Anti-Semitism: A Centuries-Old Problem Resurfaces in Canada
Read any current news headlines and you’ll encounter one troubling trend: hateful actions motivated by race, religion, ethnicity, immigrant status, gender, or sexuality. Some hit close to home, such as the January 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque. Amid warnings about fascist philosophies becoming a global trend, concerns exist about the targeting of religious minorities. In Canada, some warn about a marked increase in anti-Semitism.
A Brief History of Anti-Semitism
While the term “anti-Semitism” dates to 1879, the Encyclopedia Britannica discloses that its ideological roots are much older. Before the advent of Christianity, imperial rulers often expressed ire at Jewish communities’ refusals to assimilate and adopt the dominant culture’s religious beliefs. Later, Christians around the Middle East and the Mediterranean distanced themselves from their Jewish neighbors. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jewish people were further marginalized as anti-Semitic thought found its way into public opinion and theological teachings.
During medieval times and in modern Europe, Jewish communities grew, thanks in part to success in trade and banking. At the same time, members of these communities made significant contributions to a wide range of scientific, philosophical, and artistic disciplines. Yet during less tolerant regimes, Jewish people became targets of ugly stereotypes. Hateful rhetoric included passion plays that reenacted Jesus’s persecution and cast Jewish people as villains as well as blood libel accusations that they murdered and sacrificed Christian children. Anti-Semitic ideas picked up more steam prior to World War I, leading to horrific action by Nazis through the Holocaust.
Canada and Anti-Jewish Prejudice
As many Jewish refugees fled for their lives during the 1930s, Canada’s response was less than welcoming. An archived CBC News clip from 1982 discussed the closed-door policies of former Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Out of an estimated 800,000 total who attempted to flee Europe, Canadian authorities only allowed 5,000 to enter. Especially egregious was the Canadian government’s refusal to allow the landing of the MS St. Louis, a ship that left Europe in May 1939 carrying 900 Jewish refugees. A November 2018 Reuters piece detailed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for this incident.
Worrying Trends in the 21st Century
While anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism, and hate crimes have increased in the United States, they’ve also been on the rise in Canada. A November 2018 Haaretz article cited Statistics Canada’s findings, revealing 360 anti-Jewish incidents reported to police departments across the nation. An April 2018 CTV News piece referred to B’nai Brith Canada’s report, which included several instances of anti-Jewish graffiti in Toronto, hateful messages targeting a family in Winnipeg, and several synagogues across the country receiving threatening photos.
Experts are trying to determine the causes behind the apparent increase in anti-Jewish hatred. Some point to our southern neighbors as the problem, citing examples such as the October 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Yet an April 2018 Globe and Mail article divulges a disturbing trend all over the West, with anti-Semitic ideologies gaining more noticeable and brazen expression throughout Europe and North America. Journalist John Ibbitson tries to unpack the problem, suggesting a few factors that may contribute to the rebranding of anti-Jewish conspiracy myths:
- A disdain for globalization
- Conflating criticisms of Zionism with anti-Jewish sentiments
- The rise of nativism and populism
Fighting Hatred on Canadian Soil
In December 2018, B’nai Brith Canada released an action plan focusing on additional training for law enforcement, improved legislation, and measures for handling hate speech both online and at public universities. Others call upon the Canadian government to go beyond apologies with honest assessments of Canadian history, more education, and combating Holocaust denial and similar ideologies. In the meantime, Jewish Canadians seek answers and watch for the safety of their friends, families, and communities.