By Michael Regenstreif, Editor
My wife, Sylvie, and I were on vacation in Clearwater Beach, Florida in December. On December 23, the second night of Chanukah, we joined several hundred other people – locals and tourists alike – at the Chanukah party and giant menorah lighting organized by Chabad of Clearwater.
Held outdoors on the main drag on Clearwater Beach, less than a five-minute walk from where we were staying, it was a typical Chabad Chanukah event with speeches, songs, a magic show, latkes and sufganiyot. One of the big hits of the event was Rabbi Levi Hodakov singing his updated version of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” Local politicians, including Mayor George Cretekos and several other members of Clearwater’s city council, joined in the celebration.
There were a couple of police officers who stood on the edge of the crowd observing the event and the comings and goings but, thankfully, there were no incidents that required their attention.
However, less than two weeks before Chanukah, there was a mass shooting at the JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey carried out by a pair of antisemitic extremists. They murdered Mindy Ferencz, 33, an owner of the market; Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, an employee; and rabbinical student Moshe Deutsch, 24, a customer. Three others, including two police officers, were also wounded in the incident. The assailants arrived at the market shortly after they killed a police detective in a separate incident.
Then, on December 28, the seventh night of Chanukah, a masked man invaded the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York – a small community north of New York City with a largely Chasidic population – and randomly stabbed five Chasidic Jews attending a Chanukah party. Other guests fought back and the suspect escaped in a car. He was arrested by police later that night in Harlem. In the investigation, police found his handwritten journals filled with antisemitic views.
Thinking of those incidents just before and during Chanukah – as well as the antisemitic murders earlier last year at Chabad of Poway in California and at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 – made me stop and think about whether we were safe attending a Jewish event in an accessible public space in Florida, a state where it is easy to acquire weapons and a state with a history of mass shootings – including the high school massacre in Parkland in 2018 that killed 17, and the nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016 that killed 49.
Although, as already mentioned, there were a couple of police officers present at the Chanukah event on Clearwater Beach, there was no security screening. Anyone and everyone had unfettered access to the event. What would have happened if someone like the attackers from Jersey City or Monsey or Poway or Pittsburgh had been there that night? (By contrast, when we attended a couple of concerts in December at theatres in Clearwater, we could only enter after emptying our pockets and being searched with metal-detecting wands by security guards.)
The sad fact is that we live in a world rife with resurging antisemitism – and antisemitism is coming from so many different directions: from the extreme right, from the extreme left, from Islamist extremists; from some parts of the anti-Israel movement; and from elsewhere. But as Professor Deborah Lipstadt, a world-renowned expert on antisemitism, explained during her visit to Ottawa in November, ultimately “they all sound the same.”
While the internet and its various social media platforms are a great tool to bring people of common interests together and to create and build communities, the internet and social media are also a tool for spreading misinformation – often through conspiracy theories – and hatred.
Sadly, statistics show that there are more hate crimes committed against Jewish targets in Canada than any other minority group. Thankfully, few of those crimes have been violent, but every hate crime is traumatic nonetheless. Who in this community can forget the string of antisemitic graffiti attacks on Jewish buildings in 2016?
In many ways, we’ve made great strides over the years in the fight against antisemitism. On many levels, antisemitism, racism and other forms of bigotry, are no longer acceptable. While just before and during the Holocaust, Canada had a government whose policy toward Jewish refugees was “none is too many,” we now have a government that has apologized for that. Not that many decades ago, the Montreal suburb of Hampstead would not allow Jews to own property in the town, while now the majority of its residents are Jewish.
At the political level, antisemitism has almost ceased to be a factor in Canada in the years since the late Herb Gray became Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister in 1969. Gray, himself, eventually served as deputy prime minister for four-and-a-half years between 1997 and 2002, and here in Ottawa, where we once had an antisemitic mayor, we have since had two Jewish mayors. There are countless other examples I could cite.
But that doesn’t mean we can stop being vigilant about antisemitism (and all other forms of racism and bigotry) in Canadian political life. The province of Quebec recently passed Bill 21, a law banning civil servants in positions of authority from displaying symbols of their religious belief – including the wearing of a kippah.
Meanwhile we can look to the United Kingdom for lessons on what might happen when variations of antisemitism become mainstreamed. The Labour Party – long the political home to the majority of British Jews – spent the last several years under the leadership of the once-obscure far-left anti-Zionist Jeremy Corbyn, who allowed antisemitism to flourish in the party. Much of British Jewry regarded a potential Corbyn government as an existential threat to the community and breathed a collective sigh of relief in December when Corbyn led Labour to its worst election defeat since 1935 – with most British analysts agreeing that perceived antisemitism was a significant factor in turning many traditional Labour voters against the party.
As much as we need to remain vigilant against antisemitism and stand up to it and fight it whenever it rears its ugly head, we cannot, as Lipstadt warned, allow antisemitism to become central to our identity as Jews. “Then we turn Jews into an object – what’s done to Jews, instead of what Jews do,” she said.
We live in a free and democratic society and while being mindful of the security of our persons and our institutional buildings, we must remain free to live Jewishly – however we each may want to do that.
Next December, it’s likely that Sylvie and I will be back on vacation in Clearwater Beach. And, as usual, we’ll be at the Chabad of Clearwater Chanukah party.