The Canaries in the Coal Mine
In the early hours of November 10, 1938, Nazis attacked Jewish people and their property throughout Germany. “Kristallnacht” was a direct prelude to the Holocaust. Barbara Kay reminds us that how a nation treats its Jewish minority is a signal of the wellbeing of the broader polity, and warns against what she calls the “third wave of anti-Semitism.”
The following essay is adapted from opening remarks at a panel discussion titled “Can Canadian History be Saved from the Mob?” at the 2019 Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.
My connection to Canada began with grandparents who came here from eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism. I am not an authority on Canadian history, but I am conversant with my own people’s history and experience with “the Mob” in its many permutations over the course of three millennia.
The Jews are often called a society’s “canary in the mines,” and for good reason. History teaches us that nations in which Jews have felt safe and flourished are healthier environments for everyone. Nations in which the demonization of Jews is tolerated invariably become unsafe for other groups and hostile to the principles and values we consider to be the bedrock of civilization.
There are advantages to being an old Jew. One that stands out with poignant clarity today is that Jews of my generation grew up at a time when, with the horrors of the Holocaust fresh in the public consciousness, it was believed that anti-Semitism was discredited and would be remembered only as an evil of the past. The nascent state of Israel was considered a miracle, a symbol of hope and triumph over loss and despair. It was good to be a Jew in those times.
It was also good to be a university student in those times. My professors were not politicized. A university education was a sojourn through “the best which was been thought and said” in our culture. The word “ideology” meant little to me, I must confess. My school days ended just as the counter-culture was exploding on North American campuses.
Had I been born a few years later, I might have become radicalized and even begun to hate the civilization that had produced my greatest blessings: a peaceful, orderly society of increasing tolerance and opportunity; economic security; and a golden age for Jews as good as any in their history.
For those who experienced that golden age in our formative years, the shock of its ending continues to reverberate. Our distress is always tinged with incredulity, and the haunting question, “If the Holocaust could not effect an end to global anti-Semitism, what can?”
A few years ago, I wrote a column about the ratcheting up of anti-Israel fervour in the American Studies Association, which had attempted to pass a resolution supporting boycotts of Israeli academics. In response I received an email from a certain Ian Coleman, who was angry at me for charging these academics with anti-Semitism.
Coleman began by saying that it is possible to hate both Israel and Hamas. He proceeded to excoriate Israel for atrocities that never happened, but are part and parcel of the anti-Israel narrative. Standard stuff for my Inbox, and I would normally have forgotten that email.
Except he didn’t stop with Israel’s wickedness. He added: “If it is anti-Semitic to decry [Israel’s injustices to Palestinians], then all decent persons must then be anti-Semitic.” He went on: “Jews (and this includes you, descendant of Abraham) seem to have no clue why gentiles dislike you. You should hire gentiles to explain good manners and fair play and adult dignity to you. Just hire a gentile to follow you around all day and tell you, don’t do that, don’t say that, whenever you’re about to be too Jewish. Yours sincerely, Ian Coleman.”
I responded, “You don’t hate either Hamas or Israel. You just hate Jews. I appreciate your candour.” And I did appreciate it. It was refreshing to see Judeophobic vitriol undisguised by pious disclaimers that it isn’t Jews who are the problem, only Israel. But it was also disturbing to see how even quite stupid and vicious anti-Semites have figured out that it is not only socially permissible to feel anti-Semitic once again, it is now also permissible to express that hatred, as long as Israel is its conduit.
The email illuminated the process that modern anti-Semites go through to arrive at their foregone conclusion without guilt or shame. Coleman had clearly internalized the tropes of what has been called “the third era of anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semitism then and now
The first era of anti-Semitism was mainly religious in nature. The Greeks and Romans were offended that the stubbornly monotheistic Jews paid insufficient homage to their pantheon of gods. But Jews who became hellenized were accepted into mainstream culture. Later on Christianity and Islam, both proselytizing religions, segregated, persecuted or expelled Jews who resisted conversion. Those who converted were assimilated, although sometimes it took a few generations.
The second era was racial, and reached its apogee in Nazi Germany. Here the remedy of conversion was not available to Jews. They were perceived as an inferior race tout court, and their elimination marketed as a solution to a problem of social hygiene.These historic forms of anti-Semitism were limited in scope, duration, geographical location, and ambition: Christian massacres of Jews over the centuries were sporadic, and Jews lived (in dhimmitude) alongside Muslims in relative peace (with savage interruptions) for centuries. Even Hitler “only” wanted to kill all the Jews in Europe.
