What’s the Count? Can we Compare the Ravages of Islamophobia with Antisemitism?

It may seem crude to compare the ravages of Islamophobia with the problem of antisemitism in Canada. After all, both are despicable, and both must be fought, preferably together, along with other forms of bigotry and hatred.

Nevertheless, I was prompted to write this by the recent gabfest on CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Magazine with Pia Chattopadhyay. She invited Deborah Lyons, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism and former Canadian Ambassador to Israel, and Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s Special Representative on Combating Islamophobia. Both women were appointed by the federal government prior to the events of October 7.

CBC’s Sunday Magazine

The first thing that Elghawaby noted was that the current attacks on Canadian Muslims were reminiscent of what happened after 9/11 when Muslims were faced with arrests and suspected of being a fifth column – basically terrorists. She said that the problem was the “turning back of the clock and undo the damage of 9/11.” Muslim Canadians have lost jobs, or had their jobs suspended, and also there are efforts to criminalize and silence them. When Pia Chattopadhyay noted a new Senate study reporting that Canada leads the G7 in terms of targeted killings of Muslims motivated by Islamophobia, I noticed for Lyons, the gloves came off. Lyons said that the “all out assault” on the Jewish community is “unprecedented.” Her comment, “Professors spit and yell at Jewish students,” went by unchallenged.

In the end, Elghawaby soft pedalled her initial comments about Muslim suffering. She and Lyons agreed we had to strengthen faith leaders and educators’ roles in quelling anxiety and getting “back” to civility. In the end, Elghawaby agreed that we have to build back Canadian values, (whatever that means). We all have to get together, it’s the Canadian way, multiculturalism is us, and we have to get along as Canadians.

Transgressions Against Canadian Muslims

In response to the CBC’s view that both Muslims and Jews are facing equal levels of discrimination, I’ve collected a partial list of transgressions against Canadian Muslims:

  1. In Edmonton in 2016, a man confronted two hijab wearing Muslim women on the street. The man brandished a rope which he tied into a noose and said, “This is for you.” Then he sang “O Canada.” The police laid no charges.
  2. In October 2016, hundreds if not thousands of leaflets against Islam, calling for the banning of that religion, and to “#ShipThemtheF… Back” were distributed in two Edmonton neighbourhoods. The police didn’t respond.
  3. A single 27-year-old white male fired 48 bullets in two minutes inside the Islamic Cultural Centre in Québec City in January 2017. He killed six Muslim men and seriously injured five more (including one man now paralyzed from the chest down). They were targeted for being Muslims, and according to the shooter, he shot them because he feared a refugee flood into Québec.
  4. Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, the oldest mosque in Canada, was targeted with neo-Nazi graffiti, and had men coming in to “case” the mosque in 2019.
  5. In July, 2019, the Owen Sound Muslim Association was vandalized and graffitied for two nights in a row. The attacker also targeted a Popeyes restaurant, believing that the restaurant was owned by a Muslim.
  6. In Sept. 2020, a 58-year-old man, a member of the International Muslim Organization in west Toronto, was stabbed to death in front of the building by a 34-year-old white man.
  7. In May 2020, a man sat in his truck outside the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton. He broadcast threats and intimidation against Muslims over social media in what he called a “Ramadan Bombathon.” Police did not charge him.
  8. In July 2020, a Québec man “encouraged the eradication of Muslims” in hundreds of hate posts and threats as well as in posts inciting violence. Charges were brought against him.
  9. The Muslim Association of Canada’s Masjid Toronto reported five consecutive incidents of vandalism, break-ins, and graffiti on walls within a three-month period by July 2020 and a sixth in August of the same year.
  10. In January 2020, four men were accused of public urination on the Islamic Society of Markham. They threw objects and broke a window.
  11. Four people in the Afzaal family of London, Ontario, died when a young white man deliberately drove his pick-up truck into the family who were out for an evening stroll in June 2021. The family’s nine-year-old son was the only one to survive the attack. The attacker told police he wanted to “send a strong message” against Muslim immigration.
  12. In January 2022, a Muslim woman who wore a hijab was in a car with her children in front of their mosque in Edmonton. An attacker spat on her car, used threats, punched the car, left briefly, and returned with a shovel, which he used to continue his attack. Then he attacked the mosque itself.
  13. In March 2022, a man attacked worshippers with bear spray and a hatchet at the Dar Al-Tawheed Islamic Centre in Mississauga, Ontario. The attacker was “motivated by hate” and intended to “harm indiscriminately,” explained counsel for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. The attacker pleaded guilty to three charges, including administering a noxious substance (bear spray) with intent to endanger life or cause bodily harm, assault with a weapon (hatchet), and mischief to religious property with the motivation of bias, prejudice, or hate based on religion. He told the congregants he was there “to kill terrorists.” The police called it a hate crime, and described the attacker’s “hatred for Muslims and his disappointment at having failed to inflict any real harm on the victims.”
  14. In March 2023, a woman wearing a hijab on a Toronto subway train was physically threatened by a man who asked her questions about Muslims and then asked her what she would do if someone hit her on the head and got away with it. He then took a large knife out of his backpack and said, “You know what we do with people like you.”
  15. On Saturday, November 18, 2023, a man was arrested for assault with a weapon outside the Toronto Islamic Centre in downtown Toronto. He had confronted several worshippers, thrown a rock at them, and yelled slurs, then attacked them with a bike chain. One person sustained minor injuries. The man had also been charged with two other incidents earlier in the week. On November 15, when a cab driver asked the man if he needed a ride, the man asked the driver if he was Muslim and sprayed him in the face with an unknown substance. Later that same morning, the same man approached a woman wearing a hijab and made derogatory comments to her, then sprayed her in the face with an unknown substance. The woman was taken to hospital and treated for minor injuries. The attacker has been charged with four counts of assault with a weapon, two counts of assault, and two counts of carrying a concealed weapon.

