Benjamin Rubin

Toronto Response to RG’s Email

Nighttime mob outside Toronto's Mt. Sinai hospital. Video screen capture by Benjamin Rubin

I loved Haim Rafael’s proposed “Land acknowledgement for Israel/Palestine/Judea” going back through 3,000 years of recorded history of diverse empires, each of which used conquest as a means for possession of the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. And Haim’s paragraphs-long land acknowledgement, done up in the style of the Canadian “Authorized Version” land acknowledgment, which we hear these days before every Toronto concert, play or public event, or at the end of each synagogue Shabbat service, really does bring home the hypocrisy of those living in Canada, on Native land, but who call the Jews, living in the Jewish state on the Biblical land of the Hebrews, the worst name you can call a white person: a colonial settler. Meanwhile, 39 million of us Canadians, whose ancestors had zero connection to British North America, are prosperously living on Native land, and inviting over each year 400,000 new colonial settlers – I mean immigrants, like we, or our parents, or our grandparents were. But these new immigrants are not Jewish colonial settlers; they are colonial settlers of a Mohammedan persuasion, or Hindus from India, or Chinese Confucians from the mainland.

To be honest, I welcomed Haim’s redirection away from the implication of RG’s short e-mail, which read as follows:

“I was fully supportive of an aggressive military response to Oct 7th massacre but at this point Israel needs to stop what has become a pointless military continuation of the conflict, negotiate a ceasefire and release of hostages and provide massive aid to Gaza. Continuing this and invasion of Rafah are unjustifiable and cruel. Every day that this continues further isolates Israel, Israelis and fosters antisemitism.  If I had family in Gaza I would be frantic.    RG”

I welcomed Haim’s redirection because RG’s e-mail speaks to the dark, sad, fearful, humiliating, frightening moment in Jewish history which many of us are personally experiencing. I myself feel as if, even in the bright winter sunshine of Toronto, where the bare trees are letting in the unfiltered sunlight, I am still walking around with a dark, dark cloud over my head.

So a part of me just wants to look away from RG’s e-mail, and carry on with my own pleasant existence, enjoying all the good fortune that life has given to me personally.

But I can’t. I must respond to what he is saying. Something deep inside my identity compels me to speak.

I inherited from my late mother an odd quirk, where I find myself agreeing with whatever was last said by a person who I like.  So part of me agrees with RG, that the perception among many in the world has become that Israel is simply killing innocent Palestinians, and that must stop.  But that would leave Hamas undefeated. And that means Hamas will have won, using its cruel, but demonstrably effective, war strategy of taking hundreds of hostages, of hiding all its soldiers in underground tunnels, and above all, leaving totally unprotected, and undeniably as human shields, the Palestinian civilian population precisely in order to maximize civilian casualties.

Hamas has developed for this age of instant communication a winning military strategy. Instead of sacrificing your fighters, you sacrifice your civilian population.  The more Palestinian civilians that are killed, the better it is for Hamas. Because all the civilian death and suffering is seen as the fault of Israel, and not of Hamas, who actually and knowingly brought it on their civilian population by their brutal video-recorded attack of October 7, premeditatively killing 1200 Israelis in a single day, raping, burning, kidnapping. A Cossack pogrom by Islamic fundamentalists sworn to Israel’s destruction. Sworn to intentional genocide of the Jews in the land of Israel, as opposed to the unintentional killing of thousands of Palestinians human shields in Israel’s war against Hamas, whose leaders and fighters are hidden in tunnels in Rafah.

It has often occurred to me, in a cynical response to the success of Hamas’ propaganda victory, and leaving aside that the number of deaths fails to distinguish between combatants and innocent civilians, how it can be that the “Gaza Health Ministry” can provide such exact numbers of dead, tallied daily, when the hospitals are not running, and the other Hamas ministries of Gaza cannot even distribute food aid. And yet the “Gaza Health Ministry” can precisely count the number of casualties. Within moments after an errant Palestinian Jihad missile hit the parking lot of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital on October 17, the “Gaza Health Ministry” claimed 471 were killed. The US Director of National Intelligence estimated between 100-300.  The Anglican diocese that manages the hospital reported 200 killed.

But that doesn’t really matter, because surely there are thousands of innocent Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli fire, and hundreds of thousands who are suffering horribly, thanks to Hamas’ war strategy of brutally attacking, killing, raping and then retreating back across the Gaza border into carefully prepared underground tunnels, to let the Palestinian civilian population suffer the consequences of the inevitable Israeli counterattack against Hamas. Precisely so that the civilian death and destruction will turn world opinion against Israel and compel it to spare Hamas (if not the Palestinian civilian population) the consequences of its October 7 attack.

