Society

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Tolerance is a Canadian ideal, but some recent events show it can be all too elusive

JONATHAN GATEHOUSE August 2 2004
Society

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Tolerance is a Canadian ideal, but some recent events show it can be all too elusive

JONATHAN GATEHOUSE August 2 2004

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Society

Tolerance is a Canadian ideal, but some recent events show it can be all too elusive

JONATHAN GATEHOUSE

BY THE TIME the kids return to school in the fall, the physical scars will be gone. The sodden rubble was cleared within days, the scorch marks scrubbed from the concrete walls a few weeks later. Over the summer, the odour of fresh paint will mask the last traces of smoke, and shelves will be installed to hold the more than 10,000 books that have arrived in boxes, envelopes, and gift parcels from all parts of the country. In fact, the response from an outraged public has been so generous that United Talmud Torah elementary school in St. Laurent, Que., will have a fully stocked new library to replace the one destroyed in a firebombing last April. What the anger of politicians and heartfelt gestures of private citizens won’t change, however, is the lesson learned by the school’s 230 students, aged 5 to 13. Some people appear to hate them simply because they are Jewish. Even in Canada.

The note taped to the religious school’s front door claimed the attack was revenge for Israel’s March 22 assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas in the Gaza strip. It was a reminder that distance doesn’t necessarily offer protection from the tensions that roil the Middle East. “We shouldn’t become complacent and think that this is an isolated incident,” says Sidney Benudiz, director-general of the Montreal area’s four Talmud Torah schools.

“We shouldn’t think that it can’t happen in Canada. It has already happened here and it can happen again.”

B’nai Brith Canada catalogued 584 incidents of anti-Semitic violence, vandalism and harassment across the country last year, a worrying 27 per cent increase from 2002. In Montreal, where the list of offences included a vandalized West Island synagogue, a swastika scratched on a rabbi’s car, and mezuzahs—doorpost signs of faith—ripped from Jewish homes, some community leaders aren’t shy about apportioning blame. “In general, tolerance in Canada is getting

better. We’re hearing less and less from the extreme right,” says Steven Scheinberg, B’nai Brith’s past national chairman. “The politicians don’t want to delve into it and alienate voters, but this is being imported. What we have is a problem with a particular subset of young Arab and Muslim men.”

The evidence for such a sweeping indictment is sketchy at best—out of all of last year’s incidents, the rights group has identified 30 “probable” Arab perpetrators. The two 18-year-old men charged with arson in

the Talmud Torah firebombing-Simon Zogheib and Sleiman Elmerhebi—are Canadian citizens of Lebanese origin, but reportedly Christian. Both of the accused, along with Elmerhebi’s mother, Rouba Elmerhebi Fahd, who was charged with being an accessory after the fact, have pleaded not guilty.

And the political dimension-the so-called “new” anti-Semitism that ties Judaism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is rarely as explicit as the claim of responsibility left

behind in the St. Laurent attack. For example, Ontario’s attorney general recently consented to the laying of hate crime charges against three Toronto teens for a vandalism spree in March, which targeted a Jewish cemetery, educational centre and synagogue in the city’s north end. Adding to the consternation in the community was the revelation that one of the accused, Steven Vandermay, 18—his alleged accomplices, both 15, cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act-is the son of a long-time

employee of another Jewish burial ground, located just down the street from where 27 tombstones were toppled.

Along with the widespread public outrage in the wake of the firebombing, federal Justice Minister Irwin Coder, a graduate of United Talmud Torah, pledged to “bring the full force of the law to bear” on those who commit acts of racist hate. But that hasn’t mollified Scheinberg and others in the community, who are now calling for changes to immigration laws and tougher screening procedures for some would-be Canadians. “We need to bring new arrivals into the mainstream and filter out negative influences,” says Scheinberg. “Let’s question. Let’s see what school of thought an imam subscribes to before letting him into Canada.”

Not surprisingly, such proposals, and the attempt to affix blame for the upswing in anti-Semitism, have been greeted with outrage in Arab and Muslim communities. “They’re killing tolerance—they’re burning bridges,” says Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, and the Muslim chaplain at McGill University. His organization strongly condemned the firebombing, and like many Jewish groups, has worked hard to ford the torrents of emotion that flow from the Middle East. Elmenyawi says both communities know the sting of hatred. In the wake of Sept. 11, Muslims, especially women wearing the hijab, have frequently faced verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse in

‘WE shouldn’t think that it can’t happen in Canada. It has already happened here-and it can happen again.’

public spaces such as the metro. This past winter in the suburb of Dollard-desOrmeaux/Roxboro, the local council amended zoning rules in an effort to stop a former synagogue from being converted into a mosque. “Our responsibility as a society should be to make sure that everybody has justice,” says Elmenyawi.

