The last couple of weeks have been challenging for the Winnipeg Jewish community.
American-Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour was invited to speak at a panel discussion for the Social Planning Council’s centennial and the alleged hate crime perpetrated on BerMax Caffe was found by police to be the family’s own doing and the three were charged with public mischief several days later. Since then, the Caffe has been closed by the landlord who evicted the tenants for non-payment of rent.
While comments under news articles, and posts on social media, confirm fears that the BerMax episode will stoke antisemitic accusations and hostility toward the Jewish community, there is also reason to be optimistic. The people of Winnipeg seemed truly horrified that a business owner would be assaulted and her business vandalized with symbols of Nazism. I heard personally from many non-Jews who were concerned and shocked at this kind of attack happening in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg police took the crime very seriously and 25 officers spent over 1,000 hours on the case, including over the Easter weekend. The local media covered the attack with devoted attention daily, organizations in the Christian community were scheduling a vigil and others were setting up a go fund me account to help repair the restaurant.
Many people in the Jewish community feel embarrassed, understandably so, and many Jews are outraged that the owners of BerMax would misuse the serious problem of antisemitism to draw attention to themselves for whatever reason. The story has now made international news and unfortunately proves that hate crimes can indeed be false and staged events, however rare. The Jussie Smollett case in Chicago has put the subject of faked hate crimes on the public record and there are other examples as well.
So what about antisemitism? Is it growing? Is it something to be worried about? Well, I write this article after a 19 year old shot up a Chabad synagogue north of San Diego killing one woman and injuring three other people, including an eight year old girl. His manifesto explains his views, which are in line with Nazi antisemitism and reflect contemporary conspiracy theories circulating in Western countries about refugees and immigrants replacing the old Christian European majority, known as “the Great Replacement.”
Those eager to blame the US President will be disappointed: the young man despises Donald Trump as a “Zionist Jew-loving traitor.” It seems that the United States might expect more of these attacks as long as their currently dysfunctional political system and its politicians refuse to deal with the very real crisis at their southern border, which is being attributed to a Jewish conspiracy by those on the far-right. This is what the demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, meant when they were chanting “Jews will not replace us” in August 2017.
In 2018, there was a significant rise in antisemitic violence. In France, there was a 74% increase in antisemitic incidents (from 311 to 541), including the torture and murder of an 85 year old Holocaust survivor named Mireille Knoll. Germany has just reported a 10 year record high of 1,646 antisemitic acts in 2018, in which 43 people were wounded. In the UK, 1,652 antisemitic incidents were recorded with 123 classified as violent (the total number is a 16% increase from the previous year). Canada reports that 2018 was the third consecutive year in which record numbers were reached: 2,041 antisemitic incidents (11 violent acts; 221 acts of vandalism; and 1,809 acts of harassment). And, of course, the murder of 11 Jews (and wounding of six more) at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in American history (also perpetrated by a man who believed Jews were orchestrating “the Great Replacement”). Last year, the United States had a total of 1,879 incidents (1,066 acts of acts of harassment; 774 acts of vandalism; and 39 violent acts).
There is growing scholarly agreement that the main sources of antisemitic violence in the Western world today are on the far-right, the far-left, and within Islamic supremacist circles. Unfortunately, it takes an upsurge in physical violence against Jews for people to recognize the threatening nature of antisemitism. However, few people seem to be willing to connect the escalating rhetorical assault on Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state to this increase in physical violence.
That brings us back to Linda Sarsour. Fear on the part of members of the local Jewish community that Sarsour’s rhetoric would foment antisemitism in the city led them to organize a campaign to have her disinvited. It didn’t work; Sarsour spoke and is now celebrating her victory on social media — one of many in the last weeks. Apparently, however, she did not broach the subject of Israel and Palestine, or harangue about Zionism, at the event sponsored by the Social Planning Council. One wonders if she might have done so without the public pressure brought to bear on the sponsors and the United Way.
The general sentiment that Winnipeg should not play host to demagogues that are divisive and hateful toward a group of people is morally sound and good public policy, especially in a city supposedly devoted to the equal application of human and civil rights. However, suppressing speech that is not genocidal or inciteful of hatred against a group of people, as barred under the Canadian Charter, is not a solution to the problem and simply does not work in a democratic society. Peacefully protesting and making the community’s concerns known about the remarks made by this speaker (on a number of issues and directed toward a number of groups and individuals) is the legitimate right of Canadians and that was executed successfully by members of the Jewish community.
Perhaps now the Social Planning Council might research Sarsour’s remarks—particularly those about other women that even include threats of violence—and revisit the mistaken idea that Sarsour is a peaceful bridge-builder between different communities and a good advisor on “how to make the necessary societal and systemic changes needed to create a truly just society.” When you claim these kinds of progressive titles for someone they have to walk their talk. Generally, when you look at the great leaders of peace-making and bridge-building in history they are respected across the board by everyone. That is not the case with Linda Sarsour.
All in all, it was a challenging couple of weeks but not without victories and positive revelations. We ought to be grateful to live in a country like Canada and we should all work together to protect and preserve its freedoms, civility, and peacefulness.