‘Unprecedented’: Antisemitism has skyrocketed in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war
Published Friday, November 10, 2023 5:26PM EST
Last Updated Sunday, November 12, 2023 6:38AM EST
Toronto’s Jewish community is highlighting the need to combat antisemitism amid a spike in hatred against Jews that some have described as “stunning.”
This week marks Holocaust Education Week, and for many Jews in the city, the lessons of the Holocaust are front of mind.
Since the surprise Oct. 7 terror attack in which Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis and took some 240 hostages, and the subsequent response by Israel, which has left some 10,000 Palestinians dead according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, incidents of hatred targeting Jews have spiked.
In Toronto, the incidents have included intimidating Jews in their homes, schools and businesses and ripping sacred objects from their doorposts, scrawling stars of David soaked in blood at Jewish homes and at least one public school, and protests outside a Jewish community centre.
During a Toronto police services board meeting last month, Chief Myron Demkiw said the daily average of hate-related calls for service increased by 132 per cent since the Israel-Hamas war began.
During the first three days of the war alone Toronto police saw an additional 14 hate crime reports. In comparison, police only saw five incidents over the same period last year and just one in 2021.
Demkiw said that of those 14 reported hate crimes, 12 were related to antisemitism, and two were in connection with anti-Muslim and anti-Islam events.
There have also been reports of an increase in Islamophobia locally. In an interview with CTV Question Period host Vassy Kapelos airing Sunday the two women appointed to advise the federal government on how to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia said that it is more important than ever to focus on "respectful, “constructive dialogue,” and “creating space for education.”
“I think the most alarming trend is the incredible rise in the incidence of hate, hate crimes, antisemitism anti Islamophobia that we're seeing in the city,” Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw said Monday. “Very, very concerning.”
There have been plenty of incidents further afield as well. In Mississauga, a Jewish doctor received a hate-motivated death threat; in a community near Orillia, vandals poked around at a Jewish home and left a note saying "you and your Jewish family are going to die.” Jewish buildings have also been shot at and firebombed in Montreal.
“I think it's quite unprecedented, the way the community is feeling," says Dara Solomon, executive director of the Toronto Holocaust Museum.
Especially for members of the community born after the Holocaust, she says, many thought we were "beyond these sorts of problems" in modern society.
When Hamas, a listed terror organization, called for a global "day of rage" as a follow-up to its Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, debate spilled over on Jewish social media chats as to whether to keep kids home from school or whether it would be safe to be out and about. GTA police services stepped up their presence around the city in response. Thankfully there were no serious local incidents, but there have been efforts to intimidate Jews at schools and businesses.
“Seeing police cars up and down Bathurst Street, outside of our kids’ schools, in the plazas where we shop, outside synagogues is really frightening,” Solomon says.
Jews have also been targeted on college campuses, says Professor Anna Shternshis, director of The Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
“What I did notice on campus is how incredibly fast things went downhill for Jewish students and faculty,” Shternshis said.
While there was some sympathy in the wake of Oct. 7 – the worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust – public opinion very quickly turned its focus on the situation of Gaza in the days that followed.
Shternshis said it’s “astonishing” how quickly the atmosphere on campus became “toxic” for Jewish students and faculty, with peers and teachers asking them to explain Israel’s actions and state their own beliefs, and large marches and demonstrations against Israel.
She said a number of Jewish students have expressed concerns to her around being harassed on campus because of their identity.
“It's one thing that people go protest in front of the Israeli embassy. One can make a valid claim that they disagree with the policies of the country, they disagree with what Israel is doing in Gaza, and they go protest Israel. That's a legitimate course of action,” she says. “But if people go and protest in front of synagogues or the Jewish community centres or Jewish schools or vandalize those visibly Jewish places, then suddenly it's not just about Israel, it's about holding all Jews accountable for the actions of Israel.”
She pointed out that within Toronto, there is an incredibly diverse Jewish community, including many Israelis, with a plurality of views.
Disparate understandings around the terminology of the Arab-Israeli conflict also lead to problems.
Many Palestinian activists draw a distinction between having a problem with Zionists, and not Jews. However, their definition of Zionism — often viewed through the lens of settler-colonialist theory — is not shared by many Jews, who say they see Zionism as simply being a right to have a homeland in their ancestral lands. Community advocates say a great many Jews consider themselves to be Zionists according to that understanding, and it is therefore nearly impossible to use language which casts Zionists as monsters without leaving the Jewish community feeling targeted by hate.
While defining antisemitism can be a difficult discussion, Shternshis says, she points out that if someone refers to a person simply as a Zionist, there’s a good chance that the use is antisemitic as it reduces the individual to a political/religious affiliation as a marker of identity.
“What does that mean? The only thing to know about the person is that they’re Zionist,” she says.
These sort of distinctions, she says, often serve as a way for people to feel safe expressing distasteful ideas “in code” and are somewhat irrelevant, since the end goal is often to collectively blame a group of people for the actions of a government.
“One thing that is never okay is to equate actions of a country with people who are assumed to have some sort of loyalty to that country, even if they have citizenship of that country,” Shternshis says.
As an example she cited Canada’s recent tensions with India.
“So what — is everyone in Canada who's of Indian descent now have to explain what India did? — whether they were right, were they wrong? Do they support, do they not support — How would that be fair?”
She says many Jews in fact see it as acceptable to question or protest the actions of the Israeli government, even if they are Israeli.
