(January 6, 2020 / JNS) Canadian Jewry may not get as much attention as their American counterparts, but representing a strong voice as staunch defenders of the State of Israel and global Jewry, they cannot be underestimated.
Meet B’nai Brith: Canada’s voice in promoting Jewish unity and continuity, which advocates on behalf of senior citizens, and combats anti-Semitism and racism. It is the grassroots voice of the Jewish community, and the country’s oldest independent and self-funded national Jewish organization. With activities including research, governmental advocacy and public communications, its support comes from thousands of Canadian families with diverse backgrounds and interests that empower the organization to address issues of concern to the Jewish community.
JNS had the opportunity to speak to B’nai Brith Canada’s CEO Michael Mostyn to get the latest on Canadian Jewry, politics, campus life and anti-Semitic behavior, and to hear how the grassroots voice of the Canadian Jewish community is impacting each.
Mostyn regularly speaks out on behalf of Canadian Jewry and those whose human rights are under threat globally. Before his current and past roles at B’nai Brith (which included leading the organization’s men’s ice-hockey league), he was a successful litigation lawyer in Toronto and has served as CEO in the high-tech startup sector.
Q: How does Canadian Jewry differ from American Jewry, and how would you define Canadian Jewish life today?
A: Canadians have a different perspective than Americans, even though we are all living in North America. Because we don’t get the same attention as our American friends, this motivates us even further to make achievements.
We have a strong Jewish community in Canada, with participation in Jewish schools and synagogues. Toronto has a very strong Jewish community and even places with smaller populations, like Winnipeg, which has a large population of Argentinian Jews, still has Jewish life.
Canadians are encouraged to be both Canadian and Jewish [or any other nationality or ethnicity], or in other words, to view themselves through two different lenses. American Jews, on the other hand, have the American melting pot with so much American patriotism, which is wonderful but means that American identity sometimes differs from Jewish identity, and you can see this through polling on intermarriage and engagement with traditional centers of Jewish life in America.
Canadian Jewry also tends to be more traditional than American Jewry. While the American experience within Jewish families tends to be that the kids are raised in a certain household—then the children go off to a second state, find a job and move halfway across the country, and everybody comes home for Thanksgiving—Canadians tend to come back home after college.
Q: What kind of challenges are you currently addressing as an organization?
A: Because of the advent of social media, we see a decrease of borders and differences between America and Canada, or Canada and Poland for that matter. Social media is ramping up and allowing further polarization of society at a faster rate than was ever possible before. What’s also disturbing is it is allowing anti-Semitic groups to work together in ways that ramp up the threat against the Jewish community. This has a major impact from a security standpoint, where we see speakers radicalizing and polarizing our populations that are traveling back and forth [between borders].
This is why we are proud to work with other groups around the world, and we are finding ways to better share information between those who are leading the charge and making sure [that criminals and anti-Semites] face repercussions in each country—for example, helping to have Holocaust deniers convicted in Germany.
Q: What is support for Israel like among the Canadian public? What about Canadian politics?
A: The Canadian Jewish community is strongly supportive of Israel, strongly Zionist, and anti-Israel movements like BDS have no acceptance within the mainstream Jewish community. When Canada changed its votes in the United Nations, voting against Israel, there was real outrage from every sector of the Jewish community in Canada.
We have some anti-Israel groups like in America, but the individuals are small in number, marginal and not involved in any way in Jewish communal life. Because there is so much self-respect for our Jewish identities and for Israel, it has allowed B’nai Brith to mobilize and stand strongly for the Jewish state.
Generally, Canada has a more traditional Jewish community. Under the Stephen Harper government in 2015, there was a real shift towards the Conservative Party, but since then, the community shifted with Trudeau. Concerning social and fiscal values, Jews in major cities tend to vote more liberal, but we don’t see that sort of 70/30 split like in America; it’s more like 50/50 in Canada. Regarding [actions] like moving its embassy to Jerusalem, a majority [of Jewish Canadians] would like to see something like that take place.
In America, there are politicians known to support BDS, an anti-Semitic movement. In Canada, too, there were a number of incidents with respect to political candidates that espoused anti-Semitic viewpoints, but we did not hesitate to talk to the public about it. It is important to act in these cases because once an individual is elected to a government, they can use their power to influence positively or negatively. So candidates have lost because they compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and tenured professors who denied the Holocaust faced the consequences; we are proud of our role in increasing transparency and educating the public about the background of certain individuals.
Within politics, we believe one should aspire to represent and advocate on behalf of the community through respecting one’s own value systems and principles. Zionism is an inherent part of our Jewish faith. When you respect yourself strongly, others will respect you as well. We are not [in the political arena] to make friends.
Q: What’s life like for young Canadian Jews on college campuses?
A: Campus life is quite good for Jewish students. There is a subtle trend of anti-Semitism at certain universities in Canada, and sometimes, there are incidents of blatant anti-Semitism on campus, such as at York University and the University of Toronto.
I’ve always thought of Canada as being 10 years behind United States, and now we are seeing that on campus, too, where the aggressive, anti-Semitic behavior in the U.S. is slowly finding its way to Canada. This is something we will be following up on—figuring out how we can make the campus a “safe space” for every group.
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