rural Quebec, featuring a collection of anchors, included two early 20th century vintage naval anchors bearing a swastika.  Decades after the anchors’ manufacture, the swastika became – for once and always – indelibly associated with the Nazi regime and everything associated with it, especially the Holocaust. But at the time this anchor was manufactured, the symbol did not have such a meaning. Adding to the confusion was a plaque misidentifying the anchor as being associated with Nazism.

In this case, CIJA worked proactively with the city administration to replace the plaque with one that accurately described the anchor and referenced the vile associations subsequently attached to the swastika. This educational material helps increase Holocaust awareness in a community that has limited contact with the Jewish community.

This thoughtful discussion was made far more difficult when a sole individual, motivated by a noble and strong personal commitment to effacing anti-Semitic graffiti, chose to physically remove the swastika from the anchor.   


Why are such over-reactions problematic? And why are they so difficult to discourage?

First, we must gain and retain the attention of our fellow-citizens and public authorities. We therefore need to differentiate between serious cases that require intervention and those that are offensive annoyances. When we treat all incidents with equal outrage, we act against our community’s interests.

Second, we need to remain aware and alert to real threats. Continually pressing the button of fear makes people less attentive, rather than more so. Make no mistake: our synagogues and schools are monitored and guarded because we have real and justified concerns about the threat of violence from the Islamists on one side and neo-Nazis on the other. Awareness and vigilance are essential to our protection; but relentless and indiscriminate messaging about minor incidents makes maintaining vigilance harder, not easier.

Why do Jewish organizations fall into this trap? Why has the reporting of anti-Semitic incidents become a branding exercise, rather than the serious public safety matter it ought to be?

Our research has shown that anti-Semitism is the number-one concern among Jewish Canadians. As Jews, we feel a strong moral obligation to “out” anti-Semitism and condemn it. Organizations, including CIJA, may fear that if they are seen to be too “soft” they will lose out in membership and support.

We have a serious task ahead of us. It is imperative that we keep the public authorities who are charged with our protection focused on real threats to Jewish safety, chief among them anti-Semitic hatred and calls to violence against Jews.

To achieve this, we must govern ourselves accordingly.

David J. Cape is chair of the board of  the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

  • fabrent

    Over-reactions are a product (by-product?) of the current cultural/ social climate where every slight, every crosswise look, kicks the ‘victim mentality’ into gear. Choose from the lexicon: bullying, ‘fill-in-the-blank’ shaming, feeling ‘unsafe’…etc etc.

  • TerrorIsEvil

    The antisemitic sermons and incitement coming from mosques needs to be addressed but every gross insult to Jewish people does not have the same existentially threatening weight.

    One of the major threats to Jews and Israel: Leftist and Islamist terror, propaganda and violence; especially dangerous when the two get together.

    Right-wing crazies who dress up as neo-Nazis are not a major threat to Jews despite the hand-wringing and propaganda coming from some leftists who want to use the right-wing morons as media props to oust Trump and bring back the increasingly anti-Semitic Democratic Party. They seem to want to minimize the danger coming from Islamism and maximize the potential for danger from nascent right-wing extremists. There they insert agents provocateurs.

    The leftists want to make their war against right-wing groups part of their anti-Trump theme and toolkit.

    Both left and right extremes agree about their hate for Jews…one side has the means today and years of practice killing Jews in Israel; the other might want to tap into that franchise and expertise.

  • DJ

    To the nascent anti-semite looking to find his or her voice: it begins with a scrawl, without consequences and thus implied consent, it gradually builds and grows into more bold actions. I guess we should just wait until someone dies before we realize its gotten to be more than an “annoyance”.