I am the first generation of North American Jews not to experience discrimination because of my religion. My father had to fight his way to school every day against gangs of boys calling him dirty Jew. In his day, he used to tell me, signs on Sunnyside beach on the Lakeshore in Toronto said, “No dogs or Jews allowed.”
McGill University, which I attended, lifted its quota limiting the attendance of Jews just a few years before I began my degree. Nevertheless, for me, being Jewish was never a barrier to what I wanted to do. Being a woman was a much greater barrier.
I have experienced anti-Semitism, of course, but in the form of hatred, not in the form of discrimination. During the intense struggle for freedom of choice on abortion, the anti-Semitism of some of the anti-abortion forces was intense. From cartoons of Dr. Henry Morgentaler looking like a Nazi caricature of a Jew, to comments from drivers yelling at the Morgentaler clinic, “Why don’t you kill Jewish babies in there!”
My non-Jewish friends have always told me not to underestimate anti-Semitism. While only a few neo-Nazis would agree with the revolting views recently expressed by former head of the Assembly of First Nations David Ahenakew, there are still those who agree with the sentiment and others who, while not condoning genocide, feel an intense hatred against Jews.
There has been more discussion of anti-Semitism in Canada in the last month than I can remember in my adult life. Earlier this month, three respected men on the left accused the left of anti-Semitism. Lawyer Clayton Ruby, former trade-union leader Jeff Rose and progressive doctor Phillip Hebert co-wrote an article in the Globe and Mail accusing the left of anti-Semitism for its focus on criticizing Israeli policy without simultaneously criticizing Arab countries. At Concordia University, the Students’ Union has been accused of anti-Semitism for opposing a visit by far right-wing Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu. Even that tireless human rights fighter Svend Robinson has faced charges of anti-Semitism for his outspoken views on the Middle East. Last week, a previously respected native leader supported the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism is a peculiar kind of ethnic hatred because it is not based on thinking a group is inferior but rather based on resenting the achievements, privileges or power, imagined or real, of an ethnic group. Hitler played on those resentments to come to power in Germany and then took them further than anyone could have imagined in their worst nightmares.
The horror of the Holocaust cleansed our society of anti-Semitism at the official level. But the simmering resentment of a group that is different, that maintains its identity, and that has been pilloried throughout history by religious and political leaders remains. At times of political polarization, it gets stronger.
A few months after the events of September 11, 2001, an airport taxi driver was talking to me about his terrible working conditions and how the owner of the taxi company was ripping him off. Then he said, “Of course, my boss is a Jew.”
“I am a Jew too,” I said to him. “What does his being Jewish have to do with his ripping you off? You know a lot of people think that all brown-skinned men are terrorists.”
“You are right,” he answered. “I’m sorry. I am from India — what do I know about Jews?”
I knew then that anti-Semitism was on the rise. If a taxi driver feels comfortable talking to his customer like that, you know that there is a lot of open anti-Semitic talk going on. Similarly with the vile remarks of Ahenakew. Obviously, he has held these views for some time but now feels able to express them publicly.
Jews in North America do not face discrimination. They are well represented in the corridors of power whether political, economic or social. This is why it is hard for people on the left who generally identify with those without power in the society to identify with the struggle against anti-Semitism. It is an abstraction.
But any kind of bigotry is immoral and unacceptable. Anti-Semitism has always been a tool in the hands of reaction. The left has been on the front lines of fighting neo-Nazis, but anti-Semitism can also take more subtle forms and these too must be opposed, even when they come from an oppressed group. The most terrible thing about the Ahenakew affair is that a representative of the most oppressed, persecuted people in North America is taking out his frustration on the Jews.
Sorting out the real rise in anti-Semitism from the false charges is not easy. As a Jew who opposes the cruel occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, I do not believe for a minute that the opposition of much of the left to Israel is based in anti-Semitism. But I do understand why many Jews perceive it that way.
The story of the Holocaust that every Jew knows so well is that the German Jews were the most integrated in their society. They felt safe when the Nazis began to gain support. These brown-shirt thugs were at first almost laughable. We’ve learned that lesson — any sign of anti-Semitism has to be stopped before it spreads. On this I agree.
The problem is that the Israeli leadership has skilfully woven the myth that opposing their policies is opposing the Jewish people, that criticism of Israel is, in and of itself, anti-Semitic. It is my view that Israel’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza strip are a betrayal of the history of the Jewish people. I speak out against them because I cannot accept that my people, who have been so persecuted over centuries can persecute another people.
Hopefully, the selection of a Labour Party leader who is against the occupation will give a higher profile to the critics within Israel and thus give lie to the idea that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.
Discussion of the rise of anti-Semitism today without talking about the even more serious rise of racism, particularly against Muslims and Arabs after September 11 and the deepening of impact of systemic racism in the Black community, feeds into the unwillingness of the left to take anti-Semitism seriously.
Hopefully, critics of Israeli policy inside the Jewish community will find more courage to speak out despite the intense pressure not to do so. One impact of the rise of anti-Semitism in the society is for Jewish communities to close ranks against any and all opposition. This is the worst response we could possibly have. Tribalism feeds bigotry.
Jews who oppose Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people must speak out, as must Muslims and Arabs who oppose suicide bombers. It is not easy in either case, but if we are going to find a way to work together across difference, those of us on the left have to break with those in our own communities who are promoting violence and hatred.
As George Erasmus, President of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and himself a former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, so eloquently put it in his letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail Wednesday,
“It is my hope that the people respond to the spirit of hate, wherever it appears, by renewing their commitment to the long and difficult task of healing and reconciliation. We have seen, endured and overcome much. But when the minds and spirits of our own peoples are conquered, we are lost.”