This article originally appeared in National Newswatch.
By Ken Coates, November 14, 2023
I am ashamed. Ashamed of myself, of my country and for a world that continues to search for a moral core. The outpouring of anti-Jewish hatred that has continued unabated since Hamas’ barbaric attacks Israel a month ago has baffled and dismayed many people in this country while emboldening antisemitic voices in unprecedented ways.
Jewish communities in Canada and elsewhere have been warning the world for years about the steady rise of anti-Jewish sentiments and antisemitic attacks. In our deep complacency and sanctimoniousness, Canadians tut-tutted the concerns and assured ourselves that the warnings were over-wrought and the flare-ups would soon pass.
Jewish people around the world are paying for our tolerance of intolerance and our willingness to let Jewish people stand alone. Clearly, we learned little from our neglect of the anti-Jewish violence of the past and the gathering storm bearing down on Israel.
Over the past month, we have heard vile and disgusting statements from supporters of Hamas and like-minded organizations around the world. The vitriol shows up in the most unlikely of places. For instance, the online gaming community has given digital camouflage to anti-Jewish hatred, steeping thousands of young people (my own son among them) in these toxic sentiments.
And yet, in an era of “cancel culture”, when tolerance for comparatively mild infelicitous and unthoughtful comments generate widespread pearl-clutching and even state censorship, the most hateful comments in Canadian public spaces pass almost unchallenged, save mostly by Jews. This cone of silence has only made the community more isolated and vulnerable.
It seems we have learned nothing from the long history of anti-Semitism, which often goes underground for years only to rear its ugly head at times of crisis and conflict. We did not, as a nation and a government, respond to outbursts of Jewish hatred with the same vigour and determination that we marshal for discrimination and spite directed at other groups. We left it to Jewish people and organizations to express their outrage, limiting our interventions to clandestine nods of agreement.
The Israel/Palestine quandary has occupied generations of diplomats and government officials, producing more hot air than workable solutions. And the weakest and most marginalized of Palestinians have borne the brunt of this inaction.
Standing together with Jewish people against hate is consistent with defending the right of the state of Israel to exist and defend itself. This issue is now seen, by most all nations and leaders, as unassailable. But talking back to anti-Jewish outbursts and categorically rejecting calls for the elimination of Israel does not mean automatic support for Israel’s long-standing policies for the West Bank, Gaza and Palestine.
Many Palestinians live in unacceptable conditions and face intolerable constraints. The multi-generational traumas they’ve endured will have long-term impacts. While the Palestinians must reject and distance themselves from the Hamas-style extremism if they want international support, there will also be no lasting peace in the Middle East until Palestinians gain greater control over their lives in a region that accepts the permanent presence of both Palestine and the state of Israel. This may be a bridge too far for Hamas, Iran, and their hate-filled supporters, but the global community will never rally to the Palestinian cause until Israel’s right to exist is publicly recognized by the community’s leadership.
How should Canada react to this situation? The country has been slow off the mark, following rather than leading the international response. Given the woeful state of our global standing and military preparedness, Canadians have learned to expect nothing substantial from our government in the international arena. But this does not mean that we should be standing silent.
Canada has hate-speech laws for a reason. Enforce them. Prosecute people and organization who incite anti-Jewish violence and who utter vile antisemitic epithets. Protesting Israel’s policies in Gaza and West Bank is not hate speech. Calling publicly for death to the Jews is.
The country also needs to shine light on the strange digital communities that are as influential as the mainstream media, if not more so. If websites will not monitor and self-regulate the language on their comment boards, they should be publicly exposed, fined when appropriate, and shut down if all else fails. Pursue hate wherever it rears its ugly head. To do otherwise is to abandon vulnerable populations to a world a digital hate.
We must, individually and collectively, speak out and stand up against antisemitism and hatred in all forms. The platitudes of the past – the “never again” rhetoric of the post-Holocaust world – have been exposed as just that.
Speak up against anti-Jewish hatred. Reach out in friendship and solidarity to Jewish people, organizations, and synagogues. Make it clear that Canadians stand with them against hatred and antisemitic rhetoric. Doing so is not an endorsement of Israel’s Palestinian polices or an abandonment of the Palestinian people. Connect, too, with Palestinians and their groups that need and deserve attention and support –there are a very large number that eschew the vitriol and anti-Jewish hatred that has poisoned the air in Canada and abroad.
One can only be saddened that a complex, historical, religious, and geopolitical confrontation has been framed by simplistic, often ahistorical, and hate-filled commentary. We are distraught by the Hamas massacres in Israel and are terrified that the Israeli response will be equally destructive and traumatic, particularly for civilian populations in Gaza.
Canada and Canadians must make it clear that Jewish people, Israelis and Palestinians understand that we will not accept hate-filled speech and antisemitic diatribes. Over the past month, this country has embarrassed itself, primarily by leaving our Jewish friends and neighbours to stand alone, yet again. If we have learned anything from the past, it is that silence equals complicity and that failure to stand with vulnerable people leaves them to face blistering and hate-filled attacks on their own, to the detriment of us all.
Ken Coates is the director of Indigenous Affairs at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.