Antisemitism is Ominously Resurgent in Canada, Not Just Elsewhere

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Everyone thinks Canadians are a tolerant and peaceful people, and no one more so than Canadians themselves. We pride ourselves on our acceptance of others. After all, we are a longstanding immigrant receiver country. Even now, during a period of economic tension, a majority of us continue to see immigrants as making a positive contribution to our society. And if some of us express concerns about the government’s current immigration policy, that concern is based on whether we may temporarily be accepting too many newcomers too quickly to accommodate them, not because we worry they will negatively impact the social fabric of the country.[i]

Moreover our record of successful immigrant integration has been the envy of the world. Other countries that have more recently become immigrant receiver states have looked to Canada as a role model of proactive immigrant settlement and integration.[ii]

In addition to practical measures of immigrant settlement — such as assistance with accommodation, employment and language training — there has also been an emphasis on integration, and specifically on citizenship, rights and responsibilities, and the concept of multiculturalism. This formal policy of tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity, rather than forced assimilation and homogenization, is a concept other countries have admired and attempted, albeit with varying degrees of success, to duplicate.[iii]      

Perhaps because of what many Canadians see as our long history of tolerance and acceptance, they also appear to be blissfully ignorant of the less savoury aspects of our common history, including several examples of blatant discrimination on the part of governments in the not so distant past. While many Canadians are now gradually coming to recognize the sad historic record of government behaviour towards indigenous peoples, there is much less awareness of the shameful treatment of various other minority groups, including the immigrant Chinese labourers who worked, and died, building the national railroad, and the Canadian citizens of Japanese descent interned in British Columbia during World War II. Equally unknown, and equally reprehensible, is the Canadian government’s lengthy record of antisemitism. This culminated in 1939 in the blunt refusal to allow the St. Louis, (a ship with some 900 Jews aboard who were fleeing Nazi Germany), to land, forcing it to return to Europe where almost all of the passengers died in concentration camps.[iv]

But that was in the past, and it was governments, not individual citizens, who did this. Now we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined in our constitution. All citizens are protected from discrimination on the basis of a wide number of grounds, reflecting the rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, after the horrors of World War II. (A declaration that was largely drafted by a Canadian, John Humphrey.) And successive governments have expanded on their protection of those rights, through such measures as affirmative action and gender equality policies, same sex marriage legislation and other measures to prevent anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The vast majority of Canadians have enthusiastically supported these measures to enhance human rights and civil liberties. For example the Charter itself is now one of the most highly regarded symbols of Canadian identity. And by 2017 some 75% of Canadians positively supported same sex marriage legislation, a groundbreaking government initiative that put Canada squarely at the forefront of rights recognition among western democracies. [v]

True, there have also been occasional regrettable lapses, such as the Harper government’s negative framing of most refugees as illegal immigrants, exemplified by their response to Tamils arriving off the coast of BC in 2010, whom they detained and categorized as terrorists.[vi] At the same time it is worth noting that public reaction to this behaviour was overwhelmingly negative and the Harper government’s approach to immigration and refugee policy was considered a key factor in their defeat in the 2015 federal election.[vii] By contrast the warm welcome received by the so-called Vietnamese boat people in the 1970’s has more recently been duplicated by the acceptance of significant numbers of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Not surprisingly, then, Canada has been widely considered a role model in terms of respect for human rights, and Canadian society as one where discrimination, bigotry and racism have no place.

How quickly that image of a tolerant society has been shattered. Since the fall of 2023 we have witnessed a dramatic increase in hate speech and blatant, often violent, racist attacks on a small minority group, behaviour that was previously unthinkable. Equally unthinkable is the fact that this behaviour is being exhibited by otherwise “ordinary” Canadians. Perhaps worse still is the fact that these attacks are being perpetrated, not against a group of newcomers where cultural differences and/or failures to communicate, might – however unacceptable – have conceivably been a trigger, but against a small group of native-born Canadians whose families in most cases have lived in this country for generations. And that small minority group (1% of the population) is, of course, Canadians who happen to be Jewish.

In the past six months we have witnessed numerous violent attacks on Jewish synagogues and schools involving gunfire and firebombs. There has also been rampant vandalism at restaurants and businesses with Jewish proprietors, including attacks on both the Toronto and Montreal flagship stores of Indigo Books. The Hamilton Jewish Film Festival had to be cancelled due to safety concerns. And, bordering on the Kafkaesque, the Kingston women’s group INSPIRE withdrew their invitation to their keynote speaker for their International Womens Day event, (a Canadian citizen and the first women ever to win the solo event of the grueling Race Across America bicycle challenge) on learning that she had once served in the Israeli army some twenty years earlier. 

