I am a proud Jewish Montrealer, and my community is scared. I have friends who are scared to be visibly Jewish in public right now. It makes me feel ill when I hear that people have been driving around Jewish areas in my city, yelling slurs at anyone they perceive to be Jewish. This is despicable.
I also have Palestinian colleagues and friends in Canada who have lived in terror over the last few weeks. They feared that their friends or relatives back home could be killed by Israeli bombs.
How do we truly put an end to all of these fears, and start to build a world where everyone feels safe?
My fear is that some will see incidents of antisemitism as representative of the massive number of Canadians who recently rallied for Palestinian human rights and against the disproportionate violence Palestinians have faced in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. We must be vigilant in rejecting this conflation. I was out in the streets of Montreal to protest Israel’s assault on Gaza on May 15th, along with tens of thousands of people from all walks of life, from little kids in strollers, to elders with canes. Those in attendance were expressing a support for basic humanistic values such as the respect for international law and human rights, not an animus towards Jews.
We also need to be really, really clear in these moments of heightened tension on what is and isn’t antisemitism. The day after the rally I described above, a smaller pro-Israel rally was also held in downtown Montreal. There were counter-protestors who showed up, some who heaved rocks at the pro-Israel crowd, and others who allegedly hurled antisemitic slurs. These incidents need to be unequivocally denounced. But again, the perpetrators do not represent the thousands in this country who are speaking out peacefully against Israeli aggression.
What isn’t antisemitism? The widely mis-reported, and then corrected, story of an elderly Jewish man in Toronto who was beaten up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. When the story originally hit social media, there’s no doubt it looked bad – masked protestors chasing after the man, and then moments later photos of the man with a shocked look on his face, and blood streaming from his forehead. The incident immediately prompted tweets from leaders at all levels of government denouncing antisemitism. But when the wider story emerged, it was revealed that the victim, and his compatriots, were affiliated with the Jewish Defense League, an FBI-labelled terrorist hate group, notorious for showing up to Palestinian events in Toronto to harass, intimidate, and pick fights. They brought knives and batons with them to this peaceful demonstration and were caught on video taunting and provoking Palestinian demonstrators as those demonstrators were clearly walking away. It might have been a nasty fight, but it was most certainly not antisemitism. You don’t get to play victim when you show up to a peaceful demonstration with knives and clubs. Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, and John Tory have not tweeted to correct themselves.
In recent weeks, some Jewish communal organizations published a full page ad in the Toronto Star claiming that the Jewish community was in full support of Israel. It doesn’t help to quell antisemitic outbursts when large institutions who claim to represent Canadian Jewry release statements saying that all Canadian Jews stand with Israel. This flattens the profile of our community, and gives the false impression that the Jewish community is monolithic in its support of the Netanyahu government.
Antisemitism is real and dangerous. My organization, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, has worked with progressive Jewish groups from around the world on a vision for how to dismantle it. Far from being a zero-sum game where ensuring human rights for Palestinians would mean a threat for Jews in Israel, we believe that justice and dignity can be upheld for both peoples, in Israel-Palestine and around the world.
We can absolutely fight antisemitism while also standing firmly in support of Palestinian liberation. Palestinians aren’t demanding an end to the occupation, equal civil rights, and a right of return for refugees because they hate Jews. They are demanding these things because they are human, and deserve to be treated as such.