Conspicuous in their Absence

A Note before you read this post: I am Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish home, and graduated from Holy Blossom Temple religious school in Toronto. I raised my children as Jews. I am a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada,  a grassroots organization grounded in Jewish tradition that opposes all forms of racism and advocates for justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine. Our strength comes from our members. IJV has active chapters in cities and on university campuses across the country.

We Were Not the Savages

The book launch for the 4th edition of We Were Not the Savages by Daniel Paul was an exciting affair.  On Sept. 30, more than 300 people crowded into Alumni Hall at King’s College in Halifax.  First we listened to Mi’kmaq drummer and academic Catherine Martin, then we heard Pam Palmater, Indigenous author, lawyer and professor at Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) introduce Daniel N Paul. 

Paul is 84 years old, a Miꞌkmaq elder, an author, a columnist, and a human rights activist. His outstanding book We Were Not the Savages was first published almost three decades ago –in 1993.  He was the first Indigenous person to author a history of Indigenous people in Canada.   

The 4th edition of We Were Not the Savages

As I looked around the audience, I saw no one whom I recognized as a leader in the institutional Jewish community or no one who represented it.  Of course, the book launch was not a Jewish event; and had nothing to do with Jews.  Still, one would think that a Jewish presence would be welcome.

Below: Daniel Paul, recipient of the Order of Canada 2005; Pam Palmater; Catherine Martin.

I would have thought that Jews could have lent some of their institutional support for Canada’s Indigenous people.  After all, when Paul wrote about Indigenous people suffering at the hands of colonialism and racism, he included minorities such as African Nova Scotians and Jews.  Canada’s seventh prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, proclaimed, “The nineteenth century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the twentieth century.” However, Daniel Paul noted that for the racialized and marginalized, the spirit of “belonging” amounted little more than “Twentieth century racism.”(p. 318) 

For the racialized and marginalized, the spirit of “belonging” amounted to little more than “20th century racism”

Daniel Paul

Perhaps the establishment Jewish community did not choose to attend the launch because they were angered by a passage in We Were Not the Savages

“No sane person can deny the fact that abhorrent atrocities were committed by the Axis forces during the war: the gassing of the Jews and Gypsies, the slaughter of the Chinese, the starvation of the people of St Petersburg, just to name a few.  But, to be forthright, literally thousands of similar types of horrors occurred in the Americas and elsewhere and go un-remarked. Why? Racism is the only logical answer.” 

We Were Not the Savages, p.4.

In the book, Daniel Paul makes the case that Indigenous people suffered genocide – not that others did not, but there has to be recognition that genocide did not pertain only to what the Nazis did to the Jews.  Racism hangs as a big question mark in the air.  Paul takes no pleasure in showing the brutality of the European invaders.  He writes “the nations they created in the Americas [must] do some honest soul searching” to acknowledge what they did wrong.   

“Double” suffering of Canadian Jews

That may not sit well with some Jewish audiences. Canadian Jews, some of whose forbears were in Europe, suffered horrifically during World War II.  Canadian Jews also suffered discrimination right here in Canada especially in the first 60 years of the 20th century – at the hands of the powerful elites.  But Jews’ “double” suffering seems to have made us less, not more, willing to join with others to fight racism and discrimination today.  In years past, Canadian Jews were more engaged in social justice than today. I remember in Saskatchewan 22 years ago, some in the institutional Jewish community joined with Jews like me, my family, plus atheists, and non-Christians to fight mandatory Christian prayer in the public schools– a fight we won. But now the institutional Jewish community’s energy for social justice has gone into its opposite– and as you will read below– taking away others’ civil rights through the IHRA-WDA if anyone dares to criticize Israel.

Are Jews exceptional, should they have their own laws?

Indeed the Jewish community has become increasingly insular and isolated from making common cause with marginalized and racialized groups. For example, the Jewish community’s insistence that all levels of government implement the IHRA-WDA (the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – Working Definition of Antisemitism) is a case in point.  The IHRA says that Jews are exceptional.  The IHRA says that Jews deserve their own law, their own rules – because antisemitism is the most serious problem in Canada.  Never mind the massacres of six Muslims at prayer in a Quebec City mosque; never mind the four members of a Pakistani-Canadian family out for a walk who were mowed down by a racist driver in London.   Never mind that street checks by police were seven times higher for African Nova Scotians than for whites. Or that a white man in a car threw a 35-pound trailer hitch at two Indigenous women walking down a street in Thunder Bay, Ont. which struck one of them and lead to her death. Or that one in four Chinese-Canadians surveyed complain they’ve been physically attacked in the last year or two of Covid. 

