KAY VS. KAY: HAS CANADA BEEN GOOD FOR THE JEWS?

Thursday July 13th, 2017

Jonathan Kay, left, debates Barbara Kay.

As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, it offers the opportunity for the Jewish community to evaluate its role within Canadian society, and how it has evolved since Confederation. Has Canada been good for the Jews? Has the anti-Semitism that previous generations faced after immigrating to this country largely disappeared? Or have many of the anti-Jewish sentiments that caused them to flee the horrors of Europe re-emerged in new and insidious ways in contemporary Canadian society? National Post columnist and panellist on CBC’s The National Jonathan Kay, and National Post columnist Barbara Kay, discuss.

Barbara Kay: My paternal grandparents arrived in Canada from Poland somewhere around 1917, with half their eventual cohort of nine children, so my father, the youngest, was born in Canada. They were extremely poor, but they were surrounded by Jewish immigrants much like themselves, in an area of Toronto now dominated by hospitals. They lived close to a very beautiful synagogue, the Polish synagogue, which was the supportive pillar of my observant zaide’s life. Thanks, in part, to their community, they did not feel isolated or despised.

Zaide never learned a word of English, but didn’t have to, because his job – buying and selling junk from a horse-drawn cart, just like in the movie, Lies My Father Told Me – never took him outside the circle of his Yiddish-speaking clientele. As the youngest child, my father never had a new pair of shoes, until he was a grown man. He remembers wearing newspaper-lined hand-me-downs to cover the holes in the soles.

Remarkably, every one of Zaide’s nine children ended up solidly in the middle class, even though only one went to university – he became a well-known and respected architect – and all established stable homes, producing an average of three children each. All the children of my generation, I believe, were university educated, including the girls, which was unusual for our day, and nobody was left behind.

When I look around at my generation’s children, I see a solid wall of success and productivity. Not a single relative of mine, to my knowledge, has ever suffered a significant incident of anti-Semitism, or been held back in life because of it. It’s true that, for my parents’ generation, Jews were unwelcome in many social venues, but they responded by starting their own clubs, and it never struck me, when I was lolling around in the Oakdale Golf Club’s pool, that I was disadvantaged because it was a Jewish club formed as an act of resistance to social anti-Semitism. I am sure we had a lot more fun there than most gentiles had at their musty traditional clubs.

So yes, I would say Canada has been good for the Jews. Perhaps no better than America was, but probably better than anywhere else in the Diaspora. I wonder if Jon takes all this for granted. When he was growing up, anti-Semitism as a meaningful form of bigotry had been pushed to the margins. He attended schools few Jews had ever attended, works in a milieu that was virtually closed to Jews in the past, belongs to clubs he would not have been welcome at in my day and takes friendship across all cultural lines as a norm. On the other hand, his ties to the Jewish community are weaker than my generation’s. Being good to the Jews paid off handsomely in many concrete ways, but, as usual, when it’s good for the Jews, it is often not so good for Judaism.

READ: THE CJN’S SPECIAL COVERAGE OF CANADA’S SESQUICENTENNIAL

Jonathan Kay: In one of his recent Rebel videos, Ezra Levant claimed I was “as Jewish as a ham sandwich.” Barbara’s description of me is more polite, but no less accurate (at least as far as my ritual observance is concerned).

I’m very lucky that I have the ability to define myself religiously in whatever way I see fit. In this regard, Canadian Jews are among the most privileged people on Earth: unlike Muslims in many majority-Islamic countries, we can cast aside our faith freely, without fear of violence or persecution. We can also embrace our faith openly, without much fear of anti-Semitism. In my case, it so happens that my inability to learn Hebrew as a child, and my ADHD-fuelled aversion to prayer and ritual, combined to lead me away from an observant Jewish life. But I feel my Jewish cultural heritage in my bones every day. For instance, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the only psychotherapist who ever truly seemed to understand me – following a succession of failures – happened to be a middle-aged Jewish man who was well versed in the work of Woody Allen and Phillip Roth. (This fellow has the unlikely surname of Williams, and changes the subject when I ask about how those came to be the words printed on his business cards. But I’ll get the backstory sooner or later.)

If my elderly relatives were around to witness the course of my adult life, I think they would be amazed at how accepted Jews are in mainstream Canadian society. They would also see it as a tragedy that I have chosen to discard much of my religious heritage, especially now that Canadian society doesn’t make religious minorities choose between their religion and their right to integrate into society. But I am not sentimental about this sort of thing. (If I were, I never would have turned my back on Jewish ritual life to begin with.) This is the reality across the Western world, where the trend among educated people generally has been to turn away from religion. Jews aren’t alone.

