Jews Say No to Genocide protest action inside Union Station, Nov 9., 2023.
Jews Say No to Genocide protest action inside Union Station, Nov 9., 2023. Photo: Kerri North

Media Confusion About Antisemitism: A Case Study

Global News’ article “Investigation: The antisemitism that Oct. 7 unleashed in Canada” was maddening to read because it oversimplifies antisemitism and conflates anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Jewish discrimination. In a time when claims of antisemitism are being used to silence and criminalize pro-Palestinian activists, it is imperative to parse the arguments of the Global piece. 

Vandalizing and targeting Jewish buildings vs. legitimate protest

The article’s first section focuses on acts of vandalism and property destruction aimed at Jewish buildings. The specific example given is:

“On Nov. 9, bullets hit the school entrance [to Yeshiva Gedola, a Jewish elementary school in Montreal]. Three days later, it happened again. Students were not in class at the time and there were no injuries, but the community was taken aback.” 

The shots were fired at night when the schools were closed. 

Targeting Jewish institutions, for their Jewishness, is always antisemitic. 

But then, without evidence, the Global authors connect this instance to pro-Palestine activity by referencing a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report from Oct. 12, just five days after Oct. 7, which warns that what is happening in Palestine and Israel may lead to increased antisemitism here. 

This is an inappropriate conclusion to draw without outlining both the history of antisemitism here in Canada, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Since no arrests or convictions have been made in this or most other cases involving vandalism of Jewish buildings, we don’t know who is behind these acts or their motivations. 

However, it’s critical that we distinguish between this type of menacing antisemitic vandalism and legitimate protest. 

For example, protesting at a synagogue in Thornhill, Ont.ON, that was hosting a real estate sale for illegal settlements in the West Bank, is not antisemitic, even if the presence of protesters outside a synagogue might make some people uncomfortable. The target was realtors selling land in Israel and illegal settlements in the West Bank, not Jewish people. Israel’s genocidal campaign to eradicate Palestinians from their land, including stealing their homes and then selling the lands to the international community is more than just uncomfortable, it’s also illegal. 

Criticism of support for Israel vs. far-right antisemitism 

The Global article’s second section focuses on Vancouver restaurant owner Marcus Stiller, who had an Israeli flag in his store window before and after Oct. 7. After Oct. 7 one reviewer said the restaurant supported genocide. This is confrontational and possibly up for debate if you don’t believe “genocide” is the word to use, but it is not in itself antisemitic. Stiller’s religion isn’t being targeted; the restaurant’s support for the state of Israel is. 

What does Stiller think the Israeli flag represents right now? The same flag is waved gleefully by Israeli soldiers who kill civilians and demolish civilian homes across Gaza. 

The restaurant also, in November, had a swastika and slogan meaning “Heil Hitler” graffitied on the back of it. These are far more antisemitic than the “accusation of supporting genocide.” The article positions the online accusation as somehow linked to the alt-right slogan and swastika, or a natural next step in the progression of the antisemitism Stiller is facing. 

It must be noted that neo-Nazi groups have been opportunistically attaching themselves to and infiltrating pro-Palestinian movements to try to push antisemitic beliefs, incite violence, and pass blame off on Palestinian liberation movements. 

Although I can’t be certain who spray painted Stiller’s restaurant, I am quite confident that the question of whether he supports the ongoing genocide should be considered separate from having neo-Nazi symbols and graffiti spray painted on his building. Those symbols are completely out of sync with the language, symbols, and beliefs of Palestinian liberation movements. 

One person preaching antisemitism does not represent an entire people 

The next section describes an extreme example. Younus Kathrada, a preacher at Dar al-Ihsan Islamic Centre based in Victoria, B.C., preaches a particular fringe vision of Israel-Palestine as a “religious war” against “filthy Zionists.” He has been quoted saying things that range from needing to defeat the Zionists to “We pray that Allah grants them victory over the criminal Jews.” 

This conflation of Israel and Jews is definitely antisemitic. Israel does not represent all Jews, and all Jews globally don’t support the state of Israel. 

But this example is misplaced for a few reasons. 

First, Kathrada has been saying similar things since 2018. This is nothing new and was not instigated by the violence on Oct. 7 or after. Second, his views are not representative of all Muslims, all Palestinians, or even all who hate Jewish people. In fact, he was denounced in 2021 by the B.C. Muslim Association as an “extremist” and part of a “fringe group.” 

