Howard Levitt: Is Canada headed for a great fall in failing to confront antisemitism?

Words have great power and the normalization of antisemitism could have lasting consequences

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I was on a plane five years ago seated beside Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

When I realized who he was — after hitting him up for legal work — we discussed antisemitism in Europe, which was then in the news over the abductions of Jews and bombing of Jewish establishments. He told me that many areas of Europe had become “no go” zones for Jews and that, in the major European capitals, wearing a skullcap resulted in verbal and even physical assaults after mass immigration from the Middle East had imported their hatreds. He said that religious Jewish men had removed their skullcaps and were wearing large wide-brimmed hats instead to disguise their religious identities. But the antisemites, he relayed, had figured out that gambit and attacked them anyway.

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I expressed relief that Canada had not descended to those depths, to which he replied, “We are always 10 years behind Europe in such matters.” He was not merely prescient but unduly optimistic as, only five years later, identifiable Jews are finding themselves endangered in schools, at work and on the streets of our major cities. They are even taking precautions to protect their homes.

I have been speaking to many groups of Jewish Canadians about the legal strategies they can pursue to fight racism in their unions and workplaces, and about their concerns with the antisemitic bent of many of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) seminars they are forced to take, delivered by left-wing instructors who sometimes not only fail to acknowledge antisemitism but put place Jews at the top of their race-divided hierarchy.

Jews are not alone in this civilizational fight. Most Canadians, in poll after poll, are upset at the rise of antisemitism and the stream of rallies, replete with antisemitic chants, that descended upon our streets in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, disrupting our cities and terrifying those whom they target. And it is not just Jews who are being assailed. There were calls to cancel Christmas and the public events that were disrupted included some by the protesters’ ostensible friends, such as Mayor Olivia Chow.

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Many Jews are being persecuted in workplaces and other institutions where they are minorities, and even Jewish politicians are being hounded. In B.C., NDP MLA Selina Robinson, who is Jewish, was forced out of her role as a senior cabinet minister because she accurately referred to pre-1948 Israel as a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it.” Make no mistake: 1948, pre-Israel, divided by the Brits between Arabs and Jews was a crappy piece of land, which is why Israel has long boasted of “making the desert bloom.” It was impoverished, had no industry and few prospects. Other than a thin coastal strip, including then relatively promising Gaza, it was largely a desert. For Robinson, two apologies, and a promise to take Islamophobia training, were insufficient. The mob prevailed, with a petition signed by Muslim clerics, civic and student leaders declaring that no NDP MLAs or candidates would be permitted on their premises unless Robinson was booted from cabinet. So she was. She was also assailed for saying that young people were uninformed about the Holocaust, which every survey has shown to be true.

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Why was she kicked out when no heads rolled after Premier David Eby’s account on the social media site X, formerly X platform, formerly known as Twitter, apparently inadvertently declared its solidarity with the Muslim community on Holocaust Remembrance Day? As with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unctuous backsliding from Canada’s historic position supporting the only democracy in the Middle East, it is all about the votes. And Robinson is conspicuously Jewish and pro-Israel, two fatal crimes if you are looking for where the most votes will come from.

Make no mistake. Kicking out Robinson while failing to break up antisemitic hate rallies emboldens the racists, incentivizes further disruption and exacerbates the societal problems.

The concerns are not just on the streets. In a decision this week, a U.K. tribunal relied upon the British equivalent of our human rights legislation to declare “anti-Zionism” to be “protected speech,” defending a professor from discipline for what was characterized as an antisemitic slur. This would have real life consequences when employers elect, as many are, to terminate employees for expressions of racism which are offensive to fellow employees, corrosive to morale and damaging to an employer’s brand. Ironically the very purpose of human rights legislation is to protect workers from discrimination, not enable it.

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So racism is now protected, not prohibited, speech under human rights legislation, at least in Britain. Or as Humpty Dumpty put it, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” To which Alice replied, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

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“The question,” Humpty Dumpty concluded, “is which is to be master — that’s all.”

So who will be the master of which words can be used in this country and which can’t? Will laws be used to prevent hatred and racial attacks or to protect them? And will Canada be 10 — or just five — years behind Europe in similar rulings?

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces and is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada.

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