That said, there is something surreal about the manner of Jewish integration into Canadian (and American) society in recent years. Things did not go as I was led to expect when I was young.

In the 1980s, when the last vestiges of “respectable” anti-Semitism were fading away (I am thinking of the teacher at my non-Jewish school who, in Grade 8, pointedly referred to the Holocaust as an episode in which millions of Jews were “detained”), I imagined that the extinction of Jew hatred in Canada would be a gradual thing. Jewish groups taught us that we had to continue fighting anti-Semitism every day by educating people and responding forcefully to every desecrated tombstone or vandalized synagogue window. Jewish groups, which led the fight for the establishment of human rights commissions across the country, were then actively allied with other minority groups and were seen as reliable left-of-centre cadres for the Liberal party. Unlike now, Jewish advocacy was about local Jewish causes first, right-wing Zionism second.

Then came 9/11, and there was a rapid shift in attitudes. Muslims suddenly became the new Jews, the new “rootless” people who allegedly put loyalty to creed ahead of loyalty to country, and who were stigmatized as a potential terrorist threat, detained at borders and put on no-fly lists. There were still some old-school Jew haters to be found. If you scroll down far enough in the comments under a newspaper article, for instance, you might see one of them accusing Jewish bankers of masterminding the financial crisis. And on university campuses, some Israel-haters express their hatred of the Jewish state in such lurid terms, that they blur the line with Jew hatred. But generally speaking, Islamophobia has become a more acute problem in our society than anti-Semitism. Indeed, the data now are quite striking: in a 2017 Pew Research Centre survey of attitudes toward different religions, respondents expressed warmer sentiment toward Jews than toward any other group – including Christians. (This would have absolutely floored Zaide, I dare say.) The second-least liked group was atheists. The lowest-ranked group: Muslims.

Jews have been edging their way into the Western halls of influence and power since at least the early 20th century – first in academia, literature, law and business, then also in media and politics. But after 9/11, things went to another level: because Jews had been fighting Arabs regularly since the days of the British Mandate, the war hawks surrounding former U.S. president George W. Bush embraced the Jewish foreign policy and intellectual establishment as a vital ally. Following similar instincts, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government here in Canada singled out Jews for special attention, and forged deep and affectionate ties with Jewish groups that shared Harper’s Zionist beliefs. The idea of the Jew as the skulking well poisoner was replaced, in an instant, with a new stereotype: the Jew as the post-9/11 super-patriot. Jews used to be the leading targets of conspiracy theories. Now Jews often are the ones who I see on social media promoting conspiracy theories about Muslim “stealth jihad” and such. This transformation of the social image of Jews within North American society has been stunning, and the ramifications of it still have not been fully processed by institutional Judaism.

Many Jews still cling to the idea that they are the most oppressed and endangered group in our society. This is perhaps not surprising, as it has been the reality of Jewish history for the last two millennia. So every time some pro-Israel activists at York University gets spit on, or a swastika appears on a bathroom stall, it gets massive attention and B’nai Brith puts out another report about how we’re a community under siege (their numbers are apparently always rising). But in reality, the biggest threat to Judaism in Canada is successful, secularized people who don’t see any relevance for God, or for the observances that the God of the Torah commands of us.

A group of Jewish immigrants in Halifax in 1927. ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES/BLANKSTEIN FAMILY

Barbara Kay: Well, there isn’t much for me to agree with here. My generation had good reason to think anti-Semitism was on its way out. Jon believes it is out. But over time, I think it has returned in a transmogrified form: anti-Zionism rooted in anti-Semitism.

Jon spends most of his time amongst people who are as educated, pacific and cosmopolitan as he is. Nobody he socializes or works with is personally anti-Semitic.

But he also knows some people – many of whom are secular Jews, like himself, but still in need of a “tribe” – who are aligned with the hard left and are therefore anti-Zionist and supportive of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which is an inherently anti-Semitic political stance, since it advocates for the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state. He simply does not take this kind of anti-Semitism seriously. He doesn’t even identify it as anti-Semitism, which allows him to hang on to his “sunny ways” disposition on the anti-Semitism front.

I do take it seriously. Sure, the worst of the BDS supporters are confined to university campuses, but the campuses are where the next generation of cultural elites are formed.

