In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, there have been many heart-warming gestures of solidarity with the Jewish community – too many to count. Across the United States, fair-minded and reasonable people of all political stripes have voiced their support, vowing that they will not stand for anti-Semitism in their midst. Many faith communities have also shown particular sensitivity.
Those sentiments were echoed at memorial services across Canada last week. On the subway up to Mel Lastman Square, where the Toronto vigil was held Monday night, my wife and I met a soft-spoken lady who took an interest in our kids. As we shmoozed, she casually asked where we were headed with two little children so late in the evening. “I’m sure it’s not the same place I’m going,” she added. After my wife confirmed that, in fact, we were destined for the same location, she stated in all seriousness: “I think everyone who can stand on two feet should be there tonight.” It certainly seemed as though many Torontonians felt the same. Thousands braved the cold to be in attendance. And yes, it was comforting.
But this is also a time to ask uncomfortable questions, because the gestures of sympathy are ultimately just gestures, and in the grander scheme, they are not enough – nowhere near it. It is hard to shake the fear that all the promises of unity after Pittsburgh may not amount to anything real – or worse, that this tragedy will, in short order, be diminished to nothing more than a political talking point, or even a convenient opportunity for anti-Semites of one political persuasion to accuse the anti-Semites on the other side of being the real and only bad actors. When we see that happening, as we already are, warning bells begin to ring. The politicization of anti-Semitism is not to our benefit.
How might we effectively transition gestures of fraternity into a real movement that transcends politics? Starting this week, Canada will provide a test case. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offers an official apology for Canada’s ignominious role in the MS St. Louis incident – turning away a ship full of refugees from Europe, many of whom would meet their fate at the hands of the Nazis – the big question is how, or if, his words will translate into action.
What might that look like? To begin, increasing federal security subsidies to synagogues and Jewish community centres would be a welcome initiative. With the terror in Pittsburgh front of mind, our communal hubs are facing the reality of having to pay for enhanced security services (and it’s an especially onerous project for smaller houses of worship). Next, our government could begin to put significant pressure on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, who seemingly tolerate anti-Semitism on their platforms – not to mention the niche online dives that almost exclusively cater to this sort of hateful invective. There’s a lot more, of course, but those are as good a place as any to start.
This week, as we continue to mourn the dead in Pittsburgh, our eyes also turn to Ottawa. We hope that its gesture of support will be just the beginning.
For more in our St. Louis apology series, please click here.