Antisemitism has been called “the oldest hatred” and tragically, in this era of us-versus-them, divide-and-conquer political strategy, it is seeing a virulent resurgence. We have not yet learned the hard lesson that hate is a desperation strategy that produces only unspeakable consequences; the lessons of the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the mass atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and Syria to name a few.
Hatred will always lose because it is divisive and destructive. But it won’t lose without a fight, and the real opponent is ignorance. As the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Now we find ourselves with an historically challenged US president lauding “very fine people” among torch-wielding, swastika-adorned, white supremacist Nazis, who were chanting “Jews will not replace us”. We see influential media outlets promoting racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories and illegitimate clichés to vilify and dehumanize. They are eerie echoes of the inflammatory broadcasts by Rwandan Hutus demonizing that country’s Tutsi population, and the unspeakable genocidal horrors that followed. This divisive and hateful environment is a significant danger to the Jewish community, BIPOC community, and all those groups considered as “others” by the white supremacists who wish to bring America back to some delusional picture of the good old days.
We don’t have to look that far away to see the death and suffering Antisemitism produces. Less than two years ago, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was devastated by a white supremacist who rampaged through a synagogue, murdering 11 worshippers.
Last year, the year following the horrifying Pittsburgh attack, there was a 56 per cent increase in antisemitic assaults in the U.S.
As recently as two weeks ago, the University of Delaware’s Chabad house was intentionally burned to the ground. On August 29, a deeply disturbing video captured two religious Jewish men being intentionally run into by a car in Brooklyn. It is just the tip of the iceberg.
My Canadian homeland, known around the world as a kinder, gentler place, is not immune. Toronto’s Jewish community, a tiny fraction of one of the world’s most proudly diverse cities, was the most frequently targeted group for hate crime last year. Nearly one third of a growing number of hate crimes in Toronto were aimed at Jews. We have seen this movie before and we must not be condemned to watch it play out again.
How then do we reverse this hateful trend? The right response is to combat it at every turn; to let no lie stand; to educate; to promote interfaith and inter-race dialogue; to legislate; to promote and engage in intersectionality – the point of shared interest among all marginalized peoples in equal justice and decency for all. To make this real, we must all be willing to stand up and speak out against Antisemitism and all forms of racism and hate. Unfortunately, we live in complicated times. Many are afraid to speak out when it comes to Antisemitism. They fear they will be castigated by the roiling masses; they will be misunderstood; or they will be accused of distracting from other important causes.
There are many, including in the Jewish community, who passionately condemn racial injustice and unequivocally stand with the Black Lives Matter push for racial justice and systemic change – as we must – but are hesitant to speak out against recent antisemitic tropes. They are reluctant to call out the same lies and conspiracy theories that paved the way to the gas chambers 80 years ago.
Many don’t understand the dangers and significance of the hateful lies that have been spewed against the Jewish community throughout history. As the Supreme Court of Canada once declared in a seminal decision upholding the constitutional validity of hate speech laws, “The Holocaust didn’t begin with the gas chambers, it began with words. These are the chilling facts of history.”
Respecting the value of a human life is not a zero-sum game. I feel very strongly that the struggle for Black lives deserves singular attention, focus and urgency, and I am committed to doing everything I can to support this struggle for systemic change. It is long past time that all people behave in a way that demonstrates Black lives matter as much as any lives. Full stop. Equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, and equal security is what those in the Black community deserve, and they deserve it now. It is long overdue.
The world has reacted with outrage and mass protest to the gut-wrenching, cruel murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. More recently we saw the shocking video of Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back by a police officer. The list of horrific crimes against the Black community in this year alone is almost unspeakable, but these tragedies will not deter those of us fighting against these injustices; it will only embolden us, as the NBA players and league demonstrated through their recent inspiring protests and actions.
White supremacists have been emboldened and invigorated, virulent racism and antisemitism is on the rise, and this is a threat to us all. We must all stand together in the battle against hate. The safety and security of Jewish lives must be protected, as we fight together to protect the safety and security of all lives endangered by virulent hate. Treating people of all creeds, colours, countries, genders and sexual identities as fully entitled to all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of personhood is an imperative to any truly thriving society. It does not diminish anyone, in fact it strengthens us all.
Empathy is not a finite resource, and complacency is not an option.
The iconic civil rights leader John Lewis gave us our marching orders in a final essay published in the New York Times after his death. In that essay, he invoked Dr. King’s teaching that we are complicit when we tolerate injustice of any kind.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel shared a similar sentiment, vowing “… never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I believe that change is possible. The world has awakened to a renewed sense of urgency in the struggle against racial injustice. A sense that enough is enough. A door has opened. Let us reach out with our hearts and our hands to ensure all people can walk through that door, into a world where justice, equality and decency prevail.