Even so, I resonate with Gary’s anguished cry.  I agree that Israel’s reputation, and through it the reputation of the Jewish people, is suffering.  But if Hamas’ war strategy, to turn public opinion against Israel, prevents Israel from achieving its war aim of destroying Hamas, it would be a larger defeat than just fighting the terrorist organization that rules Gaza. Because the ultimate purpose of military might is not to fight your enemy in a war, but to deter your enemy from making war against you. And indeed in previous mini-wars, in which Hamas would break a ceasefire by sending barrages of missiles into civilian Israel, and Israel would respond with airstrikes, it seemed as if, when eventually Hamas would sue for a ceasefire, and Israel agreed, deterrence WAS working, at least intermittently. Because there were long stretches between these mini-wars when Hamas did not fire missiles into Israel. And Israel went on with its daily life, with its productive, culturally vibrant society, making unicorn start-ups and Netflix series and sending spacecraft to the moon.  Israel’s pre-October 7 approach seemed to deter its sworn enemies to the South, Hamas, and to the north, Hezbollah, even though both were backed by a messianic Shiite power, Iran, whose official policy is the elimination of the state of Israel.  True, Iran is racing ahead with its nuclear program, so that it can have not Gaza’s 12,000 Qassams, or Hezbollah’s 140,000 guided missiles, but honest-to-goodness nuclear missiles that can rain down final destruction on the Jewish state.  And that is indeed an existential threat.  But at least the imminent enemy, in Gaza and South Lebanon, seemed to have been deterred, most of the time.

But if RG’s ceasefire prescription is followed, then despite Israel’s successful ground assault, and despite the fact that Gaza is in shambles, its population displaced and starving, its infrastructure in ruins, Hamas will win simply by not being defeated. After a ceasefire, it will emerge from its tunnels in Rafah and continue its goal of the elimination of the Jewish state, its jihad to make Palestine free (of Jews) from the river to the sea. Hamas will have proven that its war strategy of taking hostages, hiding its soldiers in tunnels and having as many Palestinian civilians as possible killed by the Israeli army, is a successful one. And of course this lesson, and this failure of deterrence, will not just apply to Hamas. Hezbollah and Iran will also see.

As will the wider Sunni Arab world, which is very willing to be allies with Israel so long as it is perceived as a strong military force, helping the Sunnis oppose the danger and threat of revolutionary Shiite Iran. If Israel does not achieve its war aims, if world public opinion forces Israel into a humiliating defeat in which Hamas leadership survive to fight another day, and Palestinian terrorists are released in exchange for Israeli hostages, then, for all Israel’s economic and cultural dynamism, its political and military vitality, its miracle of the ingathering after 2,000 years of the Jewish exiles from the four corners of the world, its revival of the Hebrew language, and the phoenix-like ascent of the Jewish people from the ashes of the European Holocaust, the Jewish state’s very survival in the land of Israel is in question.

And that’s why I’m walking around, even in North American sunshine, under a horrible dark cloud of fear.

There’s also fear of the anti-Semitism percolating in North America. In our January trip from New Orleans to Key West, we didn’t really feel it. But in Toronto, I really DO feel it, regularly.  Such as when coming back from the East End on a subway ride (to teach my daughter how to travel to her Wednesday afternoon special needs bowling group), and we found ourselves on a subway car sitting opposite a bearded man, carrying a 2’ x 3’ sign with handles, heading for a demonstration. We couldn’t read the words of the sign, and he very clearly didn’t want me to read it, because he was carefully shielding the sign so that nobody could read it.  But I doubt very much that it said: “Two state solution now!”.

But then my Canadian tolerance strain kicked in. Maybe, even though he’s hiding the words, it just says: “Ceasefire now”? And maybe he’s one of 45,000 Palestinian colonial settlers in Canada, and he’s naturally worried about family members in Gaza? Or if not actual relatives, his people? And don’t Diaspora Jews worry about the welfare of fellow Jews in Israel? And didn’t I march in street demonstration in Tel Aviv, protesting against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms?

But what I can not get out of my mind is the video of the nighttime mob in front of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, a young man scrambling up to plant a Palestinian flag over the rooftop of the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Health Complex entrance. Even more, I cannot get out of my mind the sound of the woman’s voice screaming intifada, while the video camera is focused on the politely Canadian sign on University Avenue that states: HOSPITAL Quiet.  Perhaps I should be relieved that mob violence, and chanting intifada, is not something truly horrible, like cultural appropriation; it’s native to those chanting it.

One could say my fears are all in my mind, ancestral trauma of Kishinev pogroms and of Weimar Germany’s collapse, and really my own projections. But when I watch the mob chanting, or see the bearded fellow with the sign on his way to a street demonstration, it also makes me aware that Toronto’s demography has changed.  The Jews are no longer the mildly exotic third category, in addition to European Catholics and White Anglo Saxon Protestants, as we once were, back in the post-World War II Jewish Golden Age of North America.  Today, in terms of community size, Canadian Jews are way down the line, behind Chinese, South Asian, Black, Arab, Latin American and Southeast Asian arrivals. And the immigration of 400,000 new immigrants each year into Canada is only further diluting the strength of Canada’s 335,000 Jews.

