Despite the efforts of many, hatred and discrimination of religious groups is growing in Canada and indeed in much of the Western world. Last week, the Canadian government made the wise decision to hold summits on antisemitism and on Islamophobia, focusing on the two most targeted communities (accessible here and here respectively). The summits had the admirable goal of increasing awareness of these problems and committing to a number of steps from education to security to address these problems. At the antisemitism summit, I was particularly impressed by the ten minute address by Irwin Cotler (it begins at the 38 minute mark). Cotler is a humanitarian hero. He served as Nelson Mandela’s lawyer as well as legal counsel for many other high-profile prisoners of conscience. He is a truly great man, a great Canadian, and a Jew.
Cotler shared that 2020 saw record highs for antisemitic incidents in Canada, the USA and Europe. But stunningly, that these records have been broken in just the first half of 2021! Cotler referred to a “pandemic of antisemitism” that is sweeping across Western democracies. I have noticed this too – from the astonishing 50% rise of antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017 (remaining high ever since), the new highs in Germany in the past 2-3 years, and the surge in the United Kingdom in 2014 which led to further increases ever since. Houston (and Toronto, Berlin, and London)…we have a problem and a serious one at that.
Cotler made a further insightful point, referring to antisemitism as a “canary in the mineshaft of evil” as he rightly pointed out that “while it begins with Jews, it does not end with Jews.” I think this is absolutely right. Once you start the habit of stereotyping and denigrating a group of people, those patterns are easily replicated. In Canada, the rise in antisemitism has gone hand in hand with a series of tragic murders of Muslims – first the six Muslims killed at a Quebec city mosque in 2017, followed by a volunteer killed at a Toronto mosque in 2020, and finally the London, Ontario family intentionally run over by a driver this past June. Three incidents in five years is a chilling pattern.
Interestingly, Toronto’s Jewish and Muslim communities are, I believe, very aware of their shared vulnerability and after attacks on one community, members from the other tradition (joined by other people from the community) have developed the habit of forming human shields at the next day of worship. I have been part of these and they are really affirming and moving for the community so recently attacked.
Irwin Cotler at Summit on Antisemitism
Cotler pointed out that this kind of hatred is toxic to democracies. He is absolutely right. Canada is a very religiously pluralistic country. I often present data to Canadian organizations showing that we have higher proportions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs than are found even in Britain or the USA. A democracy requires a social trust between its citizens and these kinds of crimes destroy that trust and lead to fear and anger.
At both summits, speakers noted that Jews and Muslims on their own cannot stop antisemitism or Islamophobia. Sikhs cannot stop animosity against Sikhs nor can First Nations communities stop the hate crimes committed against their members. The responsibility lies with us all. It’s a civic duty. It is an opportunity where acting with kindness can build our communities and our nations into more harmonious societies and make them better, more connected places to live. With trust, we find the differences not threatening but enlightening areas for learning and growth.
Religious literacy works the magic of turning these festering problems into opportunities and doors for understanding. Encounter promotes religious literacy through a dual pronged approach, encouraging both education and connection. We promote education throughout all our programs and try, whenever possible, to create actual “encounters” where people engage and connect across religious boundaries.
Religious literacy is not a fad. It’s about our democracies. It’s about feeling safe. It’s about trust and learning from one another. And make no mistake, it is unfortunately a matter of life and death.