I attended the forum last night sponsored by the Canadian Jewish Congress, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, and the Temple Sholom: Responding to Antisemitism: Are we too thin-skinned?
There may have been 2-300 people there - I didn't attempt a count - most of whom were Jews and I would guess members of the reform Temple Sholom. Almost everyone had reached middle-age and I was quickly joined by some (judging from accents) German Jewish ladies who put me me in nostalgic mind of my grandparents, people who could never solve the mystery of antisemitism in their day and who consequently didn't know whether to run away or remain identified with the Jewish community.
My feeling was there was an assumed consensus in the temple about the answer to the evening's official question. No, we are not too thin skinned, though the question was rarely directly addressed and there was no questioning of the question itself, which I see as acknowledging a little too openly the mindset of the “anti-Zionists” who accuse neurotic Jews of using their supposed victim status to do nasty things to the Palestinians.
First to speak was the CJC's national President, Mark Freiman (the CJC's CEO, Bernie Farber had also been scheduled to attend but, we were told, he is suffering from laryngitis and the doctor wouldn't let him travel).
Freiman began by lauding both the government of Canada for announcing that it will host an international conference on antisemitism and the Parliamentary coalition that has set itself up to study antisemitism. Clearly, Freiman thinks antisemitism is a growing problem. He then offered a little history lesson, pointing to various assumed causes of historical antisemisitm (economic, theological, etc.) reminding us of the day when pseudo-scientific “antisemites” were proud of coining the name and racial theory. But he left the ultimate nature of antisemitism unspoken, as an apparent mystery. Today, he says, no antisemite wants the name, and in polite society everyone wants to appear anti-antisemitic.
Freiman, who generally impresses as having the mind of a highly-disciplined, poker-faced, lawyer then offered one of his few moves to sarcasm, rejecting those who tell us today we only have to (not) worry about kooks and crackpots typing on the internet in their parents' basements.
Let me interject that this was a cheap shot at those who love the (is it originally Mark Steyn's?) “basement Nazi” metaphor. Our argument is that while having a “human rights” speech police is for various reasons a bad or impracticable idea in the age of the internet, there nonetheless really is a growing antisemitism given today's left-Islamist alliance focused, nominally, on hating Israel. We further argue that it is the likes of the CJC who, in encouraging the Canadian state to assume censorship powers, only have the courage or desire (like generals fighting the last war) to focus prosecution on the non-Islamic, i.e. poor white, anachronistically “Nazi”, margins of antisemitism, knowing full well the problems that would ensue if official Jews and official Muslims in Canada went full-tilt in trying to silence alleged Jewish and/or Islamic “hate speech”. This in turn leads to charges that the “official Jews” don't have the courage of their convictions, and by extension to claims that our “justice” on questions of freedom of expression in Canada is becoming dangerously arbitrary, guided by the whims of a political correctness that can always backfire on Jews.
But, as I say, Mr. Freiman speaks like a lawyer dilligently arguing his side of the case, not that Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was the central issue of the night (though it was clearly closely under the surface of the discussion). One might keep in mind that anti-group defamation law has been a central concern of organized Jews in Canada; groups like the CJC have been leaders in lobbying for such laws, going back to the 1930s. And it appears it is the CJC's intent to focus the recent moves by Canada's government and Parliament, to study antisemitism, on the new forms of left-Islamist, or “anti-Zionist”, antisemitism. But after this study happens, it was not made clear to me if Freiman wants our so-called “human rights” or “administrative” law to be the lead agent in trying to shut up the new antisemitism on the internet and in other public media.
Freiman went on to suggest that anti-Zionists are telling the Parliamentary inquiry on antisemitism that its existence is not necessary. Freiman then suggested that the age-old hatred of Jews is always in search of an alibi. Judeophobia survives like an organism by successfully mutating over time.
Freiman then attempted to explain when criticism of Israel becomes a problem of antsemitism. Briefly, his point was that when this criticism of the state of Israel has as its intent, at least in part, to convey some more general comment about the badness of Jews or Judaism, to convey some lesson on Jewish evil, then “anti-Zionism” is just another example of antisemitism or Judeophobia looking for respectability.
Accordingly, Freiman says the CJC will ask for a “broad and realistic” definition of antisemitism by the Parliamentary committee, one that includes anti-Zionism; and it will seek measures to monitor, assess, and combat antisemitism, but he did not specify. He concluded that this is being done not because we (the CJC) are over-sensitive, but because we are asserting Canadian values of tolerance, decency, and intellectual honesty.