And, at the end of the day, democracy is demography. Trudeau looks at his caucus, and even at his cabinet, and understands that maybe 3 or 4 ridings, in Toronto and Montreal, are to any significant degree determined by Jewish voters, while maybe 15 to 18 are so determined by Muslim voters, given that Muslims now count for 2 million of Canada’s 40 million. If Trudeau is good at one thing, it’s doing the political math. And it’s clear on which side the electoral bread is buttered.

I see it in my own riding of St. Paul’s in central Toronto. Our long time MP, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, has just resigned and there’s going to be a by-election. Although Jews are a minority in St. Paul’s, they’re still significant and they have traditionally been supporters of the Liberals, even as that has changed in recent decades. Although Carolyn Bennett, a former doctor, was not Jewish herself, she came from an earlier time in Canada when doctors, academics and even literati like her husband, a filmmaker, would have certainly rubbed shoulders with well-off educated pro-Israel Jewish Canadians, who she would find to be lovely people. And so it was not surprising that Carolyn Bennett, who was a cabinet minister under Trudeau, was chair of the Canada-Israel Friendship Group, and a member of “Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel”. But I don’t think there will be another Liberal chair of the Canada-Israel Friendship Group.

It is now not clear if in the coming by-election in St. Paul’s, the Liberals will be fielding a Jewish candidate for MP. When I spoke to Dr. Bennett in late November 2023, she was suggesting that they might recruit Josh Matlow, who had previously served as city councillor for the area and is the son of a well-known Toronto judge. She told me another potential candidate was Dr. Nathan Stall, who had achieved some prominence in public health during COVID and had run a close race as a Liberal candidate for the Ontario legislature in 2022. But at this point in St. Paul’s it appears neither of those two candidates will be standing for the Liberals in 2024, and a woman, Leslie Church,  has raised $60,000, signed up hundreds of Liberal party members and is ahead in the nomination race.

So what is really taking place in my mind is the reassessment of the position of Jews in Canadian multicultural society, in its theatres and art galleries, its hospitals and community centres, and a recognition that we are an increasingly small, and now – by a growing segment of the population – a particularly disliked, even hated, minority group.

The next generation of Canadian Jewish young people is a mixed bag. Some – including the sizable sub-community of Russians and Israelis – are carrying on their Jewish identity, sending their kids to Jewish day schools or summer camps, or being involved in the community in other ways, whether through the JCC, the Jewish Film Festival, bar mitzvahs for their kids, or just socially. But many are drifting away, their attachment weaker, their identification nominal. And there are some, still a tiny minority but often vocal, who are vehemently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Unlike their fellow anti-Zionist Jews, the ultra-Orthodox sect of the Satmars, these anti-Zionists are not observant Jews.  Rather their identity is entirely tied up with the political identity of their non-Jewish peers, for whom Israel is anathema. For many of them, their only connection to being Jewish is what the English novelist and essayist Howard Jacobson calls “ASHJews”, ashamed Jews. The only time ASHJews say “I am a Jew” is when they say, to their non-Jewish colleagues, “As a Jew, I’m ashamed of Israel”. Hamas’ war strategy is making Israel look bad, and the ASH Jews are ashamed.

More worry and fear, when I read and hear, especially from my brother in Jerusalem, of the dire political situation in Israeli politics, with an unpopular government consisting of a coalition of parties that, were elections to be held right now, would go down to ignominious defeat, and lead by a political leader who is detested by many, and is being abandoned by many more former supporters. And now the fight over drafting Haredim into the army, one of Israel’s “third rails”, threatens to fissure Israeli society along one of its seams.

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. Maybe, in fact, the terrible destruction and the death of so many Palestinians, fighters and innocent civilians alike, will ultimately prove to have deterrent value. Certainly if I was living in Lebanon, even if I was a Shiite Hezbollah fighter, I would look at what Israel did in Gaza and be really concerned about what Israel might do to southern Lebanon. But maybe – and I fear that this is the case – the political considerations of an Anglo-Saxon liberal democrat living in Toronto are not the same considerations as those who support – let alone are members of – a fundamentalist Shiite Islamic theocracy-backed force that has 140,000 missiles aimed at Israel. Hence the fear.

I’ve never thought of myself as particularly expert about the geopolitics of Israel and its enemies. But I am aware that Israel has sworn enemies.  And unlike the well-meaning Americans, who are concerned to draw the borders between the State of Israel and a democratic State of Palestine, Israel’s enemies – Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – call for the State of Israel’s actual elimination as their official policy.

And so, while I understand where RG’s email is coming from, I’m really unsure what Israel should do. I only hope and pray that somehow, despite what seems like an irredeemably bad moment, the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and somehow, from the darkness will come redemption.

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.
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