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Two very different Jewish responses to bigotry: One promoting solidarity, the other promoting insularity

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Sticker promoting bigotry which appeared in Halifax in the last weeks of September 2020. ​Image: Contributed photo

In the last weeks of September 2020, anonymous adhesive stickers bearing possible messages of bigotry appeared on utility poles and other surfaces in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And the response from two Jewish organizations demonstrate two very different approaches to those messages.

One of the stickers shows a six-pointed star on the left and a Masonic symbol on the right, and the message "The Bug that Backfired -- COVID-19" in the centre. Although the six-pointed star has been used by the Masons for many years, it is more probable that the authors meant to identify the Star of David, blaming both Jews and Masons for the pandemic and/or the measures taken to curb it. The implication is that nefarious forces are conspiring to bring about illness and death or the removal of individual liberties.

The "Jewish" part of the message may be part of an ages-old anti-Jewish trope suggesting that Jews and their rituals are deliberately responsible for calamities (like plagues) that affect communities. This is sometimes called "blood libel," but is more comprehensibly labeled by David Engel, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, as "fantastical imagery of Jews."

Another sticker, which may be related, bears the message "Repulsive Child Molester Protectors." It may be linked to the "Q-Anon" movement, which alleges a conspiracy of powerful leaders engaged in or defending child kidnapping and molestation.

Both are borne in the fevered minds of white supremacists and are meant to recruit followers in difficult times.

Two Halifax Jewish organizations responded to the appearance of these stickers, and the nature of their response shows two very different attitudes to prejudice.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) is a progressive national human rights organization that is also critical of Israeli policy and practices toward the Palestinians. Through its Halifax chapter, IJV was the first to draw attention to the stickers in a media release and communications on social media. IJV took the tack that the proper rejoinder was to link the stickers to other examples of bigotry in the city and to call for unity to fight hatred among all targeted groups, including but not limited to Jews:

"Halifax has seen its share of right-wing and white-supremacist hatred of late: acts of anti-Black racism in HRM employment sites, including Fire, Police and Transit; insults to people of colour on Transit; the so-called Soldiers of Odin marching through the north end; the so-called 'Proud Boys' (the same group Donald Trump, in the recent presidential debate told to 'stand down and stand by') disrupting a protest at Halifax's Cornwallis statue; and counter-demonstrations against the indigenous treaty fishery ... The proper response to all of this is solidarity -- among all the groups targeted: African-Canadians, Indigenous folks, other people of colour, Jews, women, LGBTQ2+ people and immigrants."

IJV's message of solidarity is especially relevant given the very recent racist defacement of the directional sign to the grave of Nova Scotian civil rights icon Viola Desmond in Camp Hill Cemetery.

The other Jewish response came from the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC), the local institutional organization affiliated to the national group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). Both the AJC and CIJA are adamant defenders of Israel and spend much of their energies to that end.

The response of the AJC was much more limited. On its Facebook page, it concentrated on the threat to Jews only:

"The AJC is aware of stickers posted around the Halifax Regional Municipality implying that Jews are to blame for the spread of COVID-19. Guided by CIJA, we have alerted the Halifax Regional Police to the spread of this malicious blood libel. The HRP are taking the issue very seriously, removing the stickers and attempting to find the culprit. There is no place for antisemitism in our community. If you come across any stickers or other antisemitic posters, please dial the [Halifax Regional Police] non-emergency number…"

The AJC's messaging fails to suggest that there is "no place" for other forms of bigotry in addition to anti-Semitism. And therein lies a big problem.

The institutional organizations of Canada's Jewish community used to be much more active in broad human rights issues. In the past few decades, this approach has withered as the community and its leaders have become more inward-looking and focussed on anti-Semitism and Israel advocacy.

A key turning point occurred in 2011 when the almost 100-year-old parliamentary-style Canadian Jewish Congress was dissolved in favour of a non-democratic and more narrowly directed CIJA.

In these days of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ2S+ activism and Indigenous rights struggles, when young white people join street rallies against discrimination in their thousands, the response from institutional Jewish organizations has been sadly muted or silent.

This selective focus by Jewish institutional organizations on anti-Semitism alone is countered by a recent EKOS poll on several types of bigotry. The poll was sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), and United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine-Israel (UNJPPI.)

In a national online survey of 1,009 Canadians, 59 per cent of respondents felt that prejudice against minorities was a "very serious" or "serious." Thirty-five per cent felt that anti-Semitism was a similarly serious problem. Of course, this does not prove that the institutional Jewish organizations are wrong. But it does suggest that they may be over-focussed on prejudice against Jews.

The Atlantic Jewish Council has been particularly blindered in its relations with other equity-seeking communities. In 2016, it organized a blatant take-over of the Pride Halifax annual general meeting to ensure that a motion critical of Israel was defeated. In 2019, it lobbied successfully to have the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission rescind an award given to a community activist who was harshly critical of Israeli bombing of Gaza. And it has been resoundingly silent in the wake of the eruptions following the George Floyd killing, including a rally in Halifax where thousands took the knee.

Insularity is hardly the way forward for Jewish institutional organizations, especially given that they purport to represent a community significantly more progressive and outward-looking than themselves. Solidarity among the many groups targeted by the hatemongers is the only effective answer to the rising tide of white supremacy. Independent Jewish Voices Canada has now taken up this mantle dropped by the institutional Jewish organizations.

Larry Haiven is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and a member of its national steering committee. He is professor emeritus at Saint Mary's University, Halifax.

Image: Contributed photo.

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