Hillel Ontario’s Remarks at Canada’s National Summit on Antisemitism

by | Jul 20, 2021 | Advocacy, Hillel Ontario, Press Release | 0 comments

Today, the Government of Canada held a National Summit on Antisemitism.

Convened by The Honourable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, and The Honourable Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, today’s Summit sought to provide parliamentarians and policymakers a comprehensive understanding of antisemitism in Canada, and identify concrete steps to address the issues facing the Jewish community.

Below is the full transcript of Hillel Ontario’s testimony.

Good afternoon, 

My name is Jay Solomon, and I am the Chief Communications & Public Affairs Officer for Hillel Ontario. 

Supporting approximately 14,000 Jewish students at nine universities across the province, Hillel Ontario – now the largest Hillel in the world – empowers students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel.

This spring, Israel and Hamas – labelled a terrorist group around the world, including in Canada – squared off in the largest military conflict the region has experienced in some years. For both Israelis and Palestinians, the fighting was painful and distressing. 

In the wake of these tensions, around the world, and certainly here in Canada, supporters of Israel have been subjected to vile and sometimes violent vitriol. And, even more concerning, Diaspora Jews have been attacked – verbally and physically, online and in person – simply for being Jewish and regardless of their feelings about or connection to Israel.

As an illustration, I thought I would share just a few recent examples of some of what Jewish students have been subjected to on campuses in Canada in the past few months. At Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, a student posted a video on social media mocking the stabbing of Israelis. Near Western University, in London, a Nazi flag appeared at an anti-Israel rally. At McMaster University in Hamilton, a Jewish student was bullied online for showing support to Israel. And, on the personal social media pages of countless Jewish students across the province, blue squares and other expressions of concern about antisemitism were peppered with comments condemning Israel, levelling personal attacks at the students who posted them, and, in some, threatening physical violence. 

And then there’s the issues posed by student unions and faculty associations who in many cases have replaced informed debate and well-meaning dialogue – the cornerstones of university education – with one-sided rhetoric condensed to 20 second videos and 140-character tweets in an attempt to boil hundreds of years of culture and history into soundbites that are inevitably biased and simplistic. As a recent example, a student group at Western University published incredibly offensive social media commentary calling on the University Student Council to eliminate “all pro-Zionist narrative” from the campus. Another illustrative example involves the President of the University of Toronto Faculty Association who is alleged to have spoken about an “entitled powerful Zionist minority” at a recent academic panel.

These, and other, recent examples of antisemitism are as disturbing as they are unacceptable. Year over year, the Jewish community is the most targeted religious minority for hate crimes in Canada. And, these recent incidents underscore the important efforts that lay ahead – work that must include critical education on antisemitism, and a renewed commitment to relationship-building based on shared values and experiences. 

What many in the Jewish community have known for some time, but have been reluctant to say out loud, has become entirely self-evident in the past several months. We have long since recognized that antisemitism exists on a broad continuum, ranging from those who are simply uninformed, to those who are misinformed, to those who are wilfully ignorant. 

But, there’s another category; and it is one that has been taboo to speak of in many circles for too long. 

The unpopular reality is that some of the world’s worst antisemites (who, it just so happens, are among Israel’s most virulent detractors) embrace this label with malice and intentionality. And it is this type of poisonous, malevolent antisemitism that has been on full display recently. 

As the largest affiliate of the global Jewish student movement, Hillel Ontario’s student leadership and campus professionals have been working around-the-clock to support students who have been shaken by a tsunami of antisemitism online and on campus. 

We have communicated directly with university presidents, provosts, and student union leaders to ensure Jewish students were protected, and that their rights would be respected. We lodged official student code of conduct complaints and filed police reports when Jewish students were targeted; reported countless antisemitic posts on social media; provided personalized pastoral counselling; compiled educational resources and offered learning opportunities for those wanting to learn more; and provided space for students to process their own feelings, emotions and perspectives.

But, the truth is, our efforts on campus alone are not enough. And, we need your help. 

We need our nation’s leaders to come together to forcefully, consistently, and unconditionally condemn antisemitism – in all its forms – and to take proactive steps to secure the safety and security of the Jewish community of Canada, today and for the years to come.

We need formalized learning opportunities across the educational sector – for teachers, professors, administrators, equity officers, student government leaders and those charged with securing and protecting the campus community – to ensure historical and modern perspectives on antisemitism’s manifestations, as well as ways to combat them, are entrenched in and integrated into diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-oppression programming. Education on the perils of antisemitism must become a natural part of DEI and anti-oppression efforts on university campuses.

As a society, we must publicly acknowledge the overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and recognize that, far too often, anti-Zionism is used as a convenient shield behind which antisemites stand. 

