Community members call for end to racism after report highlights antisemitic incidents in Winnipeg

While the Prairies rated lower than other areas of the country in documented instances of antisemitism, community members are concerned about a number of Winnipeg incidents highlighted in a national report.

B’nai Brith Canada released its 2020 annual audit of antisemitic incidents last week. The report gathers data on incidents of harassment, vandalism and violence against Jewish people in Canada.

In the Prairies and Nunavut — there are no statistics specific to Manitoba — there were 101 antisemitic incidents that occurred last year. This is a slight decrease from the 104 incidents in 2019.

Members of the community CBC News interviewed for this article believe that antisemitism is not as prevalent in Winnipeg as in some other parts of Canada, the United States or Europe — but the local Jewish community is still watchful of it.

“I am, of course, pleased to see that on the Prairies and in Winnipeg the incidents of antisemitism are much lower than they are in other parts of the country,” said Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, an organization that documents and shares information on Jewish communities in western Canada.

“But any incident of antisemitism is too much.” 

Several incidents in Winnipeg last year were serious enough to be highlighted in the report, which used the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism — a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed toward Jews through rhetoric, physicality or property.

In February 2020, a student was attacked by seven other students and told that Jews should “go back to the ovens,” the report says.

Last July, two mausoleum windows were smashed at a Jewish cemetery.

A private residence was spray-painted with a large swastika last October, and a mezuzah — a ritual amulet hung on door posts of Jewish homes and institutions — was ripped off the door post of an apartment and thrown down the building’s staircase in November.

“Any report that discusses and talks about racism and the number of racial incidents is troubling,” said Harold Shuster of Independent Jewish Voices (Winnipeg).

“We should all be trying to work together to find solutions and resolve or end all forms of racial discrimination.” 

Antisemitism during COVID-19

The audit attributes the decrease in antisemitic vandalism and violence, in part, to COVID-19 and public health restrictions, the report says.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has also made Jews an easy target of conspiracy theories and violence. About one in 10 antisemitic incidents in Canada in 2020 were related to COVID-19, and nearly half of violent incidents were also pandemic-related, the report says.

“We can go back to the bubonic plague many, many centuries ago, in which case Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells and creating the plague,” said Jarniewski. “This is something that, unfortunately, has happened throughout history.”

The primary conspiracy theory is that Jews and the “global elites” created the novel coronavirus to infect non-Jewish people to control parts of society, then created a vaccine to make money.

Those types of conspiracies are rooted in stereotypes and able to spread internationally because of social media platforms that may allow people to say hateful things anonymously, said Shuster.

Throughout the pandemic, including at an anti-restrictions rally in Winnipeg on April 25, some people have likened public health restrictions to the Holocaust — when under the lead of Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany forcibly relocated Jews into ghettos, and systemically killed six million European Jews during World War II.

Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, says Jews have historically been blamed when things go wrong. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Comparing public health orders to the Holocaust distorts history and diminishes what Jewish people endured, said Jarniewski.

“One cannot compare us sitting in our homes quite comfortably watching Netflix with people being starved and killed in ghettos in World War II,” she said.

Jewish community watchful

“As a Jew in the 21st century, everyone’s aware of it, watchful of it — which is a sad comment,” said Rob Waldman, president of Chevra Mishnayes Synagogue, which has served Winnipeg for over a century.

Some Jews in Winnipeg choose to broadcast their religion, while others do not, and that often depends on a person’s experiences, he said.

Waldman grew up in Winnipeg, attended a Jewish school and is comfortable wearing t-shirts or a necklace with the Star of David on them out in public. But his girlfriend, who grew up in rural Saskatchewan with few other Jewish families, tends to keep her faith to herself, said Waldman.

The Star of David, shown here, is a Jewish symbol. Waldman says he feels comfortable openly wearing clothing with the symbol on it in Winnipeg. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Synagogues in Winnipeg also budget to hire off-duty police officers to work security during the high holy days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the 10 days in between — just in case, said Jarniewski.

“When we’re in the synagogue, we’re conscious of the fact that we need to know where the exits are,” she said.

“I think for most Christians, this is not something that is part of their day-to-day life.”

The total number of antisemitic incidents increased in Canada last year, according to the report. Violence and vandalism decreased, but there was a significant increase in the amount of harassment, the report says.

Most of the incidents — about 70 per cent — occurred in Quebec and Ontario, which are the provinces with the largest Jewish populations in Canada.

‘We need to not accept it’

Joel Lazer, 65, has been the victim of antisemitism, though mostly in his youth. But the fact that people still show hatred toward Jews makes him angry.

Lazer, president of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, cited specifically the instances of mezuzahs being ripped from door posts and questioned what benefit that individual gets from doing such a thing.

“To me, it’s a waste of everything — time, energy, property — so I get angry,” he said. “It’s not a good response, but I do get angry.”

The worst part is that Jewish people have learned to accept and live with antisemitism, because it’s the path of least resistance, he said. But that needs to change.

People interviewed for this article each said educating the public — youth in particular — about how Jews have been treated throughout history, including during the Holocaust, is key to eradicating antisemitism.

But it also requires people to be intolerant of intolerance and to take action when they witness it, Lazer said.

Antisemitism is just one form of racism, noted Shuster, so those actions are applicable to ridding society of other forms of prejudice as well.

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