So yes, anti-Semitism on the right did move to the margins, because many educated people are appalled by the right in general and have no difficulty showing their disdain for it, so it can’t get a purchase with anyone in political or social power.

But anti-Semitism on the left, which often comes in the form of anti-Zionism, is a serious concern globally, and it is folly to say it can’t happen here. Europe’s political and cultural elites feel free to display their anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. But it is quite thinly veiled, even at the highest levels. In Germany, not so long ago, a court found that the Muslim firebombers of a synagogue in Wuppertal were not guilty of a hate crime because they had been motivated by anti-Zionism and events in the Middle East. A court of law in Germany, of all places! I doubt any European court would absolve a Christian of a similar crime perpetrated against a mosque, if he said he was motivated by anger over the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant’s persecution of Christians – quite the opposite.

Here in Canada, Islamophilia runs hot in leftist political circles. Harper liked Israel and the Jews, and Jon criticized him for it. Our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, seems quite dazzled by Muslims. He doesn’t dislike Jews, but as a multiculturalist, he considers Jews white and firmly established, while he perceives Muslims as fragile and in need of special protection.

When Trudeau heard about the Boston Marathon massacre, which was an act of terrorism, without knowing all the details, he semi-absolved the bombers because he said society had not welcomed them. But when he heard about the mosque attack in Quebec, he immediately proclaimed it an act of terrorism – because the shooter was white and of Christian heritage. Yet it has not been established that this was a terrorist act. In fact, we have no idea what the motivation of the shooter was. It is, however, interesting to see Trudeau’s Muslim-protective instincts kick in. As I say, that does not make him an anti-Semite, but if Harper was too Jew-friendly for Jon’s taste, I wouldn’t mind seeing an acknowledgement that Trudeau swings the other way.

Not just Trudeau, but all committed multiculturalists. While anti-Semitism is not officially tolerated, one does not see much more than tut-tutting when some imam foams anti-Semitically at the mouth in a mosque and calls for the death of all Jews. A determination to overlook Islamic anti-Semitism is a well-acknowledged feature of the leftist mindset.

This idea that the Muslims escaping war in Syria are the “new Jews,” has no basis in history as a parallel. The Christians and the Yazidis, perhaps, but the Muslims are not escaping persecution as despised aliens. Theirs is an internecine conflict, and they have been unlucky. The entire Muslim world has trouble getting along. Jewish refugees never came to Canada because they were fleeing other Jews. There is a qualitative difference in the narratives. And I personally find it quite offensive to see the parallel adduced so casually.

As for Pew Research, that organization did a poll in 2011, the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which found that almost no one in the Muslim Middle East or South Asia has anything nice to say about Jews. Researchers found that the percentage expressing “favourable views” about Jews was uniformly low: Egypt, two per cent; Jordan, two per cent; Pakistan, two per cent; Lebanon, three per cent; Palestine, four per cent; Turkey, four per cent. Immigrants coming from these and other Islamic countries are bringing these attitudes with them.

Anti-Muslim bigotry may be growing, but it has a long way to go to catch up with anti-Semitism. A Jew in Canada is still eight times more likely to experience hatred than a Muslim. In fact, the latest B’nai Brith hate-crime audit notes a 26 per cent rise in anti-Semitic incidents. And while Jews experience hatred from Muslims, I would be surprised if a single reported hate incident against a Muslim was perpetrated by a Jew. There are now triple the number of Muslims as Jews in Canada. Jewish numbers will remain static; Muslim numbers are growing exponentially. Given Islam’s history and the historic relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians (often peaceful, but never pluralistic), and given the leftist tendency to privilege multicultural pieties over realpolitik, I would say that the Jews in Canada have a great deal more to fear in the coming years than Muslims do.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO PHOTO

Jonathan Kay: If we were living in the Middle East, or even Europe, then I would find much of this to be persuasive. But we live in Canada, where support for Israel – and for the Jewish community, more generally – is a common denominator across the entire mainstream political spectrum. Barbara argues that there are important points of difference, based on things that Trudeau did or did not say, but I honestly find this kind of exegesis to be silly and tedious. It’s similar to the people who accused former U.S. president Barack Obama of being an America-hater because he didn’t wear his American flag pin the right way, or didn’t stand up quite at the right time when the anthem was played.

