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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

Trudeau and the apology that wasn’t

Being the United States’ less interesting neighbour to the North, Canada is often overlooked in comparison. To elucidate this point, look no further than many videos and stories about the famously doomed ship, the SS/MS St. Louis. A ship of desperate German Jewish refugees arrived in Cuba in early 1939 only to be denied entry, with the same outcome in the United States and Canada, and finally was returned to Europe where the Joint attempted to find them homes in other European lands — almost all of which were summarily overtaken by the Nazis the following year. Many of these stories overlook the third stop, off of the coast of Halifax. They were, of course, denied entry. Indeed, Canada had one of the lowest acceptance rates of Jewish refugees of any country in the West, only allowing some 5,000 to emigrate between 1933 and 1948. This policy, characterized by the statement of an immigration officer under Mackenzie King’s government, is rooted in the position that, when it came to the Jews, “none [was] too many.” Needless to say, not a part of Canadian history that is overly discussed. Anyway, shortly after the 2018 Pittsburg Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Justin Trudeau undertook to apologize to the Canadian Jewish population about the fact that Mackenzie King’s government acted in such a cold-hearted way. His speech was right on the proverbial money: 

But the government of Mackenzie King was unmoved by the plight of these refugees …At the time Canada was home to just 11 million people, of whom only 160,000 were Jews. [But] not a single Jewish refugee was to set foot – let alone settle – on Canadian soil.  … Jews were viewed as a threat to be avoided, rather than the victims of a humanitarian crisis. … as we stand here today, we are reminded of not only how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go. According to the most recent figures, 17% of all hate crimes in Canada target Jewish people — far higher per capita than any other group. Holocaust deniers exist. Antisemitism is still far too present. Jewish institutions and neighbourhoods are still being vandalized with swastikas. Jewish students still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable on some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation. And out of our entire community of nations, it is Israel whose right to exist is most widely — and wrongly — questioned. Following the recent horrific attack in Pittsburgh, Jewish Canadians are understandably feeling vulnerable. … and I pledge to you now: we will do more. 

All of the right words. All of the correct commitments. Especially the promise to act so that Jewish Canadians don’t feel themselves vulnerable in society anymore. And yet. 

Antisemitism has long been becoming more acceptable in Canadian discourse, and with each successive flare-up with Hamas, this increased. Particularly on University campuses, Jews being attacked here for the actions of a state thousands of miles away is a unique one. Indeed, many of my colleagues and I who spend significant time on campuses have noticed that any attempts to have conversations about acknowledging and mitigating antisemitism on campuses is met with full-throated calls about the war in Gaza. As if those two things are intrinsically related. By that measure, we should be accusing all Chinese students of genocide for China’s actions towards its Uyghur population. Or Syrian students responsible for Assad’s literal gassing of his own people. Or Russian students for Vladimir Putin declaring war on Ukraine. All of these are ridiculous, no one should be targeted for the actions of a state on the other side of the world — but why is it Jews, and Jews alone who are publicly attacked? Indeed, I work at a school which has been the target of threat and violence simply because its’ Jewish affiliation. I live in a neighbourhood where anti-Israel protestors shut down a bridge over the 401 protesting the war (with increasingly violent and genocidal language themselves) — specifically because the Jewish community lived there. Sorry — the “Zionists” lived there, per the protestors themselves. I also live in a city that allowed a celebratory rally on October 9th, in praise of the “resistance” (aka murder of Jews) — the first of many. And one where demonstrators chanted antisemitic slogans at diners in an Israeli restaurant. Where a Jewish-owned business was burned to the ground. Indeed, the statistics speak for themselves. Far up from Trudeau’s mention of Jews being the target of 17% of Canadian hate crimes, they now make up 53% of them — despite Jews being about 1% of the population. They have gone up 211% since October 7th, comprising 56 out of 105 total occurrences, per Police Chief Myron Demkiw. And while many governments are very concerned about relating antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes, of the 159 hate crime graffiti occurrences, there have been 27 Islamophobic ones, and 111 antisemitic ones. Yes, they may be both rising, but to group them together seems fundamentally problematic considering one’s growth is exponential and the other isn’t. Trudeau, how is your promise that Jews should never feel vulnerable in Canadian society again going? 

Bearing that relationship in mind — that Jews in Canada are increasingly at risk of violence because of perceptions and misconceptions of the actions of the Israeli state in a war that Hamas started — some of Trudeau’s direct actions themselves have done little else than to worsen our position and increase hate crimes. While initially supportive, one of the early indicators that all was not well was after Hamas blamed Israeli for a strike at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Trudeau, taking a terrorist organization at its word without any due process tweeted that “The news coming out of Gaza is horrific and absolutely unacceptable. International humanitarian and international law needs to be respected in this, and in all cases. There are rules around wars and it’s not acceptable to hit a hospital.” It was a clear rebuke to the Israeli government, ostensibly for breaking international law — something that drastically worsened anger and violence towards Israel and the Jewish community at home. But when it became clearly quickly thereafter that it was actually a Hamas/PIJ rocket that fell short of its target, even prominently acknowledged by our governmental intelligence, Trudeau left the tweet in place. Apologies? Never. Now, before we argue that this is specifically Canadian problem, it should be said that the New York Times sent out a push notification blaming Israel for the hospital blast, and then quietly changed the headline three times in as many hours when it became clear that it was not, in fact, Israel’s fault. When it was determined it was a Hamas rocket responsible for the blast, was there another push notification properly allotting the blame? Of course not. 

Weeks later, at a conference, he publicly urged Israel to “stop the killing of women, of children, of babies” in the Gaza Strip … the price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of Palestinian citizens.” Where was a similar speech to Hamas, or a directive to release the hostages? Canada then was a participating country in invoking a call for a ceasefire at the UN (clearly directed by the head of state), one which asked the ceasefire only of Israel, and made no demands on Hamas. In case it bears remembering, there was a ceasefire on October 6th. And then when South Africa made its libellous case before the ICJ that Israel was committing genocide, Trudeau initially came out and said that this was meritless and that Canada would oppose it — and then a short 24 hours later clarified that Canada would actually just remain “neutral.” Given the fact that he governs this country, presumably he is aware of how double-standards applied to Israel by governments, international bodies, and the media — where they expect behaviour of Israel that they would never expect of themselves — result in increased antisemitism, anti-Jewish violence, and his own Jewish citizens feeling more vulnerable by the day? Ultimately, he is playing politics — Jews being such an insubstantial part of the population, and Muslims being considerably larger, especially for the man’s patently absurd version of “wokeism,” it’s a no-brainer. Among some liberals, who conflate Canadian Indigenous policies with the Israeli-Hamas war, defence of Israel’s right to exist and self-defence is hardly a popular one. And so, once again, as the Canadian Jewish community finds itself under significant threat, he becomes yet another disappointing leader who allows for antisemitism to run riot in his society. And for a community he once swore that it was in Canada’s need to protect to increasingly feel that, to paraphrase my friend Katie Katz, they have gone from being Canadian Jews, to Jewish-Canadians, to now, just Jews.

I wonder who will apologize for him, 70 years later? 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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