I have been working with two colleagues, Len Rudner and Evan Balgord, to put together and present a series of workshops on anti-Semitism to educators at the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), north of Toronto.
In preparation for these workshops, I went over three decades of work on anti-Semitism, including case studies, incidents that were reported to the Canadian Jewish Congress and my work with police services, which focused on hate, extremism and the targeting of the Jewish community.
In so doing, it became very clear that words are at the very centre of hatred – or, perhaps more precisely, the power of words.
When I was young, my parents told me, as all parents do, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
My parents were wrong. Ask any child about the caustic effect of speech and he or she will tell you that words hurt. This pain is not something we grow out of as we become more sophisticated and develop thicker skin. Words retain their capacity to hurt.
Beyond simple injury, words can be employed to lethal effect. As Alexander Tsesis notes in his book, Destructive Messages, the foundations of slavery and the attitudes towards North American First Nations relationships were built over decades through the development of discourse that progressively robbed them of their humanity and their right to be treated as equals.
The genocidaires of Rwanda transformed their Tutsi victims into inyenzi – cockroaches – in order to justify their destruction.
The Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were first stripped of their humanity by progressive waves of propaganda, reducing them finally to the status of vermin who were worthy only of extermination.
All this is to say that words count. They mean something. It is for this reason that the Jewish tradition teaches us that the power of the tongue to injure is so great that it is locked behind two doors – our teeth and our lips. At the very least, we need to think twice before we speak.
Sadly, we are reminded on an almost daily basis how words can impact our lives. In the United States, Americans are peppered with hateful words targeting women, minorities, political opponents, law-enforcement officers and so many others by, of all people, their elected head of state, President Donald Trump.
Trump’s abuse is tantamount to bullying and sadly provides permission for bigots, misogynists and racists to use the power of words on social media and elsewhere to bully others. It’s shameful.
Words are also used on the extreme left, especially when it comes to anti-Semitism. Jews should be natural allies in the fight for human rights and the battle against racism. Yet we are often targeted by hateful words and accused of being “Zionists” (suggesting that Zionism itself is racist, which I totally reject), and are therefore unwelcome in the struggle against hate.
Israel is likened to a Nazi state, an evil use of words that puts many progressive Zionists into a position of defending their views against this horrible slur.
Indeed, Nazi-like analogies conjure up an image of an evil so great that the object of the attack cannot help but be demonized.
One may be rightly critical of some Israeli policies and fight hard against the occupation of Palestinian lands. Yet how much more difficult is it to do so while combating those whose aim is not simply to criticize Israel, but to invoke poison against Jews and the Jewish state?
There can be no doubt that swastikas scrawled on synagogue walls and the sight of neo-Nazis marching in the streets, as we saw last year in Charlottesville, Va., have a huge impact on our community. But when that is coupled with hateful words, the pain and fear is multiplied. Remember those same Nazis screaming, “Jews will not replace us”?
Our schools are our first line of defence against hateful words. I am grateful to the YRDSB for recognizing this need and being a leader in fighting anti-Semitism.