Transgressions Against Canadian Jews

For Jewish Canadians, luckily, there have been no murders. No grievous injuries. Nasty things, to be sure, but nothing remotely resembling what happens to Muslim Canadians. Jews in Canada lived through these incidents. I’m looking at the antisemitic incidents since October 7, 2023, which have spiked. Attacks on Jews before then were lower.

  1. Shouting and trading insults with aggressive pro-Palestine students in universities, notably at TMU (formerly Ryerson University), York University, and Concordia University in Montreal.
  2. On November 8, there were three incidents involving Concordia University in Montreal. The university’s president said there were “a few individuals… both Jewish and Muslim members of our community [who] have reported provocative comments, insensitive or hostile social media posts, and expressed fears for their security on campus.” But what actually happened? Inside the university’s downtown building, a Shabbat table was set up to honour the Israeli hostages by a group called Jews on Campus. Next to it was a table set up by Solidarity for Palestinians Human Rights Concordia (SPHR), which was selling keffiyehs to raise money for a Palestinian charity in Gaza. Both groups traded insultswith shouting and punches thrown. Security arrived, and the SPHR left to picket outside the building. The Jews on campus were ushered out by the police. One person was arrested on a promise to appear in court. A security guard and a student were slightly injured, but no one went to hospital. Not great, but not grievous bodily harm or death either.
  3. On November 7, 2023, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Jewish synagogue in Montreal in the middle of the night. No one was injured, and there was no serious damage.
  4. On November 9, 2023, two bullet holes were found on the door and wall of Talmud Torah Elementary School, and also Yeshiva Gedola School in Montreal.
  5. On October 25, 2023, in Toronto, a mezuzah (a Jewish religious artifact) was stolen from a doorpost, and “hateful remarks were made” about another mezuzah. Police are investigating.
  6. On November 17, 2023, there was a bomb scare at the Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. An email sent to the school said there were multiple bombs and that “many Jews will die today.” No bombs were found.