The floor was then turned over to Rabbi Robert Daum, the newly-appointed, founding director of the Iona Pacfic: Inter-Religious Centre of the Vancouver School of Theology, at UBC. Rabbi Daum, raised and educated in the USA, contrasted the lawyer Freiman by speaking like a postmodern liberal academic whose principle purpose in taking the stage is somewhat less to assert oneself in conveying a series of tightly logical propositions, than to assert the importance of our giving much consideration to some supposed basis on which all sides can fairly contribute to the debate.
One of Daum's main points was that we have to be sensitive to the difference between intentional and inadvertent antisemitism. Our response to antisemitism must be sensitive to context; we have good reasons to be thin-skinned, given recent historical contexts, but still we must try to get inside the mind or world view of the other.
Speaking about today's “political” antisemitism, evidenced in charges of “Israeli Apartheid”, Daum said we are witnessing a devolution of discussion into a dangerous Manicheanism of simple-minded black and white, good and evil. Daum on the one hand declared he is repulsed by the current focus on boycotts of Israel; but he is also repulsed by Jews who, in heated debate, call other Jews names like “self-hating” or “kapo”. For Daum, such names are a refusal of a Jewish need both to guard jealously the use of language associated with the Nazis and the Shoah, and to understand the genuine motivations of our political opponents and the true complexity of our conflicts. The discourse that reduces all to a battle of heroes and villains is the central problem of our times, for it is only from within such a mindset that one can find the reason to excuse, for example, suicide bombing as simply a “misdemeanor” in a larger “heroic” struggle.
Daum thus, in supposedly rejecting binary thinking, falls into the postmodern trap and performs a yet bigger binary: that which pits the sensitive postmodern discourse theorist – Daum recommends we read the work of Bernard Harrison – against the simplistic Manichean. The message is ultimately Utopian for, in fact, there is no escape from binary thinking but only a perennial challenge to deepen our understanding of its basis in the origin of language. But I'll try not to use this reporting as an excuse to lecture on this central point of Generative Anthropology.
Daum then discussed the recent devolution, at Kelowna, of the United Church of Canada's national congress into a discussion of “Israeli apartheid”. He suggested that a need to respond to this was one of the motivating reasons for the evening's forum. However he then blamed the UCC fiasco only on fringe elements within the church and on rules that allow a single local presbytery to circulate egregiously offensive materials and resolutions.
He then made some comment which I did not entirely catch, about how the circulation of hate speech was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the Shoah. He concluded by invoking the need to embrace “teachable moments”: when people within or without our (jewish) community inadvertently shame our community we need to respond not with arched backs but with an eye to building mutually respectful personal relationships.
The moderator for the evening, Temple Sholom's Rabbi Philip Bregman, then took the floor joking that he was less kind that Daum; “if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck...”
Rabbi Bregman then told a story about how he had just taken Barbara Kay's recent column on the rising antisemitism in Canada with him to the local Jewish day school. He said the column provoked from the students their own stories of antisemitism. He suggested this was something quite new in recent memory. Vancouver kids had in recent decades not reported, or only occasionally reported, antisemitic incidents to Bregman. And yet all of a sudden this week he had heard from five students, with more hands raised in the class, who had received antisemitic slurs. Bregman said these insults came from kids from a variety of racial backgrounds. He typified the incidents in terms of a tussle on the hockey rink or basketball court which results in a charge of “dirty Jew”. I thought he was probably re-presenting the actual language used: how many kids in Vancouver today would know to preface Jew with the classical “dirty” and not, say, the f word? One can imagine perhaps only those raised in particularly clean-obsessed religions, or with “old-fashioned”, Jew-as-market-cheat, antisemitism; but Bregman suggested his recent experience is evidence that the new antisemitism is a widespread political agenda “filtering down” now to youth. In any case, the invocation of the “dirty Jew” left me with the impression that something ritualistic was going on, whatever the basis in today's lived reality for the ritual's re-performance tonight.
