In this post-Charlottesville period of heightened awareness and vulnerability, it is critical that Jewish communal organizations distinguish between episodes of anti-Semitism that pose real threats, and those that spring from ignorance. In all cases, our reaction must consider intent, impact, and proportionality.
Several recent incidents illustrate the spectrum of circumstances and the importance of nuanced, strategic and thoughtful response.
Last month, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), along with other organizations, applauded the decision to charge Sheikh Muhammad bin Musa Al Nasr with the wilful promotion of hatred, following a Montreal sermon in which he was videotaped saying that Jews are “the most evil of mankind.” He also quoted from a religious text that states: “Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me – come and kill him!”
Few would argue that this was an incident requiring swift and decisive action on the part of the organized Jewish community. And the condemnation and call to action was unanimous and immediate.
This is not an isolated case, and it is important that we continue to demand that authorities enforce Canadian laws and defend our values. But not every incident requires the same response. Community safety must guide us and be our primary concern.
Over the last weeks, CIJA has been alerted to racist graffiti in Winnipeg, Halifax, and most recently, in playgrounds in Montreal and Toronto. The Toronto graffiti, lauding the Ku Klux Klan and equating Zionism with Nazism, was properly denounced in social and mainstream media. We are grateful that local police are investigating.
Without minimizing the event, it is important to note that no one will be immediately safer because there was an outcry about a slide in a park that was defaced. At most, public attention to such incidents can cumulatively help drive the public policy process, supporting arguments for expanded public funding for community security infrastructure and education.
Another category of incident deserves a different approach. Two cases come to mind. The first involved the marketing of a designer dress bearing an unfortunate and highly evocative five-pointed yellow star.
Alerted discreetly to the issue, the store chose to voluntarily and swiftly remove the problematic merchandise. Indeed, both the store and the designer immediately acknowledged the offensive “trigger” of the yellow star. This action was taken before the issue became public; there was thus no compelling advocacy rationale to publicize the incident and provoke anger and anxiety in our community.
‘Our research has shown that anti-Semitism is the number one concern among Jewish Canadians’
A second case involved the discovery that an outdoor park in rural Quebec, featuring a collection of anchors, included two early 20th century vintage naval anchors bearing a swastika. Decades after the anchors’ manufacture, the swastika became – for once and always – indelibly associated with the Nazi regime and everything associated with it, especially the Holocaust. But at the time this anchor was manufactured, the symbol did not have such a meaning. Adding to the confusion was a plaque misidentifying the anchor as being associated with Nazism.
In this case, CIJA worked proactively with the city administration to replace the plaque with one that accurately described the anchor and referenced the vile associations subsequently attached to the swastika. This educational material helps increase Holocaust awareness in a community that has limited contact with the Jewish community.
This thoughtful discussion was made far more difficult when a sole individual, motivated by a noble and strong personal commitment to effacing anti-Semitic graffiti, chose to physically remove the swastika from the anchor.
Why are such over-reactions problematic? And why are they so difficult to discourage?
First, we must gain and retain the attention of our fellow-citizens and public authorities. We therefore need to differentiate between serious cases that require intervention and those that are offensive annoyances. When we treat all incidents with equal outrage, we act against our community’s interests.
Second, we need to remain aware and alert to real threats. Continually pressing the button of fear makes people less attentive, rather than more so. Make no mistake: our synagogues and schools are monitored and guarded because we have real and justified concerns about the threat of violence from the Islamists on one side and neo-Nazis on the other. Awareness and vigilance are essential to our protection; but relentless and indiscriminate messaging about minor incidents makes maintaining vigilance harder, not easier.
Why do Jewish organizations fall into this trap? Why has the reporting of anti-Semitic incidents become a branding exercise, rather than the serious public safety matter it ought to be?
Our research has shown that anti-Semitism is the number-one concern among Jewish Canadians. As Jews, we feel a strong moral obligation to “out” anti-Semitism and condemn it. Organizations, including CIJA, may fear that if they are seen to be too “soft” they will lose out in membership and support.
We have a serious task ahead of us. It is imperative that we keep the public authorities who are charged with our protection focused on real threats to Jewish safety, chief among them anti-Semitic hatred and calls to violence against Jews.
To achieve this, we must govern ourselves accordingly.
David J. Cape is chair of the board of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.