Granted, I looked only at attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions since October 7. Ugly and unacceptable as they may be, the spike in attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues are probably tied to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Since October 7…

As for the Muslims, since October 7, one man attacked worshippers at a mosque with a bicycle chain. The same man pepper sprayed (or bear sprayed) a taxi driver, and later, a woman who wore a hijab. She had to be treated in the hospital. These three incidents are being viewed by police as hate crimes.

Yes, tempers run high – on both sides.

But we have to remember that almost all the horrors perpetrated against the Muslim Canadians had little to do with the war on Gaza. They took place before the Israel-Hamas war. (Israeli siege of Gaza???) Many of the attackers were white racist men who hated Muslims because of how they looked, how they dressed, or the possibility they were immigrants.

Are Jews at Risk?

So, are Jews at risk? Yes, they are. But are they at risk primarily because some Canadians hate Jews? Or are they at risk primarily because some Canadians associate Israel with Jews? I would suggest the latter.

The Jewish mainstream and representatives of Israel have been lecturing Canadians for years claiming that Israel represents all Jews in the world. Prior to the war on Gaza, few Canadian Jews dared to stand up and say what Israel does – the brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the open air prison that was Gaza – is not in our name.

However, the current crisis in Israel/Palestine has occasioned what Monthly Review calls the “Largest Mass Mobilization of Jews in American History.”

And a similar phenomenon is happening in Canada. Now, more and more Jews are joining organizations like Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the United Jewish Peoples Order, and If Not Now and saying “Not in my name.” Many Canadian Jews refuse to tolerate Israel’s murders and torture of Palestinians, and Israel’s kidnapping and jailing of Palestinian children anymore.

But for those who do back the establishment Jewish community, for those who do not question their synagogue leaders, and for those who put Israel on a pedestal – they are now facing anger and outrage from other Canadians – perhaps for the first time. It is wrong to blame Jews as a whole for the crimes of Israel, but it is, unfortunately, understandable.

In its 2021 Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, B‘nai Brith claims the cumulative total of violent antisemitic incidents for the entire five-year period from January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2020 was 61. The audit also claims there were 75 violent incidents in 2021, of which 63 occurred in the month of May. Violence is never acceptable; however, we have to register the fact that in May 2021, Israel attacked Gaza with more than 1500 airstrikes that killed at least 192 people, including 50 children. This 11-day assault also destroyed more than 262 housing units and seriously damaged six hospitals and 11 clinics in Gaza. (For more on this, see AirWars.org.) This attack likely contributed to the rise in incidents against Jews in Canada.

Critique of B’nai Brith’s Audit on Antisemitism

For more than three decades, Canada’s B’nai Brith has published its Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in Canada. To believe B’nai Brith Canada, the numbers of antisemitic incidents are enormous. Researcher Sheryl Nestel, PhD, wrote a report The Use and Misuse of Antisemitism Statistics in Canada for Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Nestel makes a number of important points. First, according to a 2019 international survey of antisemitic attitudes by the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Canadians had the least antisemitic attitudes when compared to people in 18 countries. Only Sweden stood above Canada with less prejudice against Jews. Those numbers have been consistent over the years.

And yet, improbably, according to B’nai Brith Canada, Canada leads the US in antisemitic incidents by a staggering factor.

The ADL also publishes an audit of antisemitic incidents in the US. Though the US has many more Jews than Canada (approximately 6,500,000 vs 400,000), B’nai Brith Canada claims there are 10% MORE total antisemitic incidents in Canada than in the US. Proportional to Jewish population, that means that Canada has almost twenty times the number of antisemitic incidents as the US! Nestel poses the question of how transparent is the research that goes into the B’nai Brith audit. Unlike the ADL, which allows external oversight of its audit, B’nai Brith Canada does not.

According to Nestel, B’nai Brith Canada’s methodology is also deeply flawed. For example, every time a tweet is repeated, it counts as another example of antisemitism.

One reason for the discrepancy between ADL and B’nai Brith Canada is the definition of antisemitism employed. The Canadian organization uses the controversial and flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA), in which criticism of Israel is considered antisemitic, while the ADL does not.