Robert Matas and Barbara Yaffe
Two Jewish journalists were then invited to the podium to offer their own thoughts, partly in response to the prepared presentations of Freiman and Daum. First off, Robert Matas of the Globe and Mail revealed a deeply conciliatory intent, though as with Daum, I don't think he can escape from binary thinking. He did not deny the recent rise in antisemitism that the Parliamentary committee is discussing, but he also noted official statistics that suggest a decline in specific hate crimes, of which Blacks in Canada are twice as often the target as Jews (on a per capita basis?). He remarked on how the Calgary police, in responding to recent antisemitic graffiti attacks in that city, were notably pro-active in denouncing this vandalism as hate crime. He suggested this reveals a new sensitivity in Canada, one partly attributable to the efforts of the CJC.
He then went on to defend the media against accusations of bias, particularly in regard to reporting on Israel. He suggested there is a great desire among his colleagues to be neutral and accurate and to get the story right, though he had to admit that the number of corrections his paper has had to publish, concerning stories on Israel, suggested there was often incompetence, which is not to be confused with antisemitism; the corrections also reveal a genuine desire to get it right. He was not happy that the media are accused of bias when they do their job, as he understands it, in providing a range of opinions on Israel. He suggested that when Jews shout “antisemitism” at the media, it just sounds to journalists like name calling, and it is thus counter-productive. Many "ethnic" communities have declared war on the media he said, but like Obama declaring war on Fox news, doing so only hurts them in the battle for public opinion. The solution, he suggested, is for people to engage the media which in turn will just hold up the mirror.
I will leave it to readers to judge to what extent such a journalistically orthodox desire to escape the binaries of us and them is self-deceiving.
Next up was Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun who was the only speaker to confront directly the question posed in the chosen title for the forum. She said we Jews have exactly the right thickness of skin, apparently well-adjusted by experience. She suggested that in her 30-plus years as a reporter she has encountered no community that is as sophisticated in dealing with the media as is the Jewish community.
And yet she said there is no question that Israel is vilified in this world - and so also in the media, a listener might assume - way out of proportion to its size as a country.
Speaking in point form, she said the challenge for the Jewish community is to know where to draw the line with legitimate criticism of the media. What is at stake is freedom of speech, and a Jewish community appearing to attack this freedom in combatting antisemitism could be the target of a serious backlash. We must be very specific where we draw the line, though she did not go into details.
There was then a little time for questions from the floor. Questions had to be submitted, handwritten, on pieces of paper the organizers had provided and they were then filtered and handed to the speakers; only a small number of the submitted questions were asked.
Mark Freiman answered two questions, the first dealing with what is legitimate criticism of Israel. Freiman suggested any criticism that entails, as its likely solution, that Israel commit suicide or lose its specifically Jewish identity, needs to be rejected as antisemitic. He then answered the only question on the topic that is probably of most interest to readers of this blog. The questioner said s/he had been convinced by attending the recent Jewish Book Festival (i.e. Ezra Levant's presentation - see my piece here) of the need to do away with Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, and for Canadians to rely only on the criminal code to police hate speech.
Freiman replied by saying the Human Rights Commissions and the criminal code serve two different functions and target two different problems. He argued that the criminal code is designed to punish the evil doer and hence it has the highest evidentiary and procedural standards to insure protection of the innocent. On the other hand, “human rights”, and/or “administrative” law is aimed at the message itself (not the messenger) and is meant to condemn misuses of our public media and means of communications. He said explicitly that the purpose of the HRCs is not to punish but to denounce hateful messages.
Those who have been sent through the HRC kangaroo court mill and fined and suffered court orders that they not speak publicly, forevermore, on certain issues, would no doubt laugh bitterly at such a bald statement of legal theory that paid no respect to actual experience with the inevitably corrupting, i.e. politicized, attempts to apply such a law. But it was not clear if Freiman was offering a comment on the history of the HRCs or on the future direction the CJC will be lobbying for, as if it might one day be possible to have HRCs that don't punish those they target. He acknowledged there are difficulties and problems with the HRCs, but then seemed to discount these by saying there are problems with the courts as well. If we get rid of Section 13, he said, we give up our commitment to combat hateful messages.
I will take this last statement as the moment to offer some concluding observations on the event. It will seem ridiculous to many "free speechers" for someone to suggest that we necessarily give up our commitment to combat (illegitimate?) resentments, or “hate”, if we give up Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. One can be publicly active in denouncing and marginalizing sundry hatreds, without desiring for there to be an ultimate state arbiter deciding - only G-d knows how this could ever be done apolitically - just whose resentments deserve public denunciation and whose not. But that Freiman said this, to this kind of forum, in all sincerity, and, I suspect, touched a chord in doing so, is something we should maybe consider in the spirit of Rabbi Daum's call to get inside the head of the other.
