Canada has been experiencing some of the worst outbreaks of antisemitism not seen since the end of the Second World War, says former justice minister Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism.
“What we’re witnessing has been a global escalation in antisemitism, but Canada has not been free from that international dynamic,” Cotler said in an interview.
Cotler was named special envoy last November, a role that was made permanent by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his virtual appearance at the concluding plenary session of the Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism on Oct. 13.
Trudeau said Cotler’s office will also be supported by increased resources.
Since 2017, Statistics Canada has consistently reported the Jewish community as the most frequently targeted religious minority when it comes to hate crimes. In 2019, out of 608 cases, antisemitism accounted for nearly half of them, with 296 cases.
Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada also reported 2020 as the “fifth consecutive record-setting year for antisemitism in Canada,” in its annual audit of antisemitic accidents, with recorded incidents up 18.3 percent from 2019.
The report noted that over 44 percent of violent incidents in 2020 were related to COVID-19 prejudices, including “Jews being spat on and otherwise assaulted, including with the use of weapons.”
Cotler said since the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world there has been a parallel “pandemic of antisemitism,” particularly on social media, where Jews are accused of “having manufactured the COVID-19 virus, of having spread it, and of having sought to profit from it.”
‘While it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews’
Cotler said he sees the Holocaust as a metaphor for radical evil, and antisemitism as a metaphor for radical hate.
“In a word, Jews were murdered in the Holocaust because of antisemitism, but antisemitism itself did not die in the Holocaust,” he said. “And it remains the bloody canary in the mineshaft of global evil today.”
“As we’ve learned only too painfully and too well, that while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews,” the international human rights lawyer added.
Antisemitism has also crept into Canadian campus culture, said Cotler, and is rising at an “alarming” rate. He recounted testimony shared by representatives from the Jewish community during the National Summit on Antisemitism in July, which he convened.
Cotler said speakers at the summit said they were being bullied and excluded from campus culture by those who see Israel as an “oppressor” in the Middle East.
“’We [Jewish students] are being marginalized, bullied, in fact excluded from the campus culture, where we are held out to be … sort of part of white supremacists because Israel is held out to be the white supremacist oppressor in the Middle East. And so we are denied even a right to speak and to participate in the campus culture,’” he said, recounting one student’s remarks.
Addressing the same summit, Trudeau said antisemitism has no place in Canada.
“It is unacceptable that Jewish communities and people still face violence, hate, and discrimination in our country,” he said.
Cotler said when it comes to Israel, it’s crucial to distinguish the difference between criticizing the country’s policies and singling out the Jewish state or Jewish people.
“If there was a criticism of an Israeli policy, that is not an issue—that’s fine. Like any other state it can be criticized,” he said.
“If, however, Israel or the Jewish people or Jews are singled out for selective opprobrium and indictment, then that’s a standing denial of equality rights, of equal protection, and equal treatment before the law.”
Cotler said Canada pledged to translate its commitment against antisemitism into concrete action during the Malmo forum attended by over 50 government leaders and their delegations.
Canada’s “Country Pledges” include promoting education and awareness about the Holocaust and antisemitism, supporting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and “combating the scourge of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and distortion.”
With reporting by Limin Zhou