I was warmly welcomed by Ryerson University’s President Mohamed Lachemi who introduced me to the university’s new provost and Vice President Academic, Michael Benarroch. Benarroch was dean of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business and comes with an impressive record of accomplishment, including receipt in 2009 of the Shem Tov Award for service to the community by the Jewish Foundation of Winnipeg. We discussed many issues concerning inclusion, diversity, free speech, antisemitism and racism, the boycott campaigns and the far-ranging social challenges leaders of institutions are consumed by today. In all, the university has certainly made headway in the last number of months, and while few guarantees exist and challenges lurk on the horizon, the university is being steered by two well-meaning leaders, including its Chancellor, Lawrence Bloomberg.
On the heels of this meeting was a strong letter against antisemitism delivered to our offices from Minister Melanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage. Responding to our request that Canada adopt the working definition of antisemitism pronounced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the Minister enthusiastically expressed the government’s support for the IHRA working definition. A portion of Minister Joly’s letter reads: “Canada has been a full member of the IHRA, and served as its Chair from March 2013 to February 2014. Canada strongly supports the working definition of antisemitism and the illustrative examples that were adopted by consensus in May 2016.”
In light of rising antisemitism, including this week’s unparalleled antisemitic attacks in multiple public spaces coast to coast, the Canadian government’s reinforcement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is critical, if not imperative. Still, the “white power” and “KKK” graffiti found in Ontario parks this week coupled with “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) graffiti in a Quebec park is cause for concern for all who believe in the fight against racism, intolerance and hate.
Earlier this week, I found myself walking through Yorkdale’s Holt Renfrew store upon receiving reports of a clothing line called Miu Miu having a yellow star sewn onto some of its clothing on the upper left. Not dissimilar to the yellow star the Nazis made Jews wear to identify themselves, sure enough, there it was on a pretty little dress sitting on the rack. After my complaint to the Manager followed by our organization’s complaint to Holt’s head office, the company pulled the product from its stores. In a statement to one of our board members, Miu Miu said, “It was not Miu Miu’s intent in any way to make any political or religious statement, and we apologize for any offence that may have been taken. Kindly note that effective immediately these items will be removed from the collection.”
That is why we cannot sit on our laurels. This week, we are launching a petition calling upon Ontario’s Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, to forcefully respond to incidents of hate and intolerance all across Ontario. Since hate crime and hate speech charges require crown consent, it rests with the AG’s office to respond to community and police concerns, particularly with respect to the annual hate rally called “Al Quds Day” and the distribution of hate materials like “Your Ward News” and even hateful websites. As a society, we cannot be silent. It is our duty and obligation to speak out against hate and intolerance.
And with this in mind, this week also brought me to the offices of Ontario’s NDP party executive to open a channel of communication and to express concerns. The executive was receptive and demonstrated a willingness to speak openly – particularly as it related to antisemitism and anti-racism. Indeed, our universal championship of human rights through our programs like Tour for Humanity, Freedom Day, Compassion to Action, Speakers Idol and others demonstrate our shared enthusiasm for building a respectful and compassionate society.
This too was my message yesterday at York University, as a presenter at a conference for the Faculty of Education. My topic, “Ever Again” focused on the reoccurrence of antisemitism throughout the ages and in Canada. The diverse and to-be educators in the room learned about the length of Jewish history in Canada and the current rising tide of antisemitism – even on university campuses themselves.
Taking action and building bridges should be our most important mechanism for repair of the world. A willingness to have tough discussions even in the ‘lion’s den’ is a paramount motivation for me and for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.