What those of us who are battling against the existence of Section 13 inevitably confront is the nature of Jewish experience, and some of its established “common sense”, which has something to do with Barbara Yaffe's observation that Jews have the most sophisticated forms of “ethnic” organization in Canada. I am talking, I suspect, about a common sense rooted both in modern Jewish historical experience and in the very founding nature of Judaism itself.
Historically, Jews have of course lived as the other, as the minority within various societies. But this, in my understanding, has not been simply a two-way relationship of majority vs. minority, but a variously triangular relationship in which Jews have often had to contend, and sometimes ally, with either or both the aristocratic and official, or the plebeian or popular elements and resentments in their society.
Now is not the time to attempt any serious historical analysis, but i'll just note that in the experience of Jews in Western Christian nations, there developed from the eighteenth century the opportunity to become enfranchised co-participants in secular national cultures. Jews could now identify not only with Judaism but with a shared secular high culture. While the potential for scapegoating violence and discrimination that the Jews faced often came not simply from either aristocratic/official or from plebeian elements, but from both when it became convenient for the system as a whole to attempt to bond itself against “the Jew”, especially the jew of the marketplace (a bonding in which some secular Jews, or nominal converts to Christianity, like Karl Marx, attempted to participate), Jews could not simply live nonchalantly with a “pox on both your houses”. One had to place bets with one side or another.
Inevitably, as Jews became educated and had access to bureaucratic jobs in Western Europe, they were more likely to associate with aristocratic and official elements within their societies, and perhaps more often with high, and not popular, culture – and they could, indeed, in their often highly educated, and idealized procedural neutrality, be variously useful to those official elements. At the end of the day, it may be that no one is going to save you, as the rise of the Nazis demonstrated; but in the Europe of old, I think Jews did sometimes have a better chance of being saved from antisemitic violence by having a relationship with official society than by attempting, as perhaps did many a Jewish communist, the more difficult challenge of transforming popular culture away from its antisemitic resentments (of course communism had ambitions to also control high and official culture and not just popular culture).
In any case, respect for the law, and not so much for unconsidered popular resentment, is fundamental to Judaism. The point being, historically many Jews have had little reason to put their faith in nothing but a free-wheeling freedom of speech. It was not a realistic, immediately available, option in most places outside North America.
Still, I am one of those of who can't but look at the Nazi experience as proof of anything other than the idea that Jews may only be safe in a society that goes out of its way to maximize individual freedom, even if this means having to keep the state away from policing hate speech, and spending our own individual time and energy to encourage other individuals to take up the task of defending each other's freedom. Accordingly, one wonders how well does the founding logic of the secularizing, state-associating Jew of Europe work in the context of modern North America? I think a study of the Canadian Jewish Congress might allow one to claim that something of the attitudes of middle-class German and perhaps English Jews was transferred to North America in its development of an “official Jewry”.
I observe a speaker like Mark Freiman and genuinely admire his mind but it is nonetheless clearly the mind of a lawyer. If there is a problem, he looks for a legal solution, just as Rabbi Daum looks for an academic solution to the problem of antisemitism. I am not sure, whatever arguments the Ezra Levants of the world put in front of the Freimans that the two are ever really going to connect in a shared common sense, or whether that is necessary. A “Levantian” might try to invoke the idea that the only real solution can come within a maximally free civil society, with unfettered free speech. But, as I am suggesting, this is deeply counter-intuitive to one kind of Jewish experience rooted not just in modern history but perhaps in the very nature of Judaism itself.
To be a Jew is to carry the sign of the people who, depending on whether you favour a religious or an anthropological account, were either the first chosen by God, or the first to discover fully, through their own humanistic genius, the (idea of) the One God. The Jews were thus the first to define, or systematically explore, the idea of there being fundamentally only one kind of (human) Being, however variously represented that Being is by different cultures. Jews took a lead in transforming the polytheist understanding of our humanity. But, the point is, as Eric Gans argues, they could only do this, and remain Jews, by assuming a certain kind of legalistic identity.
What does it mean to remember Moses' revelation on Mt. Sinai of the G-d who does not offer his people a name to be called, but only a paradoxical statement: I am what I am?
