Canadians Raise Security After Wave of Antisemitic Vandalism

By Sheldon Gordon

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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TORONTO — Canadian Jewish leaders are seeking federal and provincial government support to help offset dramatically rising security expenses burdening the Jewish community.

The demand comes amid what is arguably the worst spate of antisemitic vandalism ever seen in Canada.

A firebombing destroyed the library at United Talmud Torah school in Montreal on the eve of Passover. The arsonists left a note saying that the fire was in reprisal for Israel’s killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Last week, on May 14, police arrested two 18-year-old men and one of their mothers. The three suspects, all of Middle Eastern origin, have pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, four Jewish cemeteries were desecrated in only four weeks. Bernie Farber, executive director of Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario region, could recall only three similar incidents in all his 20 years with the organization.

Several Toronto synagogues and Jewish homes also were defaced with anti-Jewish graffiti. Three local teenagers were arrested for toppling cemetery tombstones, and a 46-year-old Iranian immigrant was charged with spray-painting Jewish-owned construction sites. But the incidents continued.

A delegation of Jewish leaders who recently met with Prime Minister Paul Martin “came away with the definite feeling that he understands that the Jewish community is being targeted,” said Rochelle Wilner, immediate past president of B’nai Brith Canada. “We used the time to discuss the issues rather than make specific requests.” However, she later received assurances from a Martin cabinet minister that federal funds would be allocated for security.

Ed Morgan, president of the congress’s Ontario region, met with Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant to ask that the province give local police the resources to do more patrols of Jewish schools and synagogues. He also asked that the police pay for installing video surveillance equipment at Jewish schools.

“I was optimistic at the end of the meeting,” said Morgan, “but I’m surprised that a week has gone by without hearing anything.” The community may have to consider launching a constitutional challenge, based on the argument that inadequate police protection for synagogues abrogates the right of freedom of religion, he said. “Every synagogue in the province has raised its membership dues by a significant amount, citing security costs,” Farber said.

In Montreal, meanwhile, United Talmud Torah school received numerous messages of support and offers of material help from across Canada, as well as from the U.S. and Israel. “It’s amazing how this has touched people,” said the school’s director-general, Sidney Benudiz. “I never thought there would be such a reaction. We feel we are not alone.”

Benudiz estimated the damage to the school as at least $300,000. Quebec Premier Jean Charest visited students when the school reopened after Passover, and his education minister promised that the province would contribute to the rebuilding, but gave no specific figure.

The school has deployed three security guards on its premises, and it plans to implement visitor passes for parents. More than 20 other Jewish schools in Montreal have added a security guard on campus.

Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, himself a graduate of the firebombed school, promised an anti-racism campaign intended to promote tolerance. The 10-point plan, still awaiting cabinet approval, would disseminate anti-racism messages through advertising, earmark funds for community-based education programs, and request that police forces establish special hate crime units if they don’t have them.

Paradoxically, the vandalism comes at a time when public opinion polls show that antisemitism among the Canadian public is at an all-time low. Yet B’nai Brith Canada, in its latest audit of antisemitic incidents, tallied a 27% rise nationwide in 2003. In total, 584 incidents were reported, which is the highest number in the 21-year history of the audit.

Stephen Scheinberg, chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, said that in 35 of the incidents, the offenders were found to be Arab Canadians, “a very high number considering that most perpetrators are not identified.” While stressing that only a very small minority of Muslims is committing the acts, he said the climate for them is being created even by “the more established organizations of the Islamic community.”

Wahida Valiante, vice president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, recently published a Web site article that accused Jews of having “institutionalized” racial superiority by regarding themselves as the chosen people. When Scheinberg tried to quote the article while appearing before a federal legislative committee last month, the panel’s chair blocked him.

He suspects that the Canadian government, like those in Europe, finds it awkward to blame particular groups for antisemitism. But if, as Scheinberg suggests, the antisemitic incidents were perpetrated disproportionately by Canadians of Middle Eastern origin, then he wondered about the value of anti-racism messaging aimed at the broader public.

“Politicians do not want to alienate large blocs of voters,” he said. “It’s easier to say, ‘Let’s generate more human rights programs, more messages against hate,’ than it is to suggest that some of our newer immigrants aren’t easily assimilated. We don’t know what’s being taught in the mosques, what’s being taught in the [Muslim] schools.”

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