He can go from speaking in a thoughtful, indoor voice, to a podium-smacking howl on a dime. A court has referred to him as a “right-wing provocateur,” while he describes himself as an “all-around troublemaker.” His Twitter profile shows him holding a bullhorn.
His headline-grabbing pronouncements on political correctness, climate change, immigration, Jews and Islam cause some to cringe in a did-he-really-say-that sort of way. Others cheer, ecstatic that finally, someone has the chutzpah to say what is on a lot of people’s minds.
He happily offends, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with gale-force rhetoric, always testing the limits of speech. Love him or hate him, we can all agree he’s a polarizing figure.
But is Ezra Levant good for the Jews? Does he appeal to the darker side of our psyche, or does he embolden Canadian Jews to speak out in a way that was once considered out of character?
Levant – a commentator, political agitator and the “commander” of the hard-right news website The Rebel – routinely invokes Judaism and anti-Semitism in his rhetoric.
In just one example, when Porter Airlines announced last summer that it was among several companies that pulled their advertising from The Rebel, the site launched a campaign at BoycottPorter.com, which accused the airline of “targeting Jewish businesses in Canada.”
Yet, when Gavin McInnes, a Rebel Media contributor, went on a number of anti-Jewish rants while on a trip to Israel last spring (“Jews are ruining the world with their lies and their money and their hooked-nose, bagel-eating faces”) and uploaded a video titled, “10 Things I Hate About Jews,” Levant defended him as “a bit of a Jew-lover” who was just being funny.
When protesters tried to shout down Levant’s talk at Ryerson University in Toronto, in which he compared the boycott movement against Israel to the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws, Levant leaped off the podium and confronted the students, yelling, “Don’t shut down the Jews,” and calling the demonstrators “paid anti-Semites” and “professional brown shirts.”
Perhaps his most high-profile tussle came after a 2010 column he wrote for the Sun newspaper chain, in which he accused U.S. financier George Soros of collaborating with the Nazis as a teenager in Hungary. Two weeks later, the chain issued an unqualified retraction and apology, saying that “there was no basis for the statements in the column and they should not have been made.”
Among other legal actions, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld an $80,000 libel judgment against Levant that was brought forward by Khurrum Awan, a lawyer who now lives in Saskatchewan. The court confirmed a lower court’s finding that Levant had defamed Awan in several blog posts, in which he called Awan an anti-Semite and a “serial liar.”
Despite all his very public entanglements, Levant is obviously hitting a chord with some. After the Sun News Network, which aired The Source with Ezra Levant, tanked in 2015, he took to the Internet and launched The Rebel, which today claims a healthy 860,000 subscribers on its main YouTube channel.
Levant likely lost at least some Jewish support last August, over The Rebel’s reporting of the “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding 19.
Covering the event was Rebel contributor Faith Goldy, who had earlier described members of the so-called alt-right as having “robust” and “well thought out ideas” about the “JQ” (Jewish question), among other things.
The outcry was huge. Goldy was fired and several contributors announced they were leaving The Rebel. Among them was National Post and CJN columnist Barbara Kay.
Kay said she had warned Levant that The Rebel’s growth was getting hard to manage and things might get out of hand. “You’re growing at a crazy rate,” Kay recalled telling him. “You can’t monitor it all. You could risk everything.”
Kay says that Levant has “no filter” and is “often angry,” but that he does advance age-old Jewish themes.
“One thing about him that is extremely Jewish is his sense of justice, fairness and rights,” Kay told The CJN. “He sees himself as a justice warrior. He’s the opposite of the social justice warriors (and) he thinks he’s fighting for real justice.” Kay thinks so, too.
Since Jews are often victims of injustice, Kay said that Levant “calls out BS of all kinds. He’s usually right in his righteousness. (But) it’s this lack of filter, lack of modulation in his approach that makes so many people uncomfortable.”
“He’s a motormouth but he’s not stupid. and there’s usually a kernel of truth in what he says.”
Kay said she’s sure that a lot of people wish Levant wasn’t Jewish. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I think Jews have a long tradition of being gadflies and of stirring the pot,” she said. It’s “mainly” Jews, she went on, who stand up to political correctness at universities. “Jews are very vocal and can be a very dramatic people.”
While Kay shares Levant’s concerns about radical Islam, “I don’t go around Muslim-bashing like he does.
“I cut Ezra slack because, yeah, he’s a loudmouth. He’s brazen. He’s abrasive. He has no first, or second, or third gear. He’s always in fourth gear,” Kay said.
“But he exposes some things that need to be exposed. And he keeps people’s feet to the fire on certain issues. Ezra can’t be fixed. He’s a motormouth, but he’s not stupid. And there’s usually a kernel of truth in what he says.”
Is Levant good for the Jews? “In a word: no,” said Karen Mock, a human rights consultant and president of JSpace, a left-leaning Israel advocacy group.
Not only does he “dilute” the charge of anti-Semitism by using it “recklessly,” he “tarnishes Israel by associating his reprehensible views with support for Israel,” said Mock. He also employs and has “found common cause with known anti-Semites, white supremacists and Nazi-sympathizers, while claiming that Jewish community leaders are traitors to the Jews. He brings lashon hara (malicious gossip) to new heights.”
Levant’s “diatribes” and “intimidation” tactics “are an embarrassment to most decent people in our community,” Mock said. “His blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric and his promotion of known anti-Muslim bigots foment hatred and undermines attempts by others to counter anti-Semitism and build positive relations with reputable Muslim groups.”
Mock believes that Levant’s “natural constituency (of) racists, bigots and anti-Semites” are simply using him and will ultimately reject him, because he makes a point of being Jewish. Meanwhile, she says that his views on immigration and Muslims “cause reputable leaders of the Jewish community to avoid him.”