What can these people be thinking? According to the perpetrators themselves, they are committing these (violent criminal) acts because they object to the Israeli government’s handling of the war with Hamas. Most also disapprove of the Canadian government’s response to this war. Yet there is no logical reason why they would need to resort to this unacceptable behaviour. Peaceful protest is not only permitted but encouraged. Peaceful protest is an essential element of a healthy democracy. Violence is not.[viii] More importantly, the violent behaviour we are now seeing goes far beyond this simple distinction between lawful and illegal protest. The appropriate target for any protesters’ concerns should be governments, since it is the policies of governments that they are attempting to influence. Blockading a government building or occupying a government office are at least logical attempts to effect change. In this context, attacking fellow citizens is not only unacceptable but completely pointless.  

This leads to the obvious conclusion that the protesters view the targets of their violent actions as somehow connected with, or responsible for, the actions of a government. In this case the actions of the government of Israel. Which begs the question of why any protesters would associate ordinary Canadian citizens with the actions and policies of a foreign government. If this were a logical position, surely we would be seeing protests and violent action being taken against individual Canadians of Russian heritage because of the war in Ukraine, or Canadian Shia Muslims because of the atrocities of the Iranian government domestically and its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis abroad. But of course this has not happened. Yet clearly there are some Canadians who associate any person who is Jewish with the activities of the Israeli government, and/or of supporting those activities. Sadly this apparently includes some of our elected representatives. Otherwise we would hardly have heard from NDP MP Brian Masse that it is impossible for governments to take action to stop the spread of hateful antisemitic behaviour here in Canada “until there’s a ceasefire (in Gaza).” [ix]   

Which leads in turn to the next obvious question. Is concern about the Israeli-Hamas war really the driver behind this increasing wave of antisemitic behaviour? Or has some level of antisemitism always been present in our society, for which the Israeli-Hamas War has simply provided a perceived acceptable outlet? Regrettably the evidence would seem to suggest the  latter. Antisemtic hate crime incidents have been on the rise throughout the pandemic. In Toronto alone they had doubled in 2023 from the previous year, before the start of the Oct. 7 war, and were four times more frequent than anti-Muslim incidents. Since Oct. 7 the number of antisemitic incidents has jumped dramatically in every major Canadian city, and they have become increasingly violent.[x]

It is cold comfort to know that the level of antisemitic behaviour has actually been increasing across western democracies in recent years. There, also,it became more aggressive during the pandemic. Since the invasion of Israel by Hamas in October of last year it has been described by one European Union official as a crisis “on steroids.”[xi]

On a positive note, government leaders in many western European democracies have recognized this threatening trend and have taken a firm stand condemning antisemitism in all its forms as unacceptable. In France, the home of the largest Jewish community in Europe, President Emmanuel Macron noted the tripling of antisemitic incidents in 2023, and declared, “Antisemitism is resurfacing, in words, on the walls… The Republic does not and will not compromise, and we will be ruthless against those who carry that hatred.”[xii] Similarly British prime minister Rishi Sunak announced his government would provide some 54 million pounds of new funding to protect Jewish communities against antisemitism over the next four years. “It is shocking, and wrong, the prejudice, the racism we have seen in recent months,” Sunak said in a speech to the Community Security Trust’s annual dinner. “It is hatred, pure and simple. An assault on the Jewish people. We will fight this antisemitism with everything we’ve got.”[xiii] Meanwhile German chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “ashamed and outraged” at a recent wave of antisemitic incidents in Germany. While attending an event marking the 85th anniversary of the Nazis’ “Kristallnacht” pogrom of Jews in that country, he declared that his government “would not tolerate such anti-Jewish hatred.”[xiv] In Italy, president Sergio Mattarella denounced rising antisemitism in that country and delivered a powerful speech in support of the Jewish people as he commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, declaring the Holocaust “the most abominable of crimes” and recalling the complicity of Italians under Fascism in the deportation of Jews.”[xv]

But this shared rejection of antisemitism in western Europe has not been seen in many former Soviet block countries in eastern Europe, most of whom are struggling economically and whose societies are vulnerable to misinformation and intimidation. In Hungary, for example, under the autocratic illiberal regime of president Viktor Orban, antisemitism has figured prominently in his xenophobic platform over the years, and a new government initiative has raised fears that he is returning to the charge, associating EU officials with the work of philanthropist George Soros and his son, who are clearly identified by his government as part of a broader Jewish “conspiracy.”[xvi] A similar narrative is unfolding in Poland, where some one-third of Poles hold antisemitic views.[xvii] There the recent defeat of a right-wing illiberal regime that had been in power since 2015, (in favour of a more moderate centrist government under Donald Tusk), has seen an increasing number of violent and antisemitic protests, culminating in one far-right politician using a fire extinguisher to put out the lights on a menorah set up in the legislature to mark Hanukkah.[xviii]  

