Antisemitism is a dangerous, ancient ideology that appears to be spreading unchecked in the 21st century.
On Jan. 15, Malik Faisal Akram took three congregants and a Rabbi hostage during a Sabbath service at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The gunman, a British citizen, demanded the release of a convicted terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. The hostages managed to escape physically unharmed before the terrorist was shot dead by law enforcement.
The incident served as yet another reminder that antisemitism poses a grave threat to the lives of Jewish people and to public security.
In the aftermath of the hostage crisis, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling on the U.S. Congress “to double funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides non-profit organizations, including Jewish schools and houses of worship, with much-needed assistance to bolster security.”
According to the ADL’s audit of antisemitic incidents in the United States, there were 2,024 reported antisemitic incidents in 2020. “This is a four per cent decrease from the 2,107 incidents recorded in 2019 but is still the third-highest year on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979,” notes the executive summary of the audit. Incidents included harassment, vandalism and assault.
According to B’nai Brith Canada’s own audit, there were 2,610 recorded incidents in this country in 2020, representing “an 18.3 per cent increase of recorded antisemitic incidents compared to 2019.” Incidents ranged from vandalism to harassment and even violence. And the audit revealed that “over 44 per cent of violent incidents in 2020 were COVID-19-related.”
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies
In a news briefing held after the conclusion of the hostage-taking incident at the Beth Israel Synagogue, an FBI special agent said the attack was “not specifically related to the community.” What was your initial reaction when you first heard that statement?
“Suffice it to say we’re very unhappy with that being the takeaway,” replied Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of policy at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. “I think it’s obvious that take on it is inaccurate.”
Kirzner-Roberts, who is also in charge of the centre’s advocacy campaigns, noted that the terrorist “did not randomly end up in a synagogue; he chose that space deliberately.” He took Jewish people hostage, “so the idea that them being Jews is not relevant — that’s absurd,” she said in a telephone interview with the Whig-Standard.
“Our organization is definitely going to be engaging with the FBI about the way that they framed that. However, this is also a story about the media.”
The FBI statement was taken out of context, she asserted. “I think what the FBI meant in that statement was that what the hostage-taker was asking for in return for freeing the hostage was not an outcome that directly involved Jews. I don’t think they meant that Jews were not the ones being targeted by the terrorist incident.”
Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, posted his reaction to the FBI statement the day after the hostage crisis was resolved. “Yesterday’s comments that Texas hostage-taking ‘was not directed at the Jewish community’ misses a crucial point: it happened in a synagogue, not in a bank or a church,” Rae tweeted. “Don’t ignore #antisemitism, an ancient form of hatred that continues to plague our modern world. Name it.”
Violence threats ‘normalized’
What does it say about the state of antisemitism in 2022 that it is necessary for houses of worship to participate in security training?
“We’ve been involved in facilitating some of that training here in Canada,” Kirzner-Roberts responded. “It isn’t just synagogues; it’s all Jewish organizations,” including schools and community centres.
“I think we just take it as a given that there is going to be someone with a gun at the door. Sometimes we don’t even realize how odd that is to anybody outside of our community. This is how pervasive this has become.”
What kind of security threats do extremist ideologies pose?
“There is an antisemitism problem in Islamic fundamentalism,” Kirzner-Roberts answered. “That can’t be denied. And it is a problem that the rest of our social institutions are having trouble addressing effectively.
“There is clearly an antisemitism problem in far-right extremist groups. The most obvious is neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. But even other groups that are coming from the far right tend to engage very frequently in some very dark antisemitic conspiracy theories,” including some anti-vaccine groups.
“At the end of the day, political extremism is very much a function of social malaise, social insecurity and social adjustment. We are in a moment like that right now, in a moment of pandemic. It’s a fearful moment, and it’s a moment which is really fuelling the fires of hatred and extremism. We are seeing an explosion of organizing on all sides of the extremist spectrum,” she said. “And the one thing that they seem to agree on is that the problem facing the world today is the Jews.”
Given that both the Jewish and Muslim communities are threatened by intolerance and hatred, how important are interfaith initiatives and bridge-building in 2022?
“So important,” Kirzner-Roberts replied. “We have so, so many Muslim people who are allies with the Jewish community in the fight against antisemitism. I hope that the Muslim community feels the same way about our community. Because as Jews, we know as well as anyone what it is to be discriminated against because of our culture, because of our background, because of ethnicity or religion. I would say that it is a fundamental Jewish value to reject discrimination and to stand up against Islamophobia.”
Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and a member of the Muslim community, took to Twitter on Jan. 16 to post a long thread on antisemitism in response to the terrorist incident. “Antisemitism is a growing problem,” he tweeted. “And for many, including myself, it is an evolving understanding. But we aren’t going to address it without legitimately engaging, understanding and creating strong relationships between Jews and Canadians of all backgrounds.”
“He made really quite a beautiful statement of allyship yesterday on Twitter following the horrible incident in Texas,” Kirzner-Roberts said of Hashim’s statement. “We are so grateful to our friends in the Muslim community who have stood by us in the face of antisemitism.”
The anti-vaccine movement has misappropriated the Holocaust and the suffering of Jewish people, which has prompted the Auschwitz Memorial on a number of occasions to respond. For example, on Jan. 12, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted: “Exploiting of the tragedy of all people who between 1933-45 suffered, were humiliated, tortured & murdered by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany in a debate about vaccines & COVID limitations in the time of global pandemic is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decay.”
As International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) approaches, what is your message to those who seek to exploit the Holocaust?
“One of the ways to ensure that the Holocaust will never happen again is to tell the story of the Holocaust and educate future generations,” Kirzner-Roberts replied. “When groups make false and absurd comparisons between something in the world that they don’t like to the Holocaust — they are spreading misinformation.
“In fact, they are denying the facts of the Holocaust. Because there’s nothing whatsoever in common between taking a vaccine and being kidnapped from your home, taken to a concentration camp where you are worked like a slave until you die — nothing at all. We consider this tendency to make Holocaust parallels … a form of Holocaust denial. For us, this cannot be tolerated.”
“We are living in a moment of dramatically escalating antisemitism,” Kirzner-Roberts said. “And this is being expressed, among other ways, in dramatically growing hate crimes against the Jewish community. As concerning as the hate crimes themselves is the indifference that we are seeing to this growing hate from much of the mainstream media.”
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.