The recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the country has Jewish leaders and hate crime experts contemplating whether the divisive rhetoric stemming from the recent U.S. presidential election is partly responsible, and they’re cautioning members of the community to be extra vigilant.
This month, Ottawa-area police have been called to investigate at least seven incidents in which institutions were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
• On Nov. 7, Bridlewood Community Elementary School in Kanata was defaced with a swastika and the Ku Klux Klan acronym “KKK” was spray-painted on the school’s brick walls.
• The following weekend, Kehillat Beth Israel congregation was also spray-painted with swastikas, but its leaders only publicized the incident after further attacks came to light.
• Rabbi Anna Maranta, leader of the Glebe Minyan in Ottawa, told The CJN that when she woke up in the middle of the night, at around 2:45 a.m., on Nov. 15, she noticed that something was scrawled on the glass window of the door to her home on Powell Avenue, where she holds services. A swastika and the word “kike” were spray-painted in red on her door.
• Congregation Machzikei Hadas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Idan Scher released a statement Nov. 17 after the shul was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti, which including numerous swastikas and the words “kill kikes” and “save the white race.”
“We will not be intimated by this cowardly act. This act will not impact the services and programs offered at the shul. This morning services continued without interruption and we will continue stronger and more unified than ever,” Rabbi Scher wrote.
The attacks have not been limited to Ottawa.
• In Montreal last week, a swastika was removed from the outside of a restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard that offers “Jewish and French pastries.”
• On Nov. 16, Toronto police responded to a call at David Hornell Junior School in Etobicoke. The phrase, “It’s the Jews” had been scrawled several times on the school’s brick walls in blue and red paint.
• In Burlington, a community member reported that swastikas and “KKK” were scrawled inside a men’s public washroom, reported Amanda Hohmann, national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League For Human Rights.
Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, on Nov. 18, the front doors of a church led by a black pastor were discovered to have been spray-painted with two swastikas, along with the word “niggers,” and the numbers 14 and 88 – slogans associated with the white supremacist movement.
The same day, the front doors of the Ottawa Muslim Association building were found spray-painted with the words “F–k Allah,” “Go home,” “666,” and a swastika.
Following a similar attack on Ottawa’s Solway Jewish Community Centre, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau confirmed Nov. 19 that an arrest had been made. The announcement came at a solidarity event and prayer service Shabbat morning at Machzikei Hadas, attended by more than 600 people, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.
The teen, who can’t be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, appeared in court Nov. 19 and was indicted on several charges, including uttering threats and mischief to religious buildings.
Andrea Freedman, president and CEO Jewish Federation of Ottawa, thanked Ottawa police, saying they “made this investigation a top priority and it was their dedication to increasing patrols at religious institutions that led directly to this arrest.”
Rabbi Maranta was quick to connect the incident at her home to the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
“The fact that the president-elect has been able to campaign on a message of hate and not be censored… has emboldened people who hold these beliefs to act more in a public way,” she said.
Bernie Farber, a hate crimes expert from his time as head of the former Canadian Jewish Congress, agrees that while Canada has never been free of racism and bigotry, Trump’s election gave way to a permissiveness “that allows racists and bigots to pop their head out of the garbage can, take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, let’s go at it.’ That’s new. And that’s something to be concerned about. We have to be actually very concerned about it.”
Farber said racist incidents tend to rise and fall based in part on the state of the leadership of the extreme right.
“There was a time in the ‘90s when it reached its zenith and it collapsed. And it really remained collapsed for the most part for the last 20 years. We saw little blips now and again. There would be the odd synagogue or mosque that would be defaced, but in terms of anything severe or organized, it’s been moribund,” he said.
“The reason for alarm is that once you have a person like Donald Trump who is now going to be the president of the most important nation on Earth, speaking as he does, giving messages that Muslims and Mexicans and even to some extent Jews, are now fodder for racist expression, it is kind of open season.”
He said the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist has contributed to the divisive climate in North America.
“Steve Bannon is a white nationalist. He ran the alt-right Breitbart News. It’s an out-and-out racist news service. What should that tell us? We know what it tells us and what it tells the Klan in the States. They’re planning a victory celebration in North Carolina for Trump. We know that the American Nazi Party released a statement congratulating Donald Trump for appointing Bannon. All of this does not augur well.”
Terry Wilson, a hate crimes investigator based in London, Ont., and a former member of the British Columbia Hate Crime Team, said he believes a move to the political right is contributing to a rise in anti-Semitic and racist attitudes.
“I think the trend politically around the world, if you take examples like Brexit, like Mr. Trump being elected, that’s a move to the right wing, and it’s a move to legitimize certain aspects of the right wing, now calling itself the alternative right. There is no question that the alternative right is white separatist, white nationalists, white supremacists. That is what they are,” Wilson said.
“I’m not saying Mr. Trump is a white supremacist, but the movement to the right creates a wake in the water, and it legitimizes and justifies actions by racists to act proactively against minority groups.”
Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said there is no evidence that connects the recent incidents in Canada to the election of Donald Trump.
“But it is a troubling reality that anti-Semitism, the world’s oldest hatred, persists. Thankfully, broader Canadian society overwhelmingly rejects anti-Semitism and considers it to be at odds with Canadian values, and our government and law enforcement respond to anti-Semitism quickly and with determination,” he said.
