In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD). It is a day to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism, as well as the numerous brave survivors, and recognize the righteous heroes who risked their lives to save others during the dark days of the Holocaust.
“One of the darkest chapters in history, the Holocaust is a stark reminder of the dangers of allowing antisemitism, xenophobia, prejudice, and discrimination to spread unchallenged. It also reminds us that silence must never be an option when humanity is threatened. Sadly, more than 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau that revealed to the entire world the horrors born of racism, hate, and indifference, antisemitism is still a lived reality for Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, IHRD statement, January 27 2022
We have a lot of work to do: The rise of antisemitism
Last year, we asked this question: “Nearly eight decades later, has the world truly learned the lessons that should have evolved alongside the horrific events of the Holocaust?
Last year ‘s answer remains unchanged: “Sadly, no. Much work remains to be done in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred.”
Unfortunately, we continue to see manifestations of antisemitism in almost all segments of society, and there is certainly no monopoly on the propagation of hate from the radical right or the left ends of the political spectrum.
Far-right antisemitism is often easier to spot; from white supremacists and neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” just over five years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, to conspiracy theorists around the world, including in Canada, spreading lies about the origins of Covid-19 and its vaccines being part of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. We’ve seen critiques of the World Economic Forum sometimes morph into conspiracy theories within certain fringe movements. They reference the “Great Reset” and contain thinly veined references warning that “global elites” will use the pandemic to advance their interests and push forward a globalist plot to destroy our freedoms, with some believers going so far as to directly accuse Jews of orchestrating the plot or invoking George Soros and the Rothschild family. Thankfully, this remains fairly marginal in Canada.
Equally troubling is the continuation of the trend of invoking Holocaust and Nazi imagery to criticize policies or justify violent actions. We have seen this with those making comparisons between COVID-19 public health measures and the Holocaust; more recently, Russia has sought to justify its illegal invasion of Ukraine by suggesting that Ukrainian leaders and its Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were neo-Nazis in disguise.
This banality of the evils of the Holocaust and Nazism trivializes and minimizes the horrors of that dark period.
Antisemitism on the far left is often more subtle and can be couched in anti-racist euphemisms. Jews are often absent, if not completely erased, from anti-racism circles. The community is often generalized as white and privileged, with antisemitism characterized as a lesser form of discrimination.
At the University of Toronto’s medical school, a scandal erupted last December over what was deemed pervasive antisemitism targeting Jewish students and faculty. Beyond the usual stereotypes about Jews and money, the tables were perversely turned, as Jews were accused of racism and lying in order to harm Palestinians. This is part of a pattern on the far left where antisemitism is often hidden in anti-Zionism rhetoric.
Indeed, attacks on all minority groups have been on the rise over the past number of years. We need to do a better job of acknowledging their impact on each group’s sense of insecurity, and how everyone must work together to combat the hate we see and hear.
The Jewish sense of vulnerability is heightened when the fear and insecurity is dismissed. In 2022, we saw a list of prominent celebrities and athletes making offensive remarks about the Holocaust and Jews that many considered blatantly antisemitic. This included statements about the Holocaust not being about race, the exalting of Hitler and a call to “stop dissing the Nazis”; antisemitic tropes that claim Jews control the media, banks, and governments, in order to control others; images of a swastika fused with a Star of David, and claims “white” Jews are “not the real Jews.”
The intended consequence of these ridiculous statements is to stifle the fight against antisemitism and to exclude it from the legitimate fights against all forms of hatred, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny.
This should not be part of a partisan political game, or a matter of left versus right. Antisemitism and all forms of hatred must be condemned wherever they come from.
Too often, ignoring, minimizing or trivializing this kind of hatred and letting it grow unchecked ultimately leads to dire consequences. History teaches us over and over again that racist and hate-filled rhetoric can lead to violence, and that hatred that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.
It’s not all bad: What is being done
Over the past few years, the Canadian government and five provincial governments have adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of antisemitism, an important step is combatting antisemitism.
The federal government has allocated $5.6 million over five years for the Office of the Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, and governments at all levels have committed to funding Holocaust centres and museums in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Two Private members’ bills in the House of Commons have been introduced to amend the Criminal code, one to broaden the provisions relating to hate propaganda and publicly displaying visual representations that promote or incite hatred or violence, and one to prohibit the communication of statements that condone, deny or downplay the Holocaust.
Ontario has introduced mandatory Holocaust education in elementary schools and other provinces are considering following its lead.
Finally, police forces across Canada have committed to more effective training and better enforcement of hate crime laws.
These are all important steps but much more work remains.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day should serve as a reminder of what happens when we ignore the warning signs and hope things will get better. More action is needed, and governments have a vital role to play.
Public policy leaders need to address the constantly growing dangers of online hate. They need to do more to educate Canadian schoolchildren about diversity and inclusion.
“The Holocaust reminds us of the importance of remaining on our guard and defending our democracy, our fundamental human rights, and our freedoms. When we see acts of anti-Semitism, intolerance, hatred, or discrimination towards others, we must stand up and declare without hesitation that it has no place in our society. We must never stay silent or indifferent in the face of hate.”
Premier Doug Ford, IHRD statement, January 27 2021
What can Canadians do?
There’s some other good news: there is a lot of momentum in both public and private organisations for the important role that Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committees, activities and training play in fostering a healthy work environment, while also serving as a educational force against hatred. This no doubt has a positive impact in society as a whole. And, within EDI training, there is a growing understanding of the need to include the fight against antisemitism.
At McMillan Vantage, we’ve worked hard to learn more about our fellow colleagues through the growth of our EDI Committee, which in turn strengthens our resolve to be more understanding, to be more supportive and to be more inclusive.
The EDI committee has played an important role in helping to build a better understanding of the interests and concerns of the Jewish members of our team. This can manifest itself in celebrating holidays, as we did in sharing apples and honey together to celebrate the Jewish New Year. This can also include emails helping everyone understand the history and celebrations around Jewish holidays, and how this may impact Jewish members’ schedules and ability to respond to client and colleague needs.
And beyond these basic and important learning opportunities, by understanding the sense of vulnerability that our fellow colleagues may feel, we can also ensure that as a family we have each others’ backs, as non-Jewish firm members become allies in the fight against antisemitism.
As we move into 2023, we can expect more economic instability to affect Canadians across the country, and sadly, more often than not people will look for someone to blame. This means we can expect to see another rise in hate that affects us all, and will certainly not be limited to Jewish Canadians.
In this context, we must seize this opportunity to stand together, to be allies, to all groups or individuals that feel targeted, both with understanding and with action.