To place this example in the centre of a discussion related to Canada after Oct. 7 serves to collapse years of complex dialogue within Muslim and Arab communities around Israel and its human rights abuses towards a predominantly Muslim population in Palestine. 

The inclusion of this example is actually rooted in Islamophobia; suggesting that this is part of a new or rising antisemitism is almost like using extreme right-wing Christian preachers to suggest that all Christians globally are violently antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic.

Campus unrest 

The campus section of the Global article confuses feeling unsafe with actual violence or antisemitism. 

After Oct. 7, the article notes that Jewish students began to wonder, “Are these [Pro-Palestine] protests condemning us?” The students, and the authors, collapse Israel and Jewishness. This makes sense considering that many Jewish students in North America are provided a very particular worldview by Zionist organizations, one that ensures protest of Israel is characterized as attacking the Jewishness of Israel, rather than its human rights violations. 

This section also covers a controversial event at Concordia University in November in which there was an altercation between the groups Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which was doing a fundraiser for Gaza, and StartUp Nation, a Zionist or pro-Israel student group holding an event to raise awareness about the Israeli hostages taken on Oct. 7. A fight broke out but it is still unclear who started it, what was said, and which side is to blame. 

Reading the Global piece might leave you with the false impression that this is simply one of many antisemitic incidents where Jewish students are being targeted for their Jewishness, rather than campuses across the country grappling with the reality of Zionist, anti-Zionist, and pro-Palestinian movements sharing spaces on campus. 

Another example in this section describes a sessional lecturer from the University of Montreal telling a Jewish student to “go back to Poland” and calling her a “whore.” Both of these things are totally inappropriate from a teacher to a student.  

Telling Jews to go back to Poland, just like telling any immigrant to “go back”’ to their home, is xenophobic — rooted in fears of what is different from ourselves. It’s especially complex and leads to antisemitism because it assumes all Jewish people are a monolithic group from one area of the world; something that simply isn’t true. 

What the article doesn’t cover is that the video of this incident is from the same Concordia protest noted above — a heated brawl between 50 or more people with dozens screaming profanities at each other. One Zionist was reportedly yelling at a student that she should be raped. 

Pro-Palestine advocacy is not inherently antisemitic 

The final section begins with a baseless claim of a pro-Palestinian rally targetting Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto. The protest — Hands Off Rafah — was a march through many parts of the downtown, as The Grind described in detail at the time. One protester, known as Spiderman4Palestine on Instagram, climbed scaffolding outside the hospital to wave a flag, just as he did at the Eaton Centre, and multiple other locations on the march route. 

Despite zero evidence that this hospital was a target of the event, and with hundreds of Jewish people in attendance supporting the cause, politicians jumped at the chance to characterize this rally as antisemitic. This example suggests that even being near a symbol of Jewish community — if you are against the state of Israel’s actions — will get you called an antisemite in Toronto. This is a dangerous suggestion because it collapses Israel and Jewishness and makes it very hard to fight actual antisemitism. If everything is antisemitic, nothing is antisemitic, there becomes no credible way to talk about real hate, or link it to other forms of oppression.

This section ends with Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) saying that criticism of Israel and Jews is “one and the same.” Here Israel is not just the proxy for Jewish people, Fogel claims they are one concept, one people, one nation, one group. This allows a dangerous conflation of all pro-Palestinian movements as being against Jewish people, something that is simply untrue. 

So what is antisemitism and why is it so important to challenge false definitions? 

Antisemitism is hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews. Criticizing Israel — its violence, displacement, torture, and murder of Palestinians — is entirely legitimate, just like criticism of any other state. 

This veers into antisemitism when it is assumed that the Jewish-Israeli settler state possesses some kind of unique power globally. Any unique power it does hold, has been bestowed by the most powerful and violent settler colonial states, including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. 
The weaponization of Jewish trauma has led to dangerous treatment of Palestinian liberation movements. It also makes a mockery of fighting antisemitism. Articles like the Global one limit meaningful attempts to connect these struggles and link global fights for justice, which are essential for real Jewish safety.

This article appeared in the 2024 May/June issue.