Hohmann, who has been working with B’nai Brith for two years, was also reluctant to connect the recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism to Trump’s election.
“It does not behoove us to try to draw some remarkable connection here. I don’t think it’s good for the community to start fanning the flames, saying that this is the new reality we’re going to live in,” Hohmann said.
“I’ve been vocal in the past few days trying to dispel this idea that it is because of Trump,” she said last week as reports of the attacks in Ottawa began to surface.
“I would make the argument that the same thing would have happened if Hillary [Clinton] had been elected, just because it is a world event.”
Hohmann explained that there tends to be an uptick in racist and anti-Semitic incidents any time there is a major world event.
“There was an uptick when there was Operation Protective Edge in Israel. There was an uptick every time there was a terrorism attack anywhere in the world. There is an uptick any time there is discussion of race and anti-Semitism and nationalism – any time that’s in the media, there tends to be an uptick in events here in Canada,” she said.
She said it’s too early to make statements about whether there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since Trump’s victory, because B’nai Brith is still awaiting statistics from outside sources such as police, synagogues, and campus groups.
“What I can say is that even with the data that we have on file right now, I’d suggest that we’re on track for an increase over last year – probably not a dramatic one overall – but I definitely expect to see a dramatic increase in vandalism numbers. I should point out though that last year was a record low for vandalism, so exceeding last year’s vandalism numbers doesn’t necessarily indicate that it’s skyrocketing. I’d suggest that it’s falling back in line with the five-year trend.”
According to B’nai Brith’s 2015 audit of anti-Semitic incidents, while online harassment has been steadily increasing over the past five years, last year, vandalism declined to its lowest point in 15 years, at 136 incidents, compared to 388 in 2013 and 238 in 2014. Overall, 2014 was the worst for anti-Semitic acts over the past five years, which B’nai Brith attributed to the Israel-Gaza conflict that year.
While Hohmann believes that white nationalism in Canada is on the rise, Farber said the good news is that Canadian neo-Nazis don’t seem to be organized.
“But just because there isn’t an organized movement, doesn’t mean we don’t have reason for alarm,” Farber added. “I’m not sanguine about the prospects that things are going to die down. I fear that they are actually going to pick up.”
Wilson said whether or not this recent spike in anti-Semitic events levels off, it would be unwise for the community to passively wait for that to happen.
“By waiting for it to level off naturally and to subside, we’ve actually legitimized the haters’ actions. It makes it easier for them to do it in the future and maybe escalate that action. We need to get a hold on these small acts because they grow,” Wilson said.
Hohmann agreed, adding that it’s important that people don’t dismiss these as “one-off” incidents.
“Because [Jews] are one of the easiest, most obvious targets, I think our community would do well to push back and not let it off our radar when this particular spate of incidents calm down.”
She suggested pushing lawmakers to follow through and lay hate crimes charges and not to become complacent.
“We don’t need to be alarmist, and we don’t need to be scared, but we need to be realistic about it and be vigilant in solving it before it gets out of hand.”
Farber said there is a need to focus on building coalitions.
“[Jewish and political leaders need] to stand shoulder to shoulder – forgetting our political differences to a certain extent – and concentrate on finding ways to engage each other civilly and to offer defence and protection to those who become victims of racism and xenophobia,” Farber said.
“I think it’s time to get back on the anti-racist bandwagon. I think we have to work with our natural partners – those in the Afro-Canadian community, those in the South Asian community, those in the Muslim community. In the United States… there was an announcement that the American Jewish Committee will join forces with the Islamic Society of North America. They are forming a coalition [the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Committee], basically to watch each others’ backs.”
The Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims released a statement that said, “Racism has found a new champion and the effects are being seen in Canada…Trump’s victory has given rise to the forces of hate and bigotry in Canadian politics sugar coated as ‘tests’ for Canadian values. Many Muslims and Jews share a concern about support for Trump-like views espoused by Kelly Leitch, a leadership contender for the federal Conservative party.
“This is not the time to ignore the blight of racism. Nobody knows better than the Jewish community how normalizing hatred and targeting particular racial or religious groups can deteriorate into unthinkable consequences, including the erosion of civil liberties.”
Friends of Simon Weisenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies president and CEO Avi Benlolo said education is key.
“I believe education plays a critical role in addressing anti-Jewish hate and, indeed, all forms of racism,” Benlolo said
“This upsurge in anti-Semitism is an ongoing phenomenon that I have been working to address my entire professional life, and I have found the best method for inoculating young people against intolerance and anti-Semitism is by teaching them about the tragic consequences of hate, and of the need for understanding, compassion, respect for diversity and inclusion, and an appreciation of Canadian freedoms and democracy.”
Wilson advised targeted communities to utilize the trained professionals at their disposal. “These types of activities need to get reported. At the end of the day, report it to the police, because the offenders need to be held accountable, and the victims of these hate crimes need to have the appropriate services available to them,” he said.
Koffler Fogel said the Jewish community’s security is CIJA’s top priority.
“CIJA has a national security team which offers free expertise and resources to community institutions that have security questions or concerns, including, where warranted, on-site audits and support,” he said.
“All Jewish community institutions should ensure they have effective systems and procedures in place to protect their premises, and that staff and volunteers are trained and regularly reminded of the importance of following security protocols. Every member of our community should be vigilant, and if they see something, they should say something.”