It’s not just Dr Nestel who is sounding the alarm. Professor Robert Brym of the University of Toronto is the author of the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada. He notes, “It remains the case that one may be critical of Israeli government policy without holding negative attitudes toward Jews. By lumping together anti-Jewish and some anti-Israel actions, and labelling both antisemitic, B’nai Brith Canada ignores this possibility.”

Rabbi Mivasair’s Study

Another person who has questioned B’nai Brith’s figures is Rabbi David Mivasair of Hamilton, Ontario, a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. After hearing that Hamilton was the Canadian capital of antisemitism, he made the following request of the Hamilton Police Service (HPS):

“… a copy of all incident reports and follow-up investigation reports of occurrences that have resulted in reported anti-Jewish hate crimes and hate incidents in the City of Hamilton from January 1, 2016 until the present” (to September 2022).

Mivasair writes,

“I received a list of 175 occurrences with no other information than a file number, the type of occurrence (graffiti, verbal, physical, etc.), the date, a redacted address and status as a hate crime/incident, i.e., whether it was classified as ‘suspected’ or ‘yes’. Of the 175 occurrences, only seven are classified by the HPS as ‘yes’. The other 168 have not been found to meet the criteria to be deemed anti-Jewish hate crimes or incidents. Nonetheless, HPS records indicate that there have been 175 reported anti-Jewish hate crimes and incidents in that period.

“After receiving that bare minimal information, I contacted the HPS and asked for all the information I requested to be made available. The HPS replied in writing that they would not release any more information because doing so would violate the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. I appealed to release the full reports by redacting any personal information so that privacy will be protected.”

He continues, “Even without getting all the information that I requested, we can make a case that the claims of B’nai Brith et al. regarding Hamilton are quite exaggerated and not supported by HPS findings. Of 175 reported occurrences that led to police involvement, the police found only seven that met the criteria they use to classify events as a hate crime or hate incident. I’ve attached the HPS list of 175 occurrences and the appeal letter that I wrote” [available on request].

One such incident reported as antisemitic was a vehicle owned by a local Hindu temple that bore the sign of the swastika. The Hindu swastika, symbol of good luck and prosperity, pre-dates the Nazi appropriation of the emblem by thousands of years.

My final point was made by Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiew earlier this month. He noted that there were 15 antisemitic incidents reported between October 7 and October 25. That’s compared to seven in 2022 and one in 2021, he said. Meanwhile, there were five anti-Muslim hate incidents reported between October 7 and October 25. In 2022, there were none, and only one reported in 2021. Demkiw suggested these incidents may be attributable to the attacks on October 7, and the Israeli-Hamas war.

Can Police Solve the Problems of Islamophobia and Antisemitism?

It is a fact that the Jewish community is more willing to complain to police about hate incidents than are members of racialized and newcomer communities. An Ontario Human Rights commission survey reports that Black and other racialized people say the sector in which they experienced the most racial profiling (32.4%) was the police. From the same report, if we add racialized people’s experiences of profiling by the courts (5.1%), correctional services (1.6%), national security and intelligence (6.5%), and private security officers (18.3%), we can see that policing is a major source of racial profiling. Little wonder racialized Canadians, including most Muslims, have little interest in reporting incidents to the police.

But the same cannot be said for Jewish Canadians. They tend to consistently call the police to report hate incidents. Given that most Jews in Canada are not racialized, are not recent immigrants, and know their rights, they tend to get a fair hearing or at least a benign response by police.

But it is not the police who will keep us safe from bigots and racists. We cannot isolate and prioritize antisemitism from other forms of oppression. We need to challenge political ideologies that pave the way for racism, hate, and fear. We must create environments that affirm and celebrate all expressions of cultural and religious life. We have to actively embrace, rather than simply tolerate, cultural and religious diversity in Canada. We cannot distance ourselves from “other” people. And finally, when there are attacks on Jews or our neighbours, we have to work together in solidarity – not rely on the police to deliver justice. •

Judy Haiven is a retired management professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. She is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. You can reach her at jhaiven@gmail.com. She blogs at judyhaiven.substack.com.