But community advocates say that when that protest includes calls for Israel — a nation, which includes 7 million Jews, and 2 million Arabs — to be dismantled as a state, or for Zionists to be eradicated, it sounds very much like a call to violence against Jews.
Similarly, they say that a call to “free Palestine” is not anti-Semitic per se, but its meaning is often unclear. Some Palestinian activists believe Palestinians should have a state side-by-side with Israel, but groups like Hamas believe the country should be destroyed and replaced with a Palestinian state. “Free Palestine” is a phrase that people who believe either might use.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE IMPORTANT
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center President Michael Levitt points out that while there is “lots of space for people concerned about the plight of Palestinian civilians to be able to protest in this city,” doing so outside Jewish institutions and businesses goes too far.
“This is meant to chill and intimidate in a place we all call home and we all have to live,” Levitt told CP24.com “And for that we rightfully expect our political leaders, our civic leaders to call it out. And we've seen that happening. We'd like to see it happening more.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to news that two Jewish schools in Montreal had been shot at Thursday, said hate has no place in Canada.
"We need to remind ourselves who we are," Trudeau said. "I know that emotions are strong. People are scared and in mourning. But for Canadians to attack each other, it's not what we do."
Premier Doug Ford has spoken out strongly against antisemitism in the wake of the spike and the Ontario government recently announced an expansion of Holocaust education in high schools.
"Our aim is very clear," Ford told a crowd at a recent gala held by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. "We want to better educate the next generation, tomorrow's leaders, about the horrifying consequences of hatred and discrimination, to combat antisemitism and hate in all its forms because we cannot build a better future if we forget the painful lessons of our past."
Chow declined to weigh in on the subject in person Tuesday when CP24.com posed a question about rising tensions in the city over the Israel-Hamas war. Her office followed up with a statement the next day.
“Mayor Chow has made it clear that she believes there is no place in our city for antisemitism, Islamophobia, hate, intimidation and harassment of any kind,” the statement read. “She urges everyone in our city, through all the pain and anger so many are feeling right now, to not lose sight of our common humanity. Our city is incredibly diverse. We must remain committed to a Toronto free from hate where everyone belongs and can live without fear.
“The Mayor is also in constant communication with the police, who have assured her they will investigate suspected incidents of hate and who have stepped up their work in the community.”
Chow held a media availability on Friday to say that she is concerned about an uptick in hate crimes over the conflict and said it is unacceptable to target people and businesses in the city over their identity or beliefs.
She added that she would like to see the unconditional release of all hostages and a ceasefire.
Speaking with members of the media this week, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw said that although there remain no credible threats that are specific to Toronto, police continue to be very vigilant and to have an increased presence in the Jewish community, including command posts.
“I want to be very, very expressly clear about this; We will stay there as long as it takes,” Demkiw said. “We will be with our communities for as long as it takes to return that sense of safety and security that people deserve to have in our city.”
He said police are working to “realign service delivery” in order to meet the demands of providing additional security in the community, including for mass protests which have unfolded over several weekends.
“We do expect that we'll be at this for a number of months, we're preparing for that kind of business cycle,” he said.
Toronto police also announced on Thursday that they are bolstering the number of officers assigned to investigate hate crimes in the city in order to better cope with the volume. Still, Demkiw said, police believe that the number of hate crimes in the city remains underreported despite the recent spike.
“We have certainly committed an extensive amount of resources and I've said it before, and I'll say it again, we're gonna do everything possible to hold those responsible accountable,” he said. “And we'll continue to investigate each and every incident and we encourage all members of the public, everybody across all communities to please report every single incident that they see, no matter where they see it, when they see it. Please call us and report it.”
NO EASY ANSWERS
There’s no simple solution to antisemitism, Shternshis says, but increased dialogue and interaction with others helps.
“The better Jews are able to be in discourse and dialogue with others, the better they're able to listen to others and to have a meaningful debate about what's going on, how things make sense or how things don't make sense,” she says. “Or conversely, if a person knows a Jewish person, they're much less likely to demonize them.”
Solomon agreed the answers are complex and said a “big toolbox” is needed.
She said the recent expansion of Holocaust education in Ontario high schools is a positive step.
“We've come together with, you know, many of our colleagues who are in the Holocaust education sphere, and we are all being inundated with requests for Holocaust education,” she said.
On Nov. 9, the Toronto Holocaust Museum held a special evening to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass” when Jewish stores and businesses were smashed and looted in Germany in 1933. To many, it's one of the key markers for the beginning of the Holocaust.
But unlike 1933, Solomon points out, authorities are not turning the other way when hateful acts are committed. Still, the current climate is troubling for many in the community.
“I think there was this hopefulness that we were beyond that, that we're in this modern society, and we wouldn't have to worry about these things,” Solomon says. “And here we are, worrying about all these things.”
For Levitt, it’s difficult to believe that “the upshot” of what happened on Oct. 7 — the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust — is that Jews around the world are now feeling targeted and threatened.
“I can speak to how I feel as a member of the Jewish community and I can speak to the people that are calling me up whose kids are on university campuses, or people who are doctors or nurses at institutions, or staff or faculty at university and colleges or you know, just so many people that are expressing an alarm with what they're seeing taking place in our city, in the province and across the country. And that is that Jews are being targeted,” he said.
He said “the temperature needs to be brought down” but that means non-Jews standing up against hateful actions and rhetoric as well.
“Jews can't fight antisemitism alone; we need our allies — and there are so many of them — to also be upstanders, not bystanders in this moment,” Levitt said.
He added that “we all need to stand together against this rise of antisemitism because that's who we are as Canadians.”