“his blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric and his promotion of known anti-Muslim bigots foment hatred”
As Levant sees it, most of The Rebel’s work has nothing to do with the fact that he’s Jewish – most of his staff and viewers are non-Jewish. However, “I’m sure that subconsciously, the Jewish tradition of debate and criticism is echoed in our skeptical and dissident approach to news coverage,” he told The CJN in an email. “And the Jewish idea of tikkun olam is reflected in our activism, including our various charitable projects.”
On the issues of Israel, Islam and anti-Semitism, Levant says that “being Jewish has made me alert to the threats of jihad and of Islamification,” while the Jewish experience of persecution has made him interested in the persecution of Christians.
Asked whether he sees himself as a catalyst for debate, or a just troublemaker who’s out to disrupt the status quo, Levant replied: “Both. We know that disruption is good in technology. It is even more important in democracy and political-cultural debates, especially when a consensus is being imposed (under) duress – which is one of the main purposes of political correctness.”
“An enormous number of Canadians are uncomfortable with the establishment view on various subjects, like mass, unvetted Muslim migration, but they are pressured into accepting the conventional wisdom,” Levant went on. “Our system depends on loyal opposition. That’s us. It sure isn’t the state broadcaster.”
Levant believes The Rebel “is the most Zionist media organ in Canada, even more than The CJN. To criticize us as anti-Semitic is laughable.”
While he feels that, in general, Canadian Jews are pro-Israel, “that is too easily shaken when met by confident and relentless Islam – not terrorism, but the slow creep of sharia culture,” he said. “Because like all nice, Western, liberal people, we don’t want to seem rude. So rather than calling out the inherent misogyny in hijabs and niqabs, we smile and call it ‘diversity;’ instead of fighting for the separation of mosque and state, Jewish activist-lawyers are fighting for the Islamification of the public square.”
Levant thinks that Canadian Jews from Russia and Israel, and Sephardim, “are generally confident and clear-eyed, probably because they have not forgotten the risks our enemies pose, and they know that silence and appeasement do not work.”
As Kay sees things, Levant, like the Jewish Defense League, is filling a vacuum in Jewish advocacy.
“Jews have always played the soft game by ingratiating themselves with whoever is in power,” she explained. “Lobbying is great, but we’re living in an age when anti-Semites, taking the route of anti-Zionism, are playing hardball and getting away with it, expressing anti-Semitism and maintaining their nominal respectability. Softball doesn’t work very well in such circumstances.”
The void in advocacy she sees has created Jews “who are extremely angry that not enough is being done to combat anti-Semitism.”
One thing is certain: Levant can sure fire people up. “Imagine if I went on TV and spent nine minutes explaining why Jews are ‘a culture synonymous with swindlers,’ concluding that it’s ‘no wonder Jews are despised,’ ” stated Jesse Brown, publisher of the news website Canadaland, referring to Levant’s 2012 rant against the Roma (for which both he and Sun News apologized).
“Or what if, God forbid, an anti-Semitic terrorist opened fire in a Canadian synagogue and my website spread a rumour that the shooter was actually a radical Jew?” asked Brown, referring to last January’s Quebec City mosque attack, when The Rebel initially – falsely, it turned out – hinted that the attacker was a Muslim.
Brown, whom Levant once described as “about as Jewish as a ham sandwich,” went on: “If these ludicrous, hypothetical scenarios were to actually occur, I would be justifiably condemned by the Jewish community and, hopefully, by all Canadians. I would lose all credibility and lose my privilege of being a contributor to our public discourse.”
But, Brown said in an email, “these are things Ezra Levant has actually done. Of course he’s also amplified the speech of anti-Semites. He proudly published Gavin McInnes, who was caught on video blaming the Jews for the Treaty of Versailles and for the Holodomor (the famine forced on Ukraine). He similarly published Faith Goldy, a literal Nazi-sympathizer who yukked it up with neo-Nazis on The Daily Stormer podcast, joking with her hosts about Levant’s fondness for bacon, but only when it’s free!
“So you ask me, ‘Is Ezra Levant good for the Jews?’ Is the Pope Jewish?”
According to Frank Bialystok, a historian of the Canadian Jewish experience, the more accurate question should be: “Is Levant good or bad for Canadians?”
Asking whether he’s good for Jews “minimizes Canadian Jews and Levant himself. In the first instance, it isolates Jews from other Canadians. In the second, it places Levant as a spokesman for Jews, a position he does not proclaim.”
Levant is bad for Canadians because “he demeans Canadians (for) their religious beliefs (Muslims), ethnicity (Roma), political ideology (liberals, socialists, traditional conservatives) and social commitment (human rights),” Bialystok said. “Levant is all about Levant. The less spoken and written by him, or about him, the better it is for all Canadians.”
Mock agreed, saying that it’s best to ignore Levant. She wondered why The CJN “would want to give him any more attention than it would give to any marginal bigot and attention-hound.”
A less strident view was sounded by McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld, who said he “certainly” disagrees with most of Levant’s views.
“But when he expresses a public view, I assume – I would hope – he does so as an individual and not as a representative Jew, or as a leader of the Jewish community,” said Weinfeld. Increasing diversity in the Jewish community on a variety of issues, even when contentious, “has been, and is, a strength.”
What does Levant himself think about the central question?
“Those who would put it in terms of ‘is it good for the Jews?’ and who would answer in the negative are likely leftists who disagree with my conservative politics in general, who are using their vestigial Jewishness as a fig leaf for what is simply post-religious, post-modern, post-western leftism. It’s a white man’s version of a race card — when post-Jewish leftists claim to condemn conservatism ‘as a Jew.’ ”