The demonstrations that began in support of Palestinians are rapidly devolving into anti-Jew mobs. Inaction (or tepid responses) by key politicians have contributed to this spiral.
The Twitter / X account ‘Documenting Antisemitism’ (@AntisemitismCA) posted today, November 7, that ‘A Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue in the (Montreal) suburb of Dollard-Des-Ormeaux’. This is by no means the first instance of an establishment being targeted due to its association with Judaism. Just one day prior, we saw that the Jewish-owned café Aroma Espresso Bar was targeted after it drew the ire of pro-Palestine demonstrators in Toronto. As CP24 reported on this incident, “… another Jewish-owned business was targeted as part of protests related to the Israel-Hamas war over the weekend” (emphasis added).
The CP24 story links to an earlier instance of similar nature (at Café Landwer, also in Toronto) from October 23, i.e., two weeks before Aroma Espresso Bar was targeted. This story starts with the words ‘Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow condemned a protest outside a Jewish-owned business over the weekend”. Given that a similar incident happened in the same city within a couple of weeks, we can reasonably conclude that Mayor Chow’s ‘condemnation’ amounted to nothing more than empty words. Of course, banning these demonstrations outright is not a feasible option – apart from the political cost for any politician of such an edict, doing so would only serve to inflame the emotions even further. But one can certainly expect the topmost elected official in the city, one who is supposed to be addressed with the honorific ‘Your Worship’, to at least try and talk to the community leaders who are organizing these demonstrations and tell them that such acts of aggression will be dealt with according to the law. That has either not happened, or if it has, was not paid any heed to. Either way, the consequence-free repetition of aggression against Jews due to their religious affiliation represents a serious erosion of the rule of law in Canada.
THE MEANING OF ‘FREE’
Things have come to this pass, I believe, because we have managed to become confused about the meaning of the expression ‘free speech’. As a side note, there tends to be a vigorous debate in some sections of the Canadian society as to the distinction between ‘freedom of expression’ (which the Charter guarantees) and ‘freedom of speech’ (which we supposedly don’t have; it is an American thing). I believe that this distinction is meaningless. If anything, ‘expression’ is a wider term than ‘speech’, and includes drawings, dance etc. in addition to verbal ‘speech’. I will use the term ‘free speech’ here to mean the freedom of any kind of expression.
Debates over the idea of ‘free speech’ tend to get mired in meaningless babble in Canada, with the result that well over 4 decades after the Charter came into being, there is considerable ambiguity as to what is included in it and what isn’t as regards the protection of ‘freedom of expression’. This has injected the element of subjectivity into what is tolerated and what isn’t. Very often, political calculations decide the outcome of the debates. Therefore, speech that would have been outside the ambit of the Charter protections has been tolerated to the point of becoming normal.
One concept in Sanskrit literature is ‘mana-sa, vacha-sa, karma-na’. A brief explanation of this concept is that over time, thoughts get translated into speech, and speech in turn gets translated into actions. I believe that is what is happening here. At the point when the thoughts got translated into speech, there was no corrective countermeasure. Had there been such response, we could have stopped the words from being translated into actions. (To be amply clear, I am not suggesting that thoughts should be policed – that would be unreservedly wrong.)
On his part, Prime Minister Trudeau posted this statement on Twitter / X on November 4 (presumably in a reaction a post by The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (@CIJAinfo) showing an image of a demonstrator at parliament hill in Ottawa holding a sign bearing the Nazi symbol; the two posts are time-stamped 4:15 PM and 8:34 PM respectively):
“When we see or hear hateful language and imagery, we must condemn it. The display of a swastika by an individual on parliament hill is unacceptable. Canadians have the right to assemble peacefully – but we cannot tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia, or hate of any kind.”
For a lot of Canadians – and not just the Jewish ones, or those who would disagree with PM Trudeau no matter what he says, but also the fair-minded among us – this ‘condemnation’ is pretty milquetoast and falls short of what is expected if we don’t want the tensions to be ratcheted up further.
On the other side of the political aisle, Ontario Premier Doug Ford does not appear to have issued any statement on these worrisome instances; I did not see anything to that effect on his Twitter / X timeline, nor did my internet search show any links of this nature. And as we saw earlier, Toronto Mayor Chow’s ‘condemnation’ is not worth the digital ink on your screens.
The question is whether the police are in a position to take any action against these acts of harassment. I am not overly fond of the idea of ‘hate speech’, but when that ‘speech’ (including actions and other forms of expression) has the effect of harassing certain people belonging to an identifiable group – in this case Jewish Canadians – then I believe the police would have justifiable grounds to take action against the person(s) engaging in these. Their inaction is likely to embolden these demonstrators into engaging in more acts of heightened harassment. I believe that the authorities have, collectively, missed the opportunity to nip this in the bud – but continued inaction will certainly make things worse.
As you likely know by now, I usually refrain from bringing events happening in the US into discussions of Canadian issues. However, one cannot but ponder whether we should worry that the reported death of 69-year-old Jewish man Paul Kessler after he was hit in the head at a demonstration in Los Angeles, allegedly by a pro-Palestinian protester is something that can happen in Canada as well. Emotions are running as high in Canada as they are in US and elsewhere, and apart from the Jews in our country, the only ones taking cover are the authorities. From personal – and painful – experience of living through such upheavals, I can say with a degree of authority that the lack of fear of consequences adds a lethal element to the already smoldering swirl of events. The best time to act on this front is well past – but the next best time to act is now.
The plain fact is that, for all the hyperventilation about Islamophobia (which does exist – however much one may argue about the precise term to describe the antipathy towards Muslims), data shows that acts of antisemitism top the list of incidents of hateful behaviour in Canada consistently, year after year. Unless decisive action is taken swiftly, we will likely have a runaway situation on our hands. If (God forbid) something untoward were to happen to a Jewish Canadian, the entire Muslim community will be held responsible for it – and possibly bear the brunt of the backlash. From that angle, it is vitally important for the leaders in the Muslim community to rein in the elements within their midst (whether Muslims or ‘allies’) who are engaging in the acts of harassment against Canadian Jews.
GOOD V/S BAD
As I said in a recent podcast episode (Elevator Chat: Episode 28 – Perfidious Pretext), “Some people always hated Jews. Being ‘pro-Palestine’ only gives them a pretext to act out their hatred in public. Sadly, in today’s Canada, they face no consequences for their actions and words”. It is now 11 days since I published that episode, and it grieves me to say that my statement has been vindicated. What I want from our leaders is a statement to the effect that anyone found to be engaging in acts of targeted harassment will be dealt with sternly and will be made to face the full force of the law. There never is a time for mealy-mouthed prevarications, but now is especially not the time for that. Let our leaders prove that they are worthy of being called ‘leaders’ in the true sense.
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(Image Credit: ‘Burning of a synagogue’ by Jeff Barnes, via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons License)