By most accounts, 2017 has been a miserable year. The turmoil of U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency, the surge in white supremacist aggression and the torrent of sexual assault allegations against powerful men have made this year’s big news stories particularly upsetting.
While political views within the Canadian Jewish community are diverse, most would surely agree that the increased visibility of white supremacists in North America and the upward trend in reported hate crimes in Canada are cause for alarm.
As the year wraps up, Canadian Jewish community leaders and newsmakers weighed in on their perceptions of the times in which we live and how this year has impacted their constituents.
“This has been the worst year on record, by any indicator,” said Warren Kinsella, a Toronto author, lawyer and political consultant. Kinsella and his wife have been in the news lately for launching a criminal complaint against the editor and publisher of the virulently racist, homophobic and misogynistic Toronto publication, Your Ward News. Kinsella isn’t Jewish, but much of his writing – like his 1994 book Web of Hate: Inside Canada’s Far Right Network – examines neo-Nazi activity in Canada.
The uptick in white supremacism is real, he insists, not mere perception. He referred to a Statistics Canada report, which was released at the end of November, saying that police across the country reported 1,409 hate crimes in 2016, almost 50 more than had occurred the previous year. Kinsella said these statistics “preceded Trump, but also anticipated him.” And although we don’t yet have data for 2017, many worry that in the current political climate, the upward trend in hate crimes has continued.
While the far right has gained less of a foothold in Canada than in the U.S. and the U.K., in 30 years of tracking this country’s neo-Nazis, Kinsella said that he has “never seen them as openly anti-Semitic as they are right now.”
Kinsella believes that white supremacists like James Sears and Lawrence St. Germaine – the men behind Your Ward News, who, on Nov. 15, were charged with the wilful promotion of hatred against Jews and women – are bolstered by seeing Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, an avowed member of the so-called alt-right, in the upper echelons of power.
“These guys were always these losers scratching at the door, trying to get in,” Kinsella said. “Well, they’ve gotten in. Bannon said he doesn’t want his kids going to school with Jews. He’s a white supremacist. We have to acknowledge and not minimize that.… Even in the days of (Canadian Holocaust deniers) Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra, these guys never went as far as some of the stuff people are saying now.”
In May, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) worked with a coalition of other ethnic and religious groups to help pass a private member’s bill in Parliament that broadened the scope of Canada’s anti-hate laws. Bill C-305 extended hate crime penalties to acts committed against schools, day care centres, community centres, cultural facilities and seniors’ residences that are associated with minority groups (previously, the legislation only covered cemeteries and places of worship).
CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel put out a statement emphasizing what he called the “shifting threats and challenges” that Canadian Jews face, in regards to anti-Semitism and building support for Israel. He said that CIJA has been developing tools to help the community speak out against anti-Semitism, such as providing “rapid information on events” and “online campaigns to mobilize the community en masse.”
He concluded by saying that, “I’m particularly pleased that we had some success in 2017 in reaching out to other communal agencies … on specific issues emerging on campus, particularly in fighting anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Jordan Helfman is the assistant rabbi at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He said the effect of a tough political year is evident “on people’s faces when they come into shul.”
“We’re all exposed to the news and I think the role of synagogue is a place where we can have hard conversations and support one another,” he said. Morning minyan goers typically chat about troubling news items that broke the night before.
In the wake of this summer’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Rabbi Helfman said his congregants talked about whether the blatant anti-Semitism seen on the streets there could conceivably happen in Canada. More recently, conversations have taken place regarding “what are the boundaries of sexual assault.”
Holy Blossom has deliberately shifted its adult education program offerings, which are run by Rabbi Michael Satz, to engage more with the issues of the day. Recent course topics have included “Middle East Politics in the Age of Trump” and “The Fight against Fake News with (journalist) Steve Paikin.”
Rabbi Helfman said he’s spoken to a number of his fellow rabbis – many of whom are, like him, from the United States – who’ve been rattled by the news coming out of the U.S.
“It’s been shocking seeing images of people standing outside a (Charlottesville) shul with semi-automatic weapons,” he said. “Seeing a president who admits to sexual harassment, if not more.”
When the sexual assault and harassment allegations against prominent men like movie producer Harvey Weinstein, talk show host Charlie Rose and actor Louis C.K. surfaced, the rabbi gave a sermon about the #MeToo social media campaign, which has been used to demonstrate the ubiquity of misogyny and sexual misconduct in society.
“I thought it was important to have a conversation not only about what’s happening in the general world, but in our own community,” he said (his sermon made reference to female rabbis who have been harassed by their congregants).
“Many in our community aren’t on social media all the time, so they may not know the bar has shifted (with regard to societal norms) and that they need to act accordingly.”
Ben Murane is the executive director of the New Israel Fund of Canada, a Toronto-based organization that supports social justice causes in Israel.
From his perspective, this past year has shown that democratic freedoms can’t be taken for granted – in Canada, the U.S. or Israel.
In all three countries – though to a lesser extent in Canada – people are being compelled to fight “a resurgence of politicians and groups that are opposed to democratic principles, to checks on executive power, to a free media and the notion of equality and human rights for everyone,” he said.
In the face of this, Murane said that it’s been heartening to see democratic values upheld by activists and the people in civil society who are willing to fight for them. “That’s true,” he said, “for the #MeToo campaign, for (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu failing to pass laws silencing its critics, for the protests against Trump’s travel bans – all of these are notable victories.”
The surge in white supremacy and anti-Semitism around the world has been a wake-up call for young Jews, he said. While anti-Semitism can be seen on both the political right and the left in Canada, he believes “we’re seeing that it’s possibly more dangerous coming from (politicians and groups) on the right than from kids on (university) campuses on the left.”
He stressed that, “What’s best for Jews is a strong, healthy, democratic society.”
Rabbi Yisroel Bernath – the spiritual director at Montreal’s Chabad of NDG, the Jewish chaplain at Concordia University and a columnist for The CJN – tries not to opine about politics to his constituents, who are both secular and Orthodox. When people in his community turn to him with concerns about “the craziness” of the current political moment, he said he counsels them to remember that, “We can’t control what people do, but we can control our response.… If (the goings on) affect us, it may be a wake-up call to add more goodness, more mitzvot and good deeds to the world.”
While hesitant to generalize about the Orthodox community’s feelings toward the American president, Rabbi Bernath said that Trump’s Dec. 6 speech recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was “a long time coming … it’s been in our prayers for centuries.”
The majority of Winnipeg Jews are in a state of shock over Trump’s election and his presidency, said Rabbi Alan Green, of the city’s Conservative Shaarey Zedek synagogue.
In September, members of the Jewish community joined hundreds of other Winnipeggers to demonstrate against a scheduled anti-immigration rally that didn’t end up materializing.
“A lot of Jews were in attendance. There were groups there that aren’t normally fond of Israel, but all of us took a stand together against the far right white nationalists. It was very heartening to see,” Rabbi Green recounted.
He recently addressed the spate of high-profile sexual assault allegations in a sermon.
“It’s certainly well past time these crimes against women be paid attention to. Women have been suffering in silence for centuries. There’s a real sea change happening in relations between men and women,” he said.
With much of the public narrative focused on immigration, Rabbi Helfman said it’s been impressive to see members of his congregation sponsoring Syrian and Yazidi refugees. But Rabbi Helfman still feels guilty at times for living in a country that feels comparatively safer than the one he was born in.
“A lot of my rabbinic colleagues back home are on the front lines fighting (issues of white supremacy and racism),” he said. “In Canada, we’re spectating. We’re dealing with how people here feel about what’s going on, but not how people are actively affected by it.”