At a recent Friday prayer service in downtown Montreal, young Muslims accused politicians and the media of ignoring, or trivializing, the crimes committed against

their community. “In this country, Muslims are perceived as the other, the alien, the foreigner,” said Mahmoud Hallak, a Canadian of Syrian origin. “You always have to be on guard.” His friend Isam Faik, originally from Morocco, said the fear of Islam has spread far and wide since Sept. 11. “When you look at what is said on television or written in the papers about Arabs and Muslims, the bar is set very low. If you substituted the word ‘black’ or ‘Chinese,’ much of it wouldn’t be permitted.”

It is generally accepted that despite the

IT SEEMS so

important to find not just the perpetrators of aberrant attacks, but an explanation as well

uptick in incidents of hatred, modern Canada remains a remarkably tolerant place. Perhaps that’s why it seems so important to find not just the perpetrators of aberrant attacks such as the Talmud Torah firebombing, but an explanation as well. As a society, we have largely succeeded in shaking off the old prejudices that continue to bedevil other parts of the world. But to the many who have found sanctuary here—there are some 8,000 Holocaust survivors living in Montreal—it is impossible to take such things for granted.

Benudiz speaks of how overwhelmed his community has been at the generosity directed their way from all parts of the country and around the world. In almost the next breath, he echoes calls for a tougher screening of those who wish to call this place home. “An unrestricted open immigration policy is detrimental to Canada,” he says. “We have to make sure the people who come here are compatible with Canadian values.”

It’s an argument that has been made many times in the past. “We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood,” Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary in March 1938, about a group of would-be immigrants from Europe. All told, just 5,000 Jews found refuge in Canada between 1933 and 1945, under one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. IÎÏÏ

A TOUCHY TOPIC IN FRANCE

It seemed, at first, like a shocking incident: a young woman said she and her child had been attacked by a group ofArabic-looking young men. Believing she was Jewish-she wasn’t-they allegedly slashed her shirt and drew swastikas on her stomach. Officials reacted with horror-President Jacques Chirac said he was filled with “dread.” And fears remained even after the woman confessed to making up the story: France’s Jewish community expressed concern that anti-Semitism in the country, said to already be the worst in Europe, would increase as a result of the sham. To gauge the mood in France, Montreal Bureau Chief Benoit Aubin recently visited Montpellier, the site of a synagogue firebombing in 2002. He filed this report:

More than two years later, and Montpellier is still talking about it. On that night, three Muslim teenagers lobbed Molotov cocktails at the Mazel Tov synagogue in the Beaux-Arts district of this quaint university town near the Mediterranean. Damage to the synagogue was minimal, but the repercussions are felt to this day. The boys later said in court they’d been upset by violent images of the conflict in Palestine, and wanted to “do

something.” And, says Marc Levy, the owner of a local travel agency and head of a volunteer Jewish protection and security agency, doing something “usually is to beat up local Jews or burn their synagogue.” The Jewish community, says Levy, has decided “not to take it sitting down.”

It’s that kind of talk that makes the French nervous. One woman, sitting at an elegant street-side café in Montpellier’s central Place de la Comédie, says: “France is in the grip of a double-barrelled paranoia: fear of terrorist attacks, and fear of communautarisme [sectarian feuds].” Listening to people like Levy and members of the Muslim community, one quickly realizes the second problem is very real. “Anti-Semitism has always been a fact of life here,” says Levy. “But it is clear that we are now faced with a new breed of anti-Semitism: from the Maghrébins [Muslim immigrants from North Africa].”

On the other side of the divide are people such as Ali Hafidi, 37, a Morocco-born computer expert now launching his own high-tech venture. The Jews are perfectly entitled to show no tolerance for aggression, he says, but Levy’s optics are skewed. “There is a big problem in Palestine, but very few Jews can bring themselves to publicly criticize the Sharon government,” Hafidi says. “On the other hand, only a fringe minority of Muslims in France openly support extremists and terrorists. So some people are left wondering who are the real hard-liners in France at the moment.” Others, though, say that both sides should be addressing a larger problem of intolerance in French society. An estimated 600,000 Jews and five million Muslims live in this country of 60 million, the largest such communities in western Europe. “That proves to be just too much for the silent majority of les franco-français [the French-French],” says Sarah El Atmanni, a civil lawyer in Montpellier. “The dispassionate truth is that Jews have been attacked, but so have Muslims-they are just not as good at keeping score. What we have here is xenophobia, directed at both sons of Abraham: Muslims and Jews.”