Barbara writes that, “Jon spends most of his time amongst people who are as educated, pacific and cosmopolitan as he is.” She is absolutely correct about this: the media universe I have inhabited lately is somewhat left-of-centre in its outlook. And for this reason, I can report that most of these bien–pensant media types simply don’t think about Israel anywhere near as much as Barbara does. It is perfectly true that in the early 2000s, Israel-bashing was quite the fixation on campuses and in elite Canadian media circles. That’s when I set up “CBC Watch” at the National Post and regularly wrote about this issue. But things have changed enormously since then. The Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, the horror of Libya, the political spasms of Egypt, not to mention the continuing instability of Iraq and Afghanistan, have all pushed Israel off the front pages in recent years. Yet Barbara is stuck in a time warp and seems to think we still live in the era when Svend Robinson, Antonia Zerbisias and Naomi Klein are still loud and influential voices in the arena of Canadian foreign policy.

Even on campuses, Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) has become something of a joke – with most of the few attendees composed of grey hairs who aren’t even students. Which is why, when I hear speeches from right-leaning Zionists complaining about Canada’s supposedly Israel-hating elites, they have to go back in time many years, or find examples from outside Canada, to support their arguments. The only time I hear the term “BDS,” is when Barbara tells me that it is a mortal threat to the Jewish state, or when some toothless academic union or student society passes a resolution in support of it. In my two-and-a-half years at The Walrus, over countless editorial meetings, I never heard anyone bring up the subject – not once. The idea that Canada’s intelligentsia is a seething mass of anti-Zionist agitation is about 15 years out of date.

The real effect of the phobic outlook and dogmatism on display in right-wing Jewish circles is the spirit of animosity it has created. A little while ago, I began doing some work at speaking events run by the New Israel Fund (NIF), a left-ish outfit that supports feminism, religious pluralism, environmentalism and kindred creeds in both Israel and Canada. The group is not a supporter of BDS, but one would not know this from the conspiracy theories about NIF that are sent to me every time I do one of these speaking engagements. After a Vancouver NIF event I did two years ago, I emerged from the building to find people handing out leaflets attacking NIF as a front for all sorts of nefarious activities. I was shocked to learn that the people handing out the leaflets were not anti-Semitic Alex Jones nutbars, but local Jews who despised the NIF because it was seen as inadequately Zionist. (Their pamphlets were dripping with references to George Soros, which I have learned to be the modern calling card of right-wing cranks.)

Perhaps this is why Barbara and I are talking past each other. Our mission here is to talk about the state of Judaism in Canada. But Barbara seems much more interested in talking about the state of Zionism, which is a related, but different creed. As I argued in The Walrus last year, the issue of Zionism has so totally consumed Jewish advocacy groups in the West, that it has created what is, in effect, a spiritual faith unto itself, complete with its own forms of excommunication, liturgy and revealed truth.

If Barbara and I were discussing the state of Judaism in another era, we might be discussing issues of sect and theology. But in 2017, the only thing that counts for the most publicly active, politically mobilized members of Canada’s Jewish community tends to be who loves Israel more. (Witness the bizarre and petty intra-Jewish arguments that broke out among various political candidates in Toronto and Montreal in 2015). Sadly, this has also brought into common usage the debating trick of dismissing anyone who deviates significantly from doctrinaire Zionism as an anti-Semite. In the same way that some ultra-Orthodox Jews will not consider you a real Jew if you attend a Reform synagogue and don’t keep kosher, so does the new breed of Facebook Zionist excommunicate those who disdain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or take exception to the vicious slandering of Trudeau (and Obama) as sharia
 dupes, or even full-fledged fifth columnists. It’s appalling.

As a middle-aged man, I am hardly in a position to lecture anyone about what Canada’s young Jews think. But I do believe that if I were a teenager or young adult, it is the aspects of today’s Jewish community that I just described, that I would find most off-putting, and which would serve to drive me away from organized Jewish life.

Anti-Semitic graffiti is seen at the University of Toronto

Barbara Kay: I am seeing a lot of double standards in Jon’s response. Harper’s public avowals of his commitment to Israel were irksome to Jon, but I should not find irksome Trudeau’s obvious attentiveness to Muslim activist causes, or his heavy hand on the tiller of Motion 103, which will likely end in blasphemy laws around Islam that will mark a sea change in our concept of freedom of speech? According to Jon, the people handing out leaflets denouncing the NIF must be taken very seriously, but the whole BDS movement may easily be shrugged off as “something of a joke.” It is not a joke. Many Jewish students attest to the discomfort they feel as Jews on campuses where BDS is active. More importantly, anti-Zionism runs rife in faculties and discipline associations. To be publicly pro-Israel on campus takes moral courage. If it were such a joke, Jewish students would not need the services of groups like Stand With Us. As a member of the advisory board of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR), I am exposed to a great deal of the literature on this subject, and it is quite clear that, in spite of the far more massive problems in the Middle East, the anti-Zionist movement on campus neither slumbers, nor sleeps. It is true that IAW has diminished in importance, but only because the BDS movement absorbed it into its more organized, and more powerful, orbit.