Closer to home, American President Joe Biden has been categorical in his rejection of antisemitism. But his Republican counterpart, former president Donald Trump, has gone down an increasingly dangerous path, compounding his frequent antisemitic comments over the years by linking this issue with political party support.[xix] Following another declaration by Trump regarding Jewish American support for Democrats, the White House released a statement which criticized his comments as “vile and unhinged antisemitic rhetoric” and concluded “leaders have an obligation to call hate what it is and bring Americans together against it. There is no justification for spreading toxic, false stereotypes that threaten fellow citizens. None.”[xx]

In Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau has also described the “terrifying” rise in antisemitic incidents as unacceptable and declared “This needs to stop. This is not who we are as Canadians. This is something that is not acceptable in Canada, period.” [xxi] In an unusual display of political solidarity, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre echoed the prime minister’s words in a December 2023 press release, stating “Antisemitism has reared its ugly head once again. Conservatives will always stand with the Jewish people against antisemitism as they continue to fight for their right to live and worship in peace.” As Bernie Farber, a prominent leader of the Jewish community noted, not only politicians but others in leadership positions have been uniformly supportive, making this a qualitatively different source of antisemitism from that promulgated, for example, in Nazi Germany. “What distinguishes the current wave of antisemitism from the past is the (positive) role of government and police. Back then, it was driven by government and by officialdom within Germany…Here we see that the political sector, law enforcement, civil society by and large, has been unequivocal in its support for the Jewish community and its condemnation of what the Jewish community has been experiencing.”[xxii]

As numerous studies have concluded, the economic upheaval of the post-industrial era of globalization, followed by the enforced isolation of several years of a global pandemic, has set the stage for social unrest and individual resentment. This discontent has then been targeted by extremists with agendas, who can manipulate vulnerable individuals through deliberate misinformation. According to the Canadian government’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, violent extremists have been spreading antisemitic rhetoric for some time, using social media as their “main pathway.” Extremist “influencers” have “praised Hamas and disseminated antisemitic content and conspiracy theories that incite violence”, according to an Oct. 12, 2023 report obtained by Global News through an Access to Information request. “The narratives encourage hate crimes, violence and terrorism.” Another report two weeks later predicted the Israel-Hamas conflict would “exacerbate the current steady increase in hate crimes targeting the Jewish community in Canada. Violent rhetoric celebrating the Oct. 7 attack and encouraging like-minded individuals to conduct lone actor attacks could inspire individuals to conduct attacks targeting Israeli interests or the Jewish community.”[xxiii]

The Trudeau government has introduced a number of specific measures to combat antisemitism and violent hate crimes. Most notable is the allocation of some $100 million to support Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy and the federal Anti-Racism Secretariat, including $70 million to support community organizations across Canada addressing issues of anti-racism, human rights and multiculturalism. The 2019 federal budget also allocated $19.4M over 4 years to the Digital Citizen Initiative (DCI) to counter online disinformation, understand the origin and spread of online disinformation, and build citizen resilience to it. Funding was provided for projects attempting to understand the origins and spread of online disinformation targeting specific communities, including racialized communities. In addition the recently tabled Bill 63, (The Online Harms Act) is a targeted response to this growing threat. Although it has been criticized by some civil liberties groups for possible overreach, (and at the same time criticized by numerous stakeholders for not going far enough), there can be little doubt that this legislation, once refined and implemented, could play a significant role in mitigating against this spiralling reality of antisemitism. At the same time, governments alone cannot stem the tide. It is up to individual Canadians to do their part. With only 7% of the population expressing racist sentiments in public opinion polling,[xxiv] it would appear that the vast majority of citizens have a role to play in ensuring a small vocal minority does not continue to negatively impact this society’s longstanding reputation for tolerance and acceptance of diversity. In addition to the compelling ethical rationale, it would be prudent to consider self-interest as well. Antisemitism may be the canary in the coal mine in an era of increasingly illiberal and antidemocratic regimes.




[iv] These and other incidents are graphically recounted by noted Canadian journalist Walter Stewart in his seminal work But Not in Canada! Smug Canadian Myths Shattered by Harsh Reality. (Toronto: Macmillan. 1976).





[viii] Some protesters, such as York University professional activist Leslie Wood, have cited the chaotic handling by security forces of the G8 protests in Toronto in 2010 as an example of how peaceful protest is not always permitted. However, while there is no question that this event was badly managed, it is also the case that it was an exceptional situation, not since repeated, and one from which much was learned. Indeed, the passive approach of local police during the initial stages of the Ottawa convoy occupation have been described by many as an overzealous attempt to ensure protesters were given as much leeway as possible to avoid a similar outcome. See especially  



[xi] and