Canadian, UK officials, experts address two-day antisemitism conference in Ottawa

“We have tens of thousands of people in our streets celebrating the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust,” said Jason Kenney, former premier of Alberta.

The former Canadian politician Irwin Cotler (center, back row) receives an award at the "Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It" two-day conference in Ottawa as others, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (second from left) look on, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Dave Gordon.
The former Canadian politician Irwin Cotler (center, back row) receives an award at the "Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It" two-day conference in Ottawa as others, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (second from left) look on, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Dave Gordon.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs spent months planning the two-day conference “Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It,” scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17 in Ottawa. The agency of the Jewish Federations of Canada could not have guessed that the world would change some 10 days beforehand when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel at its southern border, killing 1,400 people, injuring more than 4,000 and kidnapping some 200 others.

“Across the political spectrum, there is a unity that has never been seen in these kind of times before,” said Lord John Mann, the UK government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, in the conference’s first session.

“The British people aren’t misled by the Twitter agenda, the echo chamber. We have our extremists, but let us tell you, the huge, overwhelming majority of the British people stand with the Jewish people, stand with Israel,” he said.

The British politician told the audience of about 850 that hate-crime consequences are trivialized in the United Kingdom. “It’s an insult to equate hate to a parking ticket,” he said.

According to organizers, some 250 student leaders and 600 others—Jewish and non-Jewish—attended the conference. 

The first panel, moderated by Michael Levitt, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, also included Farah Pandith, a senior adviser to the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities, under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Jason Kenney, the former premier of Alberta; and Katharina von Schnurbein, European Commission coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. 

Pandith said that Jews can’t be the only ones who talk about antisemitism just as Muslims can’t be the only ones to talk about Islamophobia.

“Whether we are talking about LGBTQ or issues of heritage or gender, we’ve had to stand up for each other,” she said. “As a Muslim, it’s what my religion tells me I must do for the other.”

Jason Kenney
Jason Kenney. Photo by Dave Gordon.

‘At best anti-Israel, at worst antisemitic’

Growing up in rural Saskatchewan and attending a Jesuit university in California, Kenney knew no Jews.

“Some of my peer circle and some of the Jesuit priests there, in retrospect, were at best anti-Israel and at worst antisemitic,” he said. “I picked up some of those vibes. I—like so many young people, so many gentiles—looked at the Middle East as warring factions, so much history, very complicated. But the Palestinians seem to be the underdogs.”

Kenney’s sense was that Palestinians were throwing stones at armored Israel Defense Forces tanks. “It’s a very simple image to paint for those who are hostile to the only homeland and refuge of the Jewish people,” he said. 

Elected as a federal parliamentarian in 1997, Kenney observed the unraveling of the Oslo process and the First Intifada in the early 1990s. 

When he read Hamas’s founding document, and after attending a Palestinian Media Watch presentation where he saw children’s show, sermons and political speeches inciting genocidal hatred of Jews, Kenney’s views began to change.

“Let’s be blunt. The Jewish community is a small and, in relative terms, shrinking minority of the Canadian population. We do not have the Christian Zionist population that they have in the United States. We have tens of thousands of people in our streets celebrating the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust,” he said. 

“Do not take for granted the positions being expressed here in Ottawa today. You must redouble your efforts intelligently to build coalitions across the pluralism of this country, and to be a voice of clarity and courage with our political leadership,” he said.

Since then, Kenney said he has threatened to pull funding from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta after one of its professors was revealed to be a Holocaust denier. And he said that the “growing fascination” with critical race theory and anticolonialism has been “been distorted into a pseudointellectual justification for what is going on.”

“We need to challenge our policy at universities and the governments that fund them,” he said. “All of the bromides that we in the West have repeated now for eight decades, ‘Never Again,’ well again it happens, and we have all sorts of these elites who apologize for it, offer context for it, legitimize and justify. Many of them are hiding behind the privilege of tenure at publicly-funded universities.”

Kasim Hafeez
Kasim Hafeez. Photo by Dave Gordon.

‘We had red lines in society’

Von Schnurbein, of the commission which is part of the European Union, addressed attendees via video feed from Germany.

“Antisemitism spreads the quickest and most effective through social media,” she said.

Her research shows that antisemitism increased 530% online in the first 24 hours after Hamas’s attack (she did not specify whether locally or globally). “It is key, in terms of safety, to have rules on the internet and to enforce them,” she said. Those European laws include the requirement that hate speech be removed within 24 hours, and the Digital Services Act, which went into effect in August, requiring social-media companies to “be transparent about their rules and regulations,” she said.

“What they take down, why they do not take it down. To respond quickly. And if they do not comply, fines could be issued up to 6% of their annual turnover,” she said.

Pandith, the former U.S. official, added that videos ISIS and Al-Qaeda used to recruit terrorists have been taken down, while those of Hamas have not.

“When ISIS and other terrorist organizations began putting beheading videos up online, we took them down. We had red lines in society,” she said. “Terrorists are trying to radicalize and bring people to their side. Why are we different about what Hamas is doing? Why is society acting differently?”

Online hatred came up in a separate session, titled “Breaking Out and Breaking Down the Echo Chambers.” Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, said that online incitement has been proven to lead to harm in the real world. 

“Social media can act as a deliberate staging ground,” he said, and “state actors, terrorists, extremist groups instrumentalize it as a weapon against vulnerable communities deliberately.”

Another speaker on the panel, Kasim Hafeez, a Middle East analyst with Christians United for Israel, talked of being a one-time radical who now advocates for Israel after reading Alan Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel and visiting Israel to see the country for himself. 

“I had been in touch with extremists in South Asia, looking at the next steps of being an actual, practical terrorist,” he said at the conference.

Advocacy is a slow, individualized process, Hafeez told JNS.

“I’ve said this 10 years ago and I’ll say it again today,” he said. “It’s like a war of attrition. It really is one person at a time. It’s hard work at times, but I do believe that it is possible. We have to educate young people while they are still in high school, before they become even more indoctrinated in university.”

‘A compassionate tone’

The Israeli writer and activist Hen Mazzig was part of a panel called “Harnessing Social Media for Good,” with writer and digital strategist Emily Schrader and Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum.

Hen Mazzig. Credit: Courtesy.

Mazzig told attendees that serving for five years as a humanitarian officer in the IDF, which included being an intermediary between the Army and Palestinian civilians in Judea and Samaria, gave him an understanding of the conflict and human behavior.

He told JNS that online activism should take on “a compassionate tone.”

“Israel and Jews as a whole need to lead with kindness as much as we can. We often resort to righteous anger. We have a right to. People are demonizing and attacking us,” he said. “It’s important that we are fighting back and our right to live in dignity. But we should always try to educate people and lead with kindness.”

In another address at the conference, Mike Fegelman, executive director of Honest Reporting Canada, noted that the presence of police officers has increased at Canadian JCCs and high schools. “We do not want to turn into France, where all of our institutions have to be guarded with machine guns,” he said.

In fact, the police instructed attendees of the conference to use side entrances, rather than the front doors, as pro-Hamas and pro-Palestinian protesters had set up outside the convention center.

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