As about three dozen people mingle in front of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building in advance of a political protest, one man stands out among the crowd. Whereas almost everyone on this hot Vancouver day is dressed casually in T-shirts and some are wearing shorts, he is wearing a pressed white shirt, a tie, and dress pants.
On top of his head is a yarmulke, reflecting his Jewish faith. He is there to voice his support for the people aboard a boat called the Tahrir, which is challenging Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The vessel, which is financially supported by a nonprofit group called the Canadian Boat to Gaza, has been prevented from leaving the island of Crete by the Greek government.
He identifies himself as Rabbi David Mivasair of the Ahavat Olam Synagogue. When I ask if he can write down the spelling of the synagogue, he declines because it’s the Jewish Sabbath. The word Sabbath has its origins in the Hebrew version of to rest.
“I came today because I think it’s a compelling moral necessity to be here and to support the flotillas that are trying to open the siege that Israel has put on Gaza for years now,” Rabbi Mivasair tells me. “I feel like I have more responsibility because I’m a Jew and Jewish religious leader and a teacher. I just think I have to be here.”
When I ask how his public stance is viewed by other Vancouver rabbis, he offers up a gentle smile.
“They’re vociferously opposed,” he acknowledges. “They don’t understand why I would do this. The organized Jewish community, of course, feels a need for various reasons to present a position of supporting everything and anything Israel does. So they don’t want anyone within the Jewish community or identified within the Jewish community, to disagree with that.”
He’s not the only Jewish person present, and points to others in the crowd who share his faith. In Vancouver, there are groups such as Jews for a Just Peace and Independent Jewish Voices, which have publicly disagreed with the Canada-Israel Committee, B’Nai B’rith Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and other organizations that often speak in the media on behalf of the Canadian Jewish community.
I ask Rabbi Mivasair what percentage of the Jewish population in Vancouver might disagree with the views of the Canada-Israel Committee, which largely supports the government of Israel.
“I think the majority of the Jewish people in the Vancouver area are very disturbed by what Israel is doing in Gaza, but spokespeople for the organizations that have claimed to speak for us don’t allow that to be known,” he maintains. “Most Jewish people don’t participate in the organized Jewish community. And part of the reason is that politically, they are so far apart.”
This leads me to inquire why organized Jewish groups appear to have allied themselves so closely with the Israeli coalition government led by Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu.
“I think it’s basically kind of ethnic solidarity and a lot of the echoes of the Holocaust, [and] fear of repeated anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Mivasair replies. “It’s a multigenerational kind of conditioning to support the people that pose themselves as acting for the Jews, and not showing any fragmentation. It’s not something inherently based on the situation as it is.”
At this point, I pull two books out of my knapsack, both published in 2010, which offer radically divergent views of the degree of discrimination against Jewish people both in Canada and in other countries. I’m curious to know if he has read either of them.
Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (The Canadian Charger) is a series of essays by Canadian academics, writers, and organizations, including Independent Jewish Voices. The various contributors, including some Jewish writers, argue that there is a pernicious effort in Canada to criminalize criticism of the state of Israel as being anti-Semitic.
The editor, University of Guelph English and theatre studies professor Michael Keefer, devotes one chapter to the sordid history of anti-Semitism in Canada. He tells the story of Jewish refugees from Nazism being denied entry into the country. Keefer also notes there were limits on Jewish university enrollments, refusals of Jewish memberships into clubs, and prohibitions on Jews owning property in certain neighbourhoods.
In another essay, Keefer acknowledges that Jews are being “disproportionately targeted by hate-mongers”. However, he then dissects data showing a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years in Canada and other countries, and claims that the statistics have been inflated because of they way the numbers are being collected. Then he concludes this essay with a claim that Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney and Liberal MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who spearheaded the creation of the parliamentary committee, are “trying to panic Canadians into acquiescing in a draconian clamping down on democratic debate and free expression in this country”.
Furthermore, Keefer alleges, “They are doing so under blatantly false pretenses.”
The other book, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House), by Israeli academic Robert S. Wistrich, argues that there is widespread hatred of Jews in western countries and the Muslim world. Wistrich alleges that this includes “self-hatred” by left-wing Jewish academics—such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and Illan Pappe—who, in his opinion, undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
“Self-hating Jews, whatever their motives for betraying their own people and negating its history, have throughout the ages provided invaluable ammunition for the anti-Semites,” Wistrich writes. “That still remains the bottom line today.”
His final chapter (before the epilogue) describes in detail how Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “apocalyptic worldview”, which involves accelerating the reappearance of the “Hidden Imam” [also known as the “Mahdi”], poses a deadly threat to Israel. Wistrich explains how the Iranian government has cultivated and promoted Holocaust denial and that Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, have both publicly promoted the destruction of Israel.
“Ahmadinejad is personally convinced that he has been chosen by the Mahdi to prepare the path for the projected end of the world—a vision that includes the extermination of the Jews ”˜in the last Hour’,” Wistrich writes in A Lethal Obsession.
He notes that this scenario resembles the Christian apocalypse, which talks of Armageddon, but emphasizes a key difference: Christian fundamentalists see the return of the Jews to Israel as a positive sign, whereas “for most Iranian Shiite Muslims, for the Palestinians, and for the rest of the Sunni Arab world, the establishment of Israel in 1948 was the great naqba. The Jewish conquest of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War was the devil’s work.”
In Wistrich’s view, there are great parallels between Nazism, which led to the attempt to exterminate European Jews, and what’s taking place in Iran today.
Rabbi Mivasair says he’s heard of both books. “I would not minimize the reality of ant-Semitism,” he states. “But I do think Canadian Jewish organizations play on it and actually maximize hints of anti-Semitism to portray them as great threats that we all must be in solidarity to defend ourselves against.”
I then mention that Wistrich sees Iran as posing an extremely serious threat to Israel. The rabbi disagrees.
“I don’t see it as serious at all,” he says. “I think that’s a fabricated fear that’s used to manipulate people politically. There are Israeli strategists who agree with me.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.