I’m writing this column in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin office, which is located within the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC). I also attend programs at the SJCC and swim in the pool. In other words, I spend a lot of time in the building.
The SJCC is a welcoming place. It really is my second home, and I enjoy coming here almost every day – despite levels of security that are much tighter than when I started here almost a decade ago. The front doors are locked now, and SJCC members and staff swipe their membership cards in barcode readers to enter the building. Non-members are buzzed in after showing photo ID and telling the front desk staff the reason for their visit. Uniformed security guards are always on duty, and there are cameras in strategic locations throughout the Jewish Community Campus.
Even though the security is tighter than it used to be, the security measures are handled in a welcoming and friendly manner, so the experience of coming to the building is not really very different than it was 10 years ago.
The need for these security measures has been painfully obvious in recent months.
In November, there was a rash of anti-Semitic, racist and Islamophobic graffiti attacks in Ottawa that targeted four Jewish locations – including a building here on the Jewish Community Campus, two synagogues, and a private home used as a prayer and study centre – as well as a church, where the minister and many of the parishioners are African Canadian, and a mosque.
(One person was responsible for all of those graffiti attacks and he was apprehended in large part thanks to security measures in place here on the Jewish Community Campus.)
And, since January, there have been more than 120 bomb threats called and emailed to Jewish institutions in North America – mostly to JCCs, but also to Jewish day schools and offices of Jewish organizations. While the vast majority of the bomb threats have been at JCCs in the U.S., there have been several here in Canada. One that hit particularly close to home for me was the bomb threat at the JCC of Greater Vancouver, a JCC where I spent much time during the four years I lived in Vancouver as a kid, and have visited on numerous occasions since.
All of the bomb threats to date – this column is being written on March 10 – have been hoaxes. Although there have been no real bombs, and no one has been physically harmed and no property has been damaged, we can’t become complacent and treat a bomb threat as routine. Each must be taken seriously in co-operation with law enforcement officials.
These bomb threat hoaxes are affecting the Jewish community. A JTA article discusses – among other things – the effect of bomb scare evacuations on very young children. Jewish institutions are reviewing security procedures, and the effects of publicly manifested anti-Semitism are many. And, to be sure, these bomb threat hoaxes are anti-Semitic in their intent.
Recent manifestations of anti-Semitism have not been limited to bomb threat hoaxes. I’ve mentioned the graffiti attacks we experienced here in Ottawa, and there have been other communities where similar attacks have taken place. Great numbers of tombstones have been overturned at several Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. A bullet was fired into a (thankfully unoccupied) Hebrew school classroom in a synagogue in Indiana, and many Jewish journalists have been subjected to vicious anti-Semitic social media campaigns after writing critically about the new president of the United States.
The intent of all of these anti-Semitic incidents – and you can say the say the same for other forms of racism and bigotry – is to instil fear and insecurity. Sadly, and understandably, many people do become fearful in response.
One of the consequences of these incidents is that they can embolden bigots to act on their prejudices. At this point, we don’t know who is responsible for the vast majority of the recent bomb threats. Is it one person? Is it a small group acting in concert? Or is it a bunch of copycats taking inspiration from previous threats? So far, only one man, linked to eight bomb threats in the U.S., has been arrested – and law enforcement has determined that he was a copycat who had nothing to do with the vast majority of the incidents.
But these anti-Semitic incidents can also have unintended consequences. One consequence that perpetrators don’t intend is that they bring people and communities together. Those graffiti attacks here in Ottawa resulted in people from different faith and cultural communities gathering together in solidarity.
Political leaders at all levels of government and from across the ideological spectrum have expressed their support for communities under attack and, as Barbara Crook notes in her My Israel column, desecrations at Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. spurred a successful fundraising campaign in the Muslim community to help repair the damages.
To be sure, attacks or threats aimed at intimidating or preventing the full participation in society of any religious, racial or cultural community, is an attack or threat aimed at all of us. But to see individuals and communities responding in solidarity is inspiring.