Jewish Fear & Anti-Semitism in Canada

Sign reading "GENTILES ONLY"
Signage from 1930s Ontario, Ontario Jewish Archives

It’s that time of year again – the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and of course, the yearly anti-Semitism numbers are out. Overwhelmed by the tables and charts? Confused by the press releases? Don’t worry; Treyf Podcast is here to help.

While much has changed over the last fifty years, the threat of anti-Semitism has been a consistent fear experienced by Eastern European-descended Jews in Canada. For our grandparents, the fear of this threat was clear cut: Barred from schools, neighbourhoods, and jobs, they faced the possibility of violence on a regular basis.

However, as structural racism now finds us on the opposite side of those barriers, this fear has become more complicated. In both Canada and the US, Eastern European-descended (or Ashkenazi) Jews have been incorporated into whiteness in a way that would have been almost unimaginable two generations ago.And while experiences of whiteness certainly have variation, Ashkenazi Jewish inclusion has eliminated the structural racism that our grandparents faced. Yet, despite these changes, the persistent sense that we’re under threat remains.

Which brings us to a ritual we recently observed; the Jewish media’s yearly coverage of new anti-Semitism data. Every summer, Statistics Canada (StatsCan) releases a new report on police-reported hate crime from across the country. But over the past three years, Jewish media outlets largely ignored their findings.

According to StatsCan, this three-year period saw attacks against Jewish people decrease by 12% (with the vast majority of attacks being nonviolent), while attacks against Muslim people more than doubled (with attacks more likely to be violent than any other religious group). In addition, Statscan explained that it’s current practice of listing religious and racially-motivated incidents separately “[…]may have an impact on hate crime statistics, as some religious populations may also be targeted in hate crimes motivated by race or ethnicity.” This is no small consideration since, according to the same report, 88% of Muslims in Canada are also members of visible minority groups, while this is only the case for 2% of Jews.

However, during the same week that StatsCan released their findings last year, Jewish media outlets instead reported that Canada had achieved record-breaking levels of anti-Semitic incidents. Headlines like “Report: Anti-Semitism in Canada Reached All-Time High in 2014.” or “Why is Anti-Semitism in Canada Soaring?” circulated widely.

These articles, which made no mention of the StatsCan data, were all based on B’nai Brith’s 2014 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents released that same week. This report found a 28% increase from the previous year’s, making it the highest level they’d ever recorded. And while this year’s report was less sensational, Bnai Brith took pains to note that it did “[…]not necessarily mean that the overall number of people who harbour antisemitic views or sentiments has decreased, simply that, for various reasons, they chose not to act on those views, or their actions were not reported.”

(A note: we shouldn’t paint the entire Jewish media with the same brush here. Paul Lungen, a reporter at the Canadian Jewish News, did actually mention last year’s StatsCan numbers in his article, “B’nai Brith, Statscan Release Conflicting Hate Crime Reports.” However, several days following its publication, Yoni Goldstein, that paper’s editor, published his own article on the same subject, endorsing the B’nai Brith report. Lungen’s article subsequently had its headline changed to “Anti-Semitic Incidents Hit Record High in 2014: B’nai Brith” and no mention was made of StatsCan’s findings in his report from this year.)

So, why the difference between these two reports? While Statistics Canada is a government agency tasked with collecting and processing social and demographic data, B’nai Brith Canada, in their own words, are “[…]a staunch defender of the State of Israel and global Jewry, a tireless advocate on behalf of senior citizens and a leader in combating antisemitism & racism.” What this means for the purposes of their audit is that any anti-Zionist activity reported to their hotline is treated as a bona-fide anti-Semitic incident.

To give you a clearer picture of what this looks like, here are a few examples of incidents included in Bnai Brith’s 2014 audit – the one that inspired the sensationalist media coverage we mentioned earlier:

“Toronto – Woman at Israel support rally harassed as she was walking home because she was carrying an Israeli flag.
Calgary – Fuck Israel spray painted on roadway.
Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto – Multiple assaults take place at Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israel rallies.”

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While Zionist organizations are certainly entitled to document anti-Zionist activities, conflating these activities with anti-Semitism is inaccurate and misleading. In fact, Bnai Brith have taken steps to justify the inflated numbers that come from including anti-Zionist activity in their audits. Over the past several years, they’ve begun pointing to the annual hate crime report released by the Toronto Police Service, which lists Jews as the group reporting the most incidents every year since 2009.

This is the same Toronto Police Service that’s spent the last decade profiling and arbitrarily stopping more young Black men than live in theentire city of Toronto. The same police force that continues to kill Black men with impunity and disproportionately sends black people into a prison system that’s seen a 90% increase in the Black inmate population since 2003, surpassing the US in over-representation. So while Bnai Brith might be less concerned with these realities, the fact is that when violence is structural, you can’t simply report it to the same authorities that enact it.

In fact, Global News prefaced their coverage of this year’s StatsCan report with the disclaimer, “Hate crime statistics can say as much about a group’s willingness to report as it does about that group’s degree of victimization.” And StatsCan itself goes out of its way to mention a studythat lists factors that create uneven reporting. Namely, “[…]cultural/linguistic barriers between the victim and police, a fear of secondary victimization by the criminal justice system, a strongly held belief that their victimization would not be taken seriously, and a belief that reporting an incident would not result in any action or help,” all things the report acknowledges are accentuated in racialized communities.

So what does this mean for Eastern European-descended Jews in Canada? Well, as a group that’s predominantly English-speaking and white,we’re much more likely to trust the police and the surrounding institutions of the Canadian state. And because of that trust, we’re much more likely to report the violence we do face. While we certainly can and do still experience interpersonal anti-Jewish violence, these incidents don’t have the same repercussions as the structural violence we no longer experience here as white Jews.

However, for many Eastern European-descended Jews, our sense of fear obscures this reality. We’ve bound the traumas of our histories up in a narrative of perpetual victimhood, unable to see past ourselves to those suffering today. Truly caring about the realities of structural violence means working in solidarity with those most affected by it now – looking past our fear, and beginning to examine the ways we now participate and benefit from a brutal system that once targeted us as well.

This article was originally published on Jewschool.com.