I shouldn’t be “talking past” Jon when I dwell on attitudes toward Israel. As he notes, in another age, we would be talking about whether some caliph or other was good or bad for the Jews, or whether the Enlightenment was good or bad for the Jewish People. Today, it is Zionism and anti-Zionism that are at the forefront of our debates – as is logical. Extreme anti-Zionism is a litmus test for anti-Semitism today, and anyone who does not believe that is simply naive – or worse. There are certainly critics of Israel who are not anti-Semitic. But once you get into BDS support, or question the “legitimacy” of Israel, or advocate for a “one-state” solution, you are debating someone who deals in double standards: one for all other nations founded in ethnic ties (virtually all nations) and another for Israel. Such argumentation is not a “deviation” from the party line; it is itself a bright line. If you hold such double standards, you are an anti-Semite.

Call me a simpleton, but I don’t find it all that complicated. Judaism is a religion, a peoplehood and a nation. At various times in our history, one or another of those aspects has come to the fore as the defining motif of Jewish survival. Right now, Israel is the central issue of our Jewish times. Sometimes, it really does come down to a stark choice. Zionism is not a “religion” – it is the belief that Jews have the right to be sovereign in their ancient homeland, like any other indigenous people. A lot of people hate that idea. So it is quite natural for those who believe in it to dig in their heels a bit when they are dealing with, shall we say, “contingency” Zionists, who will only stand up for Zionism if Jews prove they “deserve” their homeland, a concept that has never been applied to any other indigenous people.

If you begin with the idea, as I believe Jon does, that “tribalism” of any kind is an inferior and retrograde way of being in the modern world, then of course a homeland is by definition an outmoded concept and the passionate attachment to Israel Jon sees in Zionists must be quite alienating. But I see Jon’s detachment not as an intellectual virtue, but as a failure of imagination. History is alive and pregnant with meaning for most people. That is a reality that demands a certain amount of respect, even in those who do not feel history’s – and destiny’s – pull.

All that said, Canada is still the best place in the Diaspora to be Jewish. But our rapidly changing demographics, and the political disruptions those changing demographics portend, have placed a sobering restraint on my wonted complacency.

Syrians in a refugee camp in Turkey. SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO

Jonathan Kay: Although this discussion is about Judaism specifically, it’s important to note that currents of thought beyond Judaism are taking their toll on the Jewish community. Almost everywhere on Earth – including the United States, France, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, India and China, to take some recently newsworthy examples – there is a growing chasm between two groups of people: (a) strong ethno-religious nationalists who plant their flag of identity deep into the native soul, often seek to protect traditional forms of pastoral or industrial work, and emit grim warnings of the apocalypse that will come if foreigners and heretics are not expelled or controlled (think Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and, I suppose, Ezra Levant); and (b) deracinated intellectuals who place their faith in abstract globalized creeds, such as feminism, secularism and the scientific method. Israel has gone down this path, and that society now is divided between groups (a) and (b) –albeit with group (a) now in the driver’s seat, thanks to Netanyahu’s political success. And the Jewish Diaspora community has followed suit. Barbara and I are typical of the growing intergenerational schism in many Jewish communities, with her being sympathetic to group (a) (at least when it comes to Jewish and Zionist issues), while I tend toward group (b), as a Canadian, a Jew and a Zionist.

The good news (from my point of view) is that Canada has generally resisted the worldwide trend toward populist nationalism and nativism. This is in part due to the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau, who has angered militant Jews by visiting mosques and angered militant Muslims by praising Israel. Only the fanatics on both sides are wasting their time parsing his syllables for evidence of secret loyalties. There is a reason Trudeau is praised on the world stage: he has risen above ethno-religious feuds. And I regret that Barbara would prefer that he hew to the grasping ethnopolitics that marked the latter Harper years. (Remember Mark Adler and the “million-dollar shot” in Jerusalem?)