If I take on the task of communicating my understanding of the meaning of that revelation to the entirety of humanity, I might well think that it best that I become a Christian for therein lies a means or reason to evangelize the world and not just my fellow Jews. But while Christianity may be a fine and great thing for most people, one that genuinely furthers the Jewish revelation, if I, as a Jew, take that route, do I entirely remember the human nature and meaning of the Mosaic, or indeed any, revelation into our common humanity? Does remembering the nature of this or any story well require there to remain some Jews walking about on this earth?
This is the paradox that every Jew has to face. It may well be – I believe it is – that essential to the meaning of our discovery of the one God, or his equivalent role in a secular anthropology, is the knowledge that someone had to go first in signing a covenant with this God, or someone had to go first in making more systematic what can only be intuitive, unstated, in the polytheist world - the idea that there is ultimately only kind of human Being, and a purely transcendent God who can't be named and invoked at will to change our fate in the worldly world as we seek, in our conflicts, to gain the upper hand over other children of God.
In short, in order to say "we're all the same", someone has to go first, someone has to be different, refusing, unlike everyone previously in human history, to have a special name for G-d.
Jewish chosenness is not a sign of G-d's favouritism; Jews believe, with experience, that they will be both rewarded and punished according to their conduct in keeping the covenant and that their G-d is eveyone's G-d. Rather, chosenness is fundamentally a sign of G-d's willingness to restrain himself, in order to make a deal with humans, and hence to assert the fundamental nature of human freedom to discover a world that need not be understood as infused with unknowable animal spirits.
Humanity will forget something about that which happened at Sinai – someone being chosen to go first - if everyone becomes a Jew or everyone a Christian, or Muslim. Jewish survival is a living reminder of the distinctive nature or burden of firstness, a reminder that is realized or renewed through the various distinctive forms of Jewish identity today. It's not particularly heroic this identity, but generally a simple sign of faith in the given law, as the basis of freedom through learned discipline that the humanly-consistent Creation offers to us. There are thus "official Jews" and their supporters who genuinely believe in the possibility of a "hate speech" law that could be administered in a way that treated all people equally, without politicizing the definition of unacceptable speech, without these laws being one day corrupted and used to promote antisemitism. I think they're wrong, but sincere.
As noted, the keeper of the sign of firstness, a Jew, cannot be an evangelizing knight or a soldier of Allah without ceasing to be a Jew. Since he cannot readily be a dashing hero to the gentile, Jewish identity often takes refuge in respect for the law, a sign of solidarity with both fellow Jews, and humanity. But today a Jew can also remember the lesson laid down at Sinai by furthering the spirit of Exodus and discovery for all humanity by involving oneself in the opportunities the secular world provides for going first in some new kind of human discovery, be this in science, the arts, the law, etc.
In any case, whatever you think of my analysis, one of the claims made a few times at the forum is that we need to attend to the problem of communications as it is so easy for miscommunication of our genuine intent to occur in passionate debates over antisemitism. And it is perhaps true, as I have been suggesting, that there are not a lot of ways for Jews to speak, as Jews, to the rest of humanity without risking a slippery slope on which they might stop being distinctively Jewish and disappear in a common, forgetful, mission to evangelize the world. Thus the Jewish community, while involving itself today in all arenas of civil society, tends, when it looks for a representative Jewish voice or position, to defer to the learned and to the law, to an “official Jew”. Ezra Levant, in contrast, may be good example of someone who is remembering Sinai by extending the meaning of Exodus in our times.
An inclusive perspective may entail realization that neither the Freiman, nor the Levant, can simply do away with the other if we are to sustain Jewish identity. This may be a paradox we cannot solve, which is a happy realization for an irresolvable paradox is one that never dies; but if so, it is a paradox with which we will simply have to fight, hopefully in productive ways, forever.
So perhaps Jewish organizations, by their very nature, are always going to attract lawyers who are going to tend to seek legal solutions to the problems they feel they have to confront. And so there needs to be “Levantian Jews” to question “official Jews”, forever. The happy thing is, every Canadian gets a vote on the issue currently in play. Contact your MP and tell him or her what you think of Section 13 and whether we need government to police antisemitism, and by extension any other form of prejudice some group may hold against you, though of course we could have "hate speech" laws that targeted only antisemitism. I wonder how well that would work.
Don't miss Jonathan Narvey's pre-forum comments.