But the IHRA has drawn the battle lines, and deliberately separates Jewish Canadians from other minority or equity-seeking groups in this country.  Because most Jewish Canadians are white, and tend to “fit in” to the larger society, they suffer few if any impediments to attaining higher education, quality jobs, professional careers or a decent place to live.  The institutional Jewish community has recently bought into the idea that there is a “new” antisemitism afoot–that today’s antisemitisim is being too critical of Israel – which means critical of Israel. 

Seven of  the eleven examples of antisemitism given in the IHRA-WDA involve criticisms of Israel.  What does that mean?  It means that criticism of Israel as a country, Israel’s human rights record against Palestinians, Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of Palestinians’ lands is antisemitic and hurts Jews in Canada.  Does that make sense? Canadians freely criticize the Chinese government, yet nobody takes seriously accusation that we are against Chinese people;  lots of Canadians want to punish Russia –especially Putin – but we don’t hate Russian people.  Many feminists here criticize the US Supreme Court which overturned Roe v. Wade, but few Canadians are against the American people.  Why can’t Canadians say that Israel is an apartheid state—the late Archbishop Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, and respected human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch   and Israel’s own B’tselem have said exactly that.  But according to the IHRA definition, saying that Israel practices apartheid against the Palestinians is antisemitic.   

I’ve just heard that anyone or organization that receives a grant or funds from Canada’s Department of Heritage now must sign a document saying they respect the IHRA-WDA.  No other religious or ethnic group has that kind of rule imposed for them by the government.  

Who suffers more?

If the institutional Jewish community continues to to say their suffering is more important, more extreme and longer lasting – than what happened to tens of millions Blacks during the Middle Passage, and their enslavement in almost every western country, or the deliberate massacres of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island – then we have a problem. 

Our problem is the privileging of people who are already highly privileged – by dint of their whiteness, and their positions and opportunities in society.  Yes antisemitism exists, but we can neither blame people who are oppressed because of the colour of their skin, their immigrant or refugee status, their disability, or their sexual preferences, nor can we say that disallowing criticism of Israel will stop antisemitism. 

The institutional Jewish community successfully — and shamefully –lobbied for the removal of Rana Zaman’s human rights award

When the institutional Jewish community does mobilize its forces for political change, it is hardly ever on behalf of anyone but itself.  Indeed, it too often intervenes to attack or exclude people in other vulnerable groups. One need only look at how the Jewish community lobbied for the removal of the Human Rights Award from social activist Rana Zaman in 2019 for some comments she made critical of Israel.

Letter from Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC); and below AJC’s press release below:
PRESS RELEASE: The Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) and CIJA, our National Advocacy Agent, applaud the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission
December 20, 2019

Press Release: The Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) and CIJA, our National Advocacy Agent, applaud the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission

Halifax, NS — Today, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission formally rescinded the Human Rights Award presented to Rana Zaman of Halifax on Dec. 10.

In response, the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) and The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) issued the following:

“We commend the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for recognizing that Ms. Zaman’s public statements “were directly contrary to the principles of the award.” This decision makes clear that people who engage in this type of hateful discourse disqualify themselves as human rights advocates.”

“We thank the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for this decision. Ms. Zaman was expelled as a candidate in the last election for comments unbecoming of a public office holder. She had a chance to make things right, but instead offered a hollow apology and failed to change her behavior.”
To see the full AJC original press release, look here

Or the way the Jewish community occupied the Annual General Meeting of Halifax Pride in 2016 to ensure that motions critical of Israel were defeated. Or the fact that when the Halifax Jewish community gathered in 2018 to mourn the killing of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh, not one person of a different religion was given the opportunity to address the congregation. I know, I was present at all three of these shameful occasions.

The best insurance against antisemitism is for Jews to pitch in and fight Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, stereotyping and denigrating Indigenous people – that would be a start.  

To privilege Jews above others is the wrong direction and sends a very bad message.

Featured image; This Painting is a Mirror by Christi Belcourt (2012). Belcourt is a Metis artist. This painting is part of the collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Photo by Lawrence Cook.


  1. interesting analysis Judy. It introduces me to some information I did not know previously, but a point of view with which I concur. Marilynne


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