The third era of anti-Semitism – ours – is political. And global. Israel is now “the Jew amongst the nations.” Terrorist entities like the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Hamas and Iran-backed Hezbollah who wish to destroy Israel also openly aspire to eliminate Jews from the face of the earth.
For several decades after the birth of modern Israel, even in the Arab countries, there was a distinction between Israel as a country and the Jews as adherents of Judaism. Since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, which reversed its image from underdog David to regional Goliath and instigated oppressed victim status for the Palestinians, that distinction has faded. Jews came to be associated with western and white power and therefore fair game for race-baiting rights activists. As noted in National Review recently, these include some prominent African-American leaders who have been openly anti-Semitic for many decades, including James Baldwin (“Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-white.”), Louis Farrakhan (“When they talk about Farrakhan, call me a hater, you know what they do, call me an anti-Semite. Stop it. I am anti-termite. The Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that’s a great name. Hitler was a very great man.”), Jesse Jackson (“Hymietown”), Al Sharpton (“If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”), and even former President Obama’s pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (“The Jews ain’t gonna let him [Obama] talk to me.”)
More recently, we have seen anti-Semitism rooted in a weird political bedfellow-ism, known as the “red/green alliance,” between western cultural Marxists and Islamic political activists. This “intersectional” collaboration embraces many allegedly marginalized but “woke” groups: blacks, Muslims, socialists and LGBT. Assessed individually in terms of values and principles, the coalition makes no sense – gay and lesbian rights are championed in Israel, yet fare badly, for example, in virtually all Islam-dominated societies – but they are united in their animus against Israel, and Jews.
During a McGill residence workshop, a mandatory three-hour discussion on “oppression, privilege, consent and race” designed to create a “safe space,” student Molly Harris described an incident when, singled out negatively for being Jewish, she felt unsafe. The facilitator responded that Molly could feel victimized for being female, but, since Jews are white and privileged, “being Jewish doesn’t constitute grounds for systematic oppression.”
The alliance is lately expressed in the person of Somali-American immigrant Ilhan Omar, a first-term Democratic Congresswoman from Minnesota. A hijab-wearing Muslim and darling of the progressive set, she is an outspoken apologist for Islam who complains loudly and often about discrimination against Muslims in America. In March she said in a speech that this discrimination exists because “some people did something” on 9-11. After the tabloid New York Post responded with a front page picture of the burning twin towers and a headline screaming “Here’s Your Something,” prominent progressives like Alexandria Octavio-Cortez rose to her defence. In 2012 Omar tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” That was followed early this year by “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” which was widely interpreted as another shot at Jewish-orchestrated American support for Israel. Also in March she trotted the ancient “dual allegiance” anti-Semitic card, tweeting that “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country.” Omar’s “apologies” for these comments were insultingly thin gruel, and uttered in a spirit of complacency, by someone who knows the political zeitgeist has shifted in her favour.
She is correct in her assessment. Instead of burying her nascent political career, Omar’s statements won her an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. She survived calls for her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and an Omar-inspired House resolution to condemn anti-Semitism was denounced by progressives and quickly watered down to include homage to Islamophobia. This was a plain act of appeasement, and a victory for The Mob.
Anti-Semitism is a serious, escalating problem in Europe. In France, although Jews represent only one percent of the population, they are the victims in 50 percent of hate crimes. A European Union survey of 12 European countries found that 89 percent of over 16,000 Jews surveyed saw online anti-Semitism as a problem in their countries, 28 percent had experienced some form of harassment for being Jewish in the last year, 34 percent have avoided Jewish events because of security fears, and 38 percent have considered emigration due to those fears.
Here in North America we wonder if rising political influencers like Ilhan Omar and, for another recent and disturbing example, the anti-Semitic leaders of The Women’s March, are troubling but transient sideshows – or harbingers of a European-style future. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, fears the worst. She recently wrote in the National Post: “For those of us who fret about anti-Semitism, in Canada and globally, we are very concerned that we may be on the verge, or have already crossed, yet another Rubicon – one that normalizes the indefatigable hatred of Jews.
In a 2016 Facebook post, McGill student Molly Harris recounted her experience in a residence workshop, a mandatory three-hour discussion on “oppression, privilege, consent and race” designed to create a “safe space” for fellow dorm students. During the discussion, Molly described an incident when, singled out negatively for being Jewish, she felt unsafe. The facilitator responded that Molly could feel victimized for being female, but, since Jews are white and privileged, “being Jewish doesn’t constitute grounds for systematic oppression.” Molly got the message, and kept shtumm thereafter.