As advocates for the Jewish community, we know that it is acceptable to criticize Israeli policies, or voice legitimate concerns for the welfare of Palestinians. Like any other liberal democracy, Israel is not immune from legitimate criticism. 

But, we also know that fair-game critiques end when Jews are denied the universally held right to collective self-determination; when Jews are held collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government; when antisemitic tropes dating back centuries are used to target Jews and Jewish communal institutions; or when comparisons are drawn between Israel and the horrors of the Holocaust. 

We need Canadian leaders to stand with the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians in a definition of antisemitism that includes the delegitimization of the Jewish state. Like any other minority group, the Jewish community’s definition of our oppression should be defined by the majority of our community, not fringe elements within it or outside of it. 

We need our nation’s leaders to counter efforts to promote the divisive and discriminatory Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaign against Israel, and work to promote dialogue and relationship-building opportunities based upon shared values. 

On behalf of Hillel Ontario, our students, professional staff and lay leadership, I want to offer my sincere thanks to the Government of Canada for convening this National Summit on Antisemitism, and for inviting me to participate in today’s proceedings. 

In the days and weeks ahead, Hillel Ontario stands ready to support the important work that lies ahead; to work in conjunction with the federal, provincial and municipal governments, and with university leadership, to support Jewish students in the ongoing fight against antisemitism. 

Thank you.

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

This week’s parsha is one that is filled near to overflowing with iconic stories.  Covering Jacob’s travels to, life in, and departure from Haran, the home of his uncle (and eventually father-in-law) Laban, Vayetzei recounts the stories of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, his marriages, first to Leah, then to Rachel, the births of twelve of his children, and so much more.  

With all of this, I am struck by a couple of stories that are not explicitly in our text at all, but come to us in the form of Madrash, the traditional interpretations or explanations of our text that have come down from the sages.

The stories that have captured my interest are surrounding two verses that come at the very beginning of our text (Genesis 28:11 and 28:18) and are seeking to explain a seeming inconsistency between these verses. Just as Jacob is lying down to have his famous dream, we are told that “He took from the stones of the place and set it/them at his head and lay down in that place”, the Hebrew text being unclear on the number of stones Jacob had taken.  Verse 18, which picks up immediately after the dream, is by contrast, very clear, saying, “he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar”. 

The first explanation comes from Rashi (11th/12th c. French commentator), who explains that Jacob had taken a number of stones and arranged them around his head for protection, prompting an argument among the stones, with each asking that they have the honour of holding the righteous man’s head.  Rashi goes on to say that at this point, the holy one fused the rocks into one. 

There are a number of others that appear in the great collection of Midrash, Breishit Rabbah, each offering a different number of stones.  One of the stories counts twelve stones to teach Jacob that he would be the father of twelve tribes; another, three stones, teaching that God’s oneness would be made known through Jacob; yet another, two stones, to teach that Jacob’s progeny would be worthy to form the people Israel.

Our tradition offers us all of these understandings of a single moment in the life of Jacob, each of them teaching him a different lesson.  We can find multiple interpretations of most stories from the Torah; that is part of the beauty of Midrash.  But I am struck by the form that these midrashim take, each of them recounting a lesson learned, each examining a single moment.  In this, I am reminded of the beauty of reflection, of a life examined, reminded that, within the hustle and bustle of our lives, and despite it, each moment has so much potential to teach us.

Rabbi Danny A Lutz
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

The second line of this week’s parsha tells us that Sarah, our matriarch, died in Kiryat Arba in the land of Canaan. The first verse, and the one from which we get the name of the parsha, Chayei Sarah, describes her life; “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” Abraham has just proved his dedication to God; he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice before God, was commanded to spare him, and received a blessing. Abraham was promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand, but his wife Sarah, his partner and his children’s mother, has now died. Abraham mourns Sarah and weeps by her. His experience of deep sadness is another low point in his turbulent story. Despite being offered by the Hittites and Ephron a burial place, he insists on paying them the full amount of silver it is worth and when Abraham dies at a hundred and seventy-five, he joins Sarah in the cave on Ephron’s land.

This parsha always makes me think of the ritual of shiva, the week of mourning following the death of a loved one. Mourners are joined by their community to provide comfort and meet the needs of the family and are present as those closest to the deceased say kaddish. The mourner’s kaddish is a fascinating and beautiful exaltation, a prayer for peace and for God to hear us and keep us, something that can feel jarring and distinct from grief and loss. The value of the Jewish ritual following death is that we gather to remember and reminisce the span of a person’s existence in our lives and their affect on the world around them for good, not simply to lament their passing. We’re told in the parsha that after they are wed, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” 

Jacob Brickman
Hillels Waterloo & Laurier

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