Palestinian supporters rally in downtown Calgary on Oct. 15. PHOTO BY GAVIN YOUNG/POSTMEDIA

Canadians should expect better of those tasked with fighting antisemitism

Our special envoy on combating antisemitism and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network have been remarkably quiet about Oct. 7 and the resulting hatred against Canadian Jews

Two of Canada’s presumed authorities on best practices in combating antisemitism have surprised Canadians who consider themselves deeply invested in their competency: one in a negative, the other in a potentially positive way.

No sooner had Deborah Lyons, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel and Afghanistan, been handed the baton on Oct. 16 from her venerable predecessor, Irwin Cotler, as Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, than she stumbled on her first lap of the course.

About a week earlier, on Oct. 7, Israel suffered a proto-genocidal assault on civilians, from infants to the elderly, within its borders by Hamas terrorists, who — along with their supporters in the Arab world and in the West — celebrated their bloody rampage. Lyons surely knew the special envoy post was hers, so she had a week to organize her thoughts.

But as of this writing, although reportedly active in dialogue with Jewish communities across Canada about an Oct. 7-related rise in antisemitic incidents, Lyon has yet to issue a meaningful public statement dedicated solely to that cataclysmic event. If and when she does, no matter how sincerely crafted, it will forever be accompanied by an irremovable what-took-so-long asterisk.

Another latecomer to the podium on this file is Bernie Farber, chair of the controversial Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN). CAHN, which has received more than $268,000 in anti-racism government grants, has indignation and denunciation at the ready for any and all acts of antisemitism perpetrated by real (and imagined) white supremacists. But invariably, when it comes to antisemitic speech or actions of campus progressives or Islamists, CAHN has remained shtum. Even this pogrom and the pro-Hamas rallies that followed could not rouse CAHN to a statement of sympathy and support for Canadian Jews.

Farber has strongly condemned the attack, but on his personal social media accounts, not in his role as chair of CAHN. “Hamas has revealed itself as the Nazi butchers of the 21st century. It boggles my mind that there appear to be some in Canada who are either wilfully blind about the murderous rampage of their Nazi killing units unleashed against innocent Jewish children, the elderly, women and men on October 7,” he wrote on Oct. 21. “Unconditionally denouncing the pure evil of Hamas would seem a slam dunk.”

Does the fact that Farber chose to post the statement as his personal opinion on social media suggest that he failed to convince his woke colleagues to stop turning a blind eye to the implacable Jew hatred common to all radical Islamist groups?

Today, Farber speaks of the “wilfully blind” who cannot see the moral symbiosis between Hamas and the Nazis. But during the 2021 Hamas-Israel conflict, when Jewish residents of Toronto and Montreal were subjected to threatening words and behaviour by pro-Hamas demonstrators, with rocks thrown at Jews attending a peaceful, pro-Israel rally in Montreal, Farber was the wilfully blind one.

Before the dust had settled, Farber chastised his justifiably anxious fellow Jews on Facebook for “spreading sick rumours of violence aimed at Jews” as “fearmongering” and “the worst kind of nonsense.” He even called for “advocacy groups for Jews, Palestinians and Muslims (to) speak in one voice to condemn it.” Given his high national profile, this was a uniquely harsh and humiliating message to his fellow Jews during a time of crisis.

Hopefully, Farber’s apparent epiphany that radicalized Muslims can be Nazis, same as white people of European provenance, and deserving of the same condemnation by anti-hate organizations, suggests the crossing of a philosophical Rubicon, and a return to his better self. Back in the day, when he was CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, he had no trouble identifying calls for the destruction of the Jewish state at a 2009 pro-Hamas demonstration as hate speech.

As for Lyons’s curious public reticence, she may be operating under a superannuated anti-antisemitism paradigm of genteel back-channel diplomacy. This is the one where Jews (or in Lyons’s case a non-Jew who understands the way things work in Jewish communities) avoid combating antisemitism in ways that are too “pushy.”

When campus antisemitism flared, for example, our polished and socially well-connected community leaders would meet the president of the problematic university for a leisurely lunch, over which earnest and mutually respectful exchange about certain distressing incidents fomented by “Israel Apartheid Week” would take place. The university president would promise to ensure that Jewish students remain safe, and the community leader would express gratitude for the president’s co-operation. Both would feel progress had been made. And the antisemitism would continue.

So my other hope is that Lyons will realize she got off on the wrong foot in her important post, and that in the future, she’ll realize that being “pushy” on antisemitism is how it has to be.