The path to Jewish ‘privilege’
If Jews have “privilege” in our society – and if by privilege, one means measurable success – then it is privilege earned. When I was young, the pre-1945 restrictions on Jewish immigration were over in Canada, but Jewish medical interns were still not accepted at teaching hospitals in Montreal; no establishment law firm would hire a Jewish lawyer; no country club extended membership to Jews.
The Jewish response to this discrimination was to look to our own history and cultural norms – not the state – for solutions. We educated ourselves. We started small businesses. We founded our own excellent hospitals, which served everyone. We formed our own law firms and built our own country clubs.
We did not dwell on our victimhood. We did not embitter ourselves with resentment or envy of privileged WASPs. We did not nurse grievances, demand entitlements, or lay guilt upon a new generation for the years of exclusion perpetrated by their parents. We felt gratitude for the considerable opportunities to shape the lives we had. We took satisfaction in our inclusion when it began to happen organically in response to growing enlightenment. Anti-Semitism is a scourge we cope with, because it will always exist. But we have never let utopian dreams of perfection become an enemy of the good.
Like many other immigrants, North American Jews have attributed their acceptance and opportunities for upward mobility to liberalism and its public face. The unquestioning allegiance of Jews to liberal political parties has endured to this day, despite the fact that liberalism’s principles have undergone a radical transformation.
Classical liberalism was good for the Jews. But modern liberalism – what we now call progressivism – is distinctly unhealthy for Jews. Nevertheless, most educated non-Orthodox Jews – even those who understand the stakes – value their membership in the progressive “tribe” over support for Israel’s existential rights.
Why should this issue matter to other Canadians? Because any Big Lie scapegoating an identifiable group corrodes the entire culture. On many university campuses, the Big Lie is that Israel is uniquely evil amongst nations, that the Palestinians are a uniquely oppressed people, and that expressing hatred of the Jewish homeland through support for the BDS campaign is a moral imperative for any right-thinking proponent of social justice. This is breeding the normalization of political anti-Semitism amongst tomorrow’s national influencers.
The toxic air produced by this hatred is “killing canaries” already: credible studies are finding that Jewish students feel increasingly unsafe through exposure to hateful images, threats and overt political actions abetted by anti-Israel faculty and student unions stacked with anti-Israel activists.
Social justice warriors who have no compunctions about silencing dissidents on the political right appeal to the principle of freedom of speech when it comes to Israel-bashing. I believe in wide latitude for free speech, but the mission of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement is to see Israel’s official status as a Jewish homeland delegitimized and in its place a Palestinian homeland where Jews are relegated to an underclass – if not expelled altogether. Thus BDS is exterminationist at its core, just as the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses were on the eve of the Holocaust.
Progressive Jews who exploit their nominally Jewish identity to help launder the anti-Semitism in the BDS movement justify their choice on the grounds that we are a strong, “privileged” community and can “take it.” Other communities, they claim, are fragile or more “racialized” and more deserving of sympathy, and warranted in their sometimes violent protests or “days of action” to combat prejudice against them. Such Jews are more than mere appeasers; I call them pathological altruists.
It is difficult to overstate the logical fallacy at the heart of the BDS movement. The activists fighting the hardest for the Palestinian homeland at the Jews’ expense are the same people who demonize Canadians and Americans of “settler” descent for their colonization of Indigenous lands in Canada and the U.S.
The Jews – the only extant people who have continuously inhabited the land of Israel for 3,000 years – are indigenous to Israel, according to the working definition of “indigenous people” developed for the United Nations. Arabs came to present-day Israel through migration, conquest or occupation. Logically, those who uphold Indigenous rights in Canada should be supportive of Jews’ rights in Israel. But logic and objective history play no part in progressive ideology.
Can Canadian History be saved from the Mob? I don’t know. All I know is that Mobs tend to come first for the Jews. If they are appeased, a social cancer sets in that can quickly metastasize past the point of cure. If past and current events in which anti-Semitism has been a featured impulse teach us anything, it is the absolute necessity to resist appeasing activist groups whose demands run contrary to principles of justice, the rule of law and of civilization itself.
In his book, How Democracies Perish, Jean-François Revel wrote: “Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them. It awakens only when the danger becomes deadly, imminent, evident. By then, either there is too little time to save itself, or the price of survival has become crushingly high.” The Mob is massing at the gates, tearing down the icons and history of our great country and of western civilization. Take it from a Jew, we appease this at our peril.
Barbara Kay lives in Montreal and is a freelance writer for numerous publications including the National Post and the Post Millennial.