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photo by Rhonda Spivak

Ezra Levant

Catherine Chatterley


by Rhonda Spivak, May 6, 2011


[Editor's note: While the events described below took place over a half a year ago when  David Suzuki spoke at shaarey Zedek synagogue last September, since it is Holocaust awareness week, I have decided to publish this piece now]

When  the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg's Next generation Leadership Division  brought in David Suzuki to Winnipeg to speak  in September 2010 at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, I and several other journalists had a conference call interview with him several days before his scheduled talk.
Near the outset of the conversation, Suzuki said that that we are facing an “environmental holocaust.” It is a term he has used with the media before and in some of his writings.

Simon Fuller  a journalist from Can Star who was part of the conference call reported on Suzuki’s saying "If we don’t change our ways, there’s going to be an ecological holocaust — no question about it"
I wasn’t very pleased to hear Suzuki use the phrase "ecological Holocaust". When I was in Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate we were taught (by Evita Smordin) that the term ought to be applied to Hitler’s actions in World War  II and that it diminished the horror of the Holocaust to apply it  in  other situations--be they be ithe environmental sense or otherwise. Doing so was what I learned was considered to be an abuse of the term.  

Suzuki wasn’t pleased with my telling him that I thought his use of the phrase “ecological Holocaust” was not terminology that was appropriate (nor did IO think it would play very well to a Jewish audience). Suzuki did not retreat from his position, but if anything. dug in his heels even more.  He made it clear that in his view  the term Holocaust was not exclusive to what befell  the Jewish people and others ( gypsys, homosexuals , disabled) at the hands of  Hitler.

To be very honest, I found Suzuki to be rather arrogant when responding to me on this point and was disappointed in the tenor of the conversation.
I asked Rabbi Alan Green before Suzuki’s talk at Shaarey Zedek synagogue whether he was aware that Suzuki used the term “ecological Holocaust” and after raising his eyebrows Rabbi Green said he wasn’t aware, and that even role models and Canadian icons could be challenged regarding  their use of this phrase. 

Since it is Shoah week  this week, I have decided to comment on this issue now, since I think  the example of Suzuki shows that  we as a community have to decide how we are going to teach generations about the use of the term. Are we going to tell our children that the use of the term “ecological Holocaust’ is kosher, and  appropriate in Suzuki fashion or  alternatively,  are we going to tell them that it is an example of  diminishing and downgrading the experience of the victims of Hitler’s deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jewish people? 
Are we going to tell our children that we as a Jewish community have become too possessive of the term Holocaust and  it is now time to  use the term to refer to other than that which occurred  in the context of Hitler ?  Should we ask our survivors what they think of Suzuki’s use of the term "ecological Holocaust"?  Isn’t the whole reason Suzuki is  using the term Holocaust to begin with is that he is trying to  create a sense of urgency, shock and outrage in a manner that only the use of the word Holocaust can? In raising this issue I hope to spark conversation that clearly needs to take place in our community about what we are going to say to our children on this issue.
A few days after my conversation with  Suzuki I interviewed Liberal MP Justin  Trudeau (who may well  became the next leader of the  Liberal party) when he was in Winnipeg in September 2010 and asked him to comment  on Suzuki’s use of the phrase "ecological Holocaust".
Trudeau responded “I certainly agree we are a facing a huge challenge around the environment.  We have to change a lot of our habits and instincts and there are problems of mass [species] extinctions around the world. There are problems of the gravest possible consequences for humanity. 
"But for me, I don’t use the [term] Holocaust about anything except [the]  Holocaust-  It’s  not a term I am comfortable applying to anything other than the events of   World War War II.”
I asked Neil Lazarus, an expert in anti-semitism who spoke at an event organized by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg for the commemoration of Kristalnacht what he thought about the term “ecological Holocaust.” He replied, that in his view “There is no such thing as a Holocaust of the trees.”
I also asked conservative pundit Ezra Levant, who has written a number of pieces very critical of Suzuki. Levant replied: “Suzuki's attempt to appropriate the term Holocaust shows that he has descended into the shock-jock of environmental activists. It simply destroys his credibility. And it shows his own ignorance about the real Holocaust.”
Dr Catherine Chatterley, founding director of the Centre for the study of Antisemitism, has written a short piece for the Winnipeg Jewish Review on the history of the word Holocaust, which is set out in its entirety below.  She notes that the pro-life movement refers to abortion as a “silent Holocaust,” that the aboriginal experience in Canadian residential schools is increasingly called “the Canadian Holocaust” or the “hidden Holocaust,” and that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) refers to the meat packing industry as a “Holocaust on your plate.” 
“Scholars have debated whether these comparisons make logical, historical, or ethical sense. The answer is clearly negative if one speaks to individuals who actually survived the Holocaust or to most historians of the subject,” she concludes.
Interestingly enough, David Suzuki did not use the term ecological Holocaust in his address at the Shaarey Zedek. Was this because he decided against it after my conversation with him a mere few days before his talk--or did the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg gently suggest to him it would be preferable if he avoided the term?
Does any one remember that there was no question period after Suzuki spoke at the Shaarey Zedek? Was this done to ensure that I wouldn’t challenge Suzuki on his use of the term ecological Holocaust? To be honest I am not certain if I would have or not. It was a decision that I  ultimately never had to make.
By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, May 5, 2011

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.