I was born in Winnipeg in 1951 to Jewish parents, both of whom had also been born here. Our home was a secular one, but I was aware that I was Jewish and that the ramifications of being so were not always positive.
The approach of most Jews then was to fly under the radar: Be quiet, conform, and don’t do anything that attracts attention. Many had resigned themselves to quotas on Jewish admission at the University of Manitoba, restrictive covenants that forbade the sale of land to Jews, refusals by employers like Eaton’s to hire Jews, and restrictions on Jewish members at clubs such as the Winnipeg Winter Club and the Manitoba Club. In the post war period, the price was considered small compared to being selected for extermination. Still, many lived with heightened anxiety: When any Jew was accused of wrongdoing, the organised Jewish community held its collective breath for fear that all would be indicted.
Over the years, attitudes towards Jews seemed to change and laws ensured that discriminatory practises against them were eradicated. Jews began to feel more comfortable with their place in Canadian society, and although some rejected their Jewish roots or even became self-loathing, most attempted to take a place in it as identifiable Jews, sometimes prominent ones. They believed that the scourge of antisemitism that had driven many Jewish immigrants to seek sanctuary in Canada and that had also been a feature of the Canadian landscape was gone.
It had only gone underground-temporarily. Antisemitism is alive, flourishing, and on the increase in Canada. And it is mainstream. Pick up a newspaper or surf the internet, even on legitimate websites and you will read that “Jews stick together” and speak with one voice, that “Jews exploit the Holocaust”, that there was no Holocaust, that Jews are guilty of Muslim hatred and are hate mongers, and that they are Nazis and pigs. In the latest variation of conspiracy canards that blame Jews for everything evil, Jews are accused of orchestrating the Norwegian bombing and massacre. Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress, established to protect Jews, are attacked as being illegitimate precisely because that is their mandate.
On Canadian university campuses, Jewish students face harassment from fellow students and faculty. “Death to the Jews” is heard at anti-Israel rallies and there is an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish narrative by professors in the classroom. Recently, students at the University of Toronto, with the approbation of their professor, conducted a Jew head count, reprising the practise common in 1930s Germany. Worse, the University engaged in a cover-up of the incident.
Yet, in comparison to many places in the world, life in Canada for the Jewish community is idyllic. One of those places where life is not good for Jews - surprisingly - is Norway. Surprising because in the wake of its recent horrendous tragedy, Norway has assumed the mantle of martyred sainthood and is being portrayed as one of the most tolerant, multicultural, and democratic of nations. In truth, Norway is among the most antisemitic of European countries.
The Jewish population of Norway is small, approximately half the Jewish population having perished in the Holocaust. Estimates of the current population range between one and two thousand Jews, only of which 800 are part of the organized Jewish community. There are approximately 100,000 Muslims in Norway, who are embraced by a cultural elite that is comprised of academics, intellectuals, writers, and journalists that are in turn vehemently anti-Israel. In fact, Ma’an News Agency reported that Fatah Youth, a Palestinian based group, has participated for almost 15 years in the Labour-run Utoya summer camp where the massacre occurred. One of the so-called wholesome activities engaged in by participants was a game in which participants simulated a flotilla running the Israeli blockade. A statement released by Fatah Youth after the violence stated “Very few people have stood by our side as much as the Norwegian people, and particularly our AUF comrades."
In March of this year, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by internationally renowned jurist and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz detailing his recent experiences in Norway. Dershowitz, a Jew, while on a speaking tour in Norway, was barred from talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Bergen University, Trondheim University of Science and Technology, and The University of Oslo, despite anti-Israel colleagues being able to speak freely. So much for academic freedom in democratic Norway.
And consider former Norwegian Prime Minister Kare Willock's reaction to President Obama's selection of Rahm Emanuel as his first chief of staff: "It does not look too promising; he has chosen a chief of staff who is Jewish." Anti-Jewish rhetoric and cartoons are common in the Norwegian media. A headline in Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, read “Rich Jews Threaten Obama.” The paper also published a well-received piece titled “God’s chosen people” that described Judaism “as an archaic, national, and warlike religion” in contrast to Christianity, which promotes “compassion and forgiveness”. Norway's Ambassador to Israel has suggested that Hamas terrorism against Israel is more justified than the recent terrorist attack against Norway. When asked after the attack if Norwegians would be more sympathetic to the victimization of innocent Israelis by Palestinian terrorists he said “We Norwegians view the occupation as the reason for terror against Israel. Many Norwegians still see the occupation as the reason for attacks against Israel.” So terrorism is justified if the ideology behind it is considered justified. In other words, Israelis, but not Norwegians, have it coming.
A recent study on racism and antisemitism in approximately 7,000 students in grades 8 to 10 commissioned by the Oslo Municipality published in June this year found that 33 percent of Jewish students in Oslo had experienced bullying at school, defined as two or three incidents of verbal or physical abuse per month. Ten percent of Buddhists reported bullying, followed by “others” at 7 percent and Muslims at slightly over 5 percent. Fifty-one percent of students believed the word Jew was a pejorative one, 35 percent had heard insulting comments about Jews, and 5 percent had been present when the Holocaust was denied in class.
After the release of these findings, the Norwegians government’s response was to appoint a minister who has a proven record of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish views to deal with the matter, somewhat akin to tasking the arsonist with putting out the fire.
Until the report, most of the incitement and harassment of Jews in Norway had not been reported. Like earlier Canadian Jews, many Norwegian Jews have kept a low profile and adopted a speak-no-evil attitude.
Which leads me back to my position as a Canadian Jew. When I discussed the possibility of writing this piece with other Jews, the response was guarded. How would non-Jews react to this? Would my piece be bad for the Jews? These are, perhaps, considerations if we have returned to a time when Jews fear reprisals if they speak out. I resolved to write because if Canada and Norway are to be the truly just, open, democratic, and tolerant societies that they claim to be, we all must be ever vigilant in exposing the forces that would undermine those values.
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has observed that when you hate one ethnic or religious group, hatred will spread like a contagion toward other peoples and faiths. It is a slippery slope to today’s antisemitism becoming tomorrow’s anti someone else. The causes of terrorism are many, but all are justified by a belief that violence is the proper response to policies that the terrorists disagree with. The greater tragedy of Norway may be that it turned a blind eye to hatred and terrorism against some and so unwittingly created a climate where an evil man felt he had permission to hate others.