Sheba Birhanu is the associate director of partnerships at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). A Canadian-Ethiopian Jewish activist, she focuses on combatting antisemitism and hate.
With antisemitic tirades from Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Jew-hate has moved from the periphery to the mainstream.
According to Statistics Canada police-reported hate crime data, despite accounting for less than one per cent of the population, Jews remain Canada’s most targeted religious minority, demonstrating Jews have not transcended the antisemitism of the past. Yet we find ourselves consistently left out of both equity-seeking spaces and diversity and inclusion training and discussions.
When I’ve publicly called out antisemitism, I’m told that the hate I am experiencing is not real. I am accused of whining or exaggerating a past truth, as if Jews have graduated from oppression into whiteness.
Ye’s “death con 3″ tweet indicates otherwise.
Why and how is this happening in our increasingly progressive and inclusive society?
First, Jews are often omitted from the diversity and inclusion framework, not recognized as a minority because there’s an inaccurate perception that Jews are white. Vibrant Jewish communities comprising racialized people have existed around the world for millennia in Asia, Africa and the Americas. And, while the skin of Ashkenazi Jews, who have roots in Eastern Europe, is white, history shows that these Jews are not considered white but as “other” or, in the case of the Nazis and white nationalists, as from an inferior “Jewish Race.” To claim Jews, as a people, are white is false and dismissive of those like me, a Jew of Ethiopian heritage.
Second, conversations about us are happening without consultation with the broader community. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board hosted an antisemitism training session for trustees led by a music teacher who publicly opposes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism – the consensus definition of antisemitism that best reflects lived experience of Jews today. It was created through a democratic process that included global experts, educators and academics, and has been adopted by countless governments and institutions around the world – including Canada’s federal government and, to date, six provinces.
Third, our voices are not heard when we call out hate against us. I am often told denying a core component of my identity – Zionism, the belief in the self-determination of the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland Israel – isn’t antisemitism, but simply anti-Zionism. These voices claim they are “against Israel, not Jews”– that they’re criticizing the government, not the people. But, more and more, the two conflate to paint Israel – and anyone associated with it – as evil.
While at Western University, I joined the Black Students Association. I wrote articles about the politics of hair, misogynoir and online dating while Black, which I shared on social media. People of all backgrounds read my observations with few objections. My lived experience with anti-Black racism was seldom questioned.
As a Jewish person, the same is not true.
Educators, trainers and activists coined “equity, diversity and inclusion” to make space where people from various ethnicities, cultures, religions and other protected characteristics are recognized for their entire personhood. I mistakenly thought that would include my Jewishness.
My ancestors lived in Ethiopia, isolated from the Jewish diaspora, where they passed down the Torah orally and longed to return to Zion. Israel is baked into the prayers of Passover seders, wedding ceremonies and Shabbat dinners. For Ethiopian Jews, to deny Israel is to deny Jewish identity.
Most Canadian Jews have an attachment to Israel. They are Zionists. Those who deny this component of Jewish identity exclude Jews from spaces that purport to seek justice. In rejecting Zionists, they reject Canadian Jews.
By excluding the Jewish community from the diversity and inclusion conversation, these groups send a message: you don’t need protection, you’re safe. However, we don’t feel safe. We are neither included nor given the space within the progressive community to define the hatred directed at us.
As a woman, I want to feel safe when I walk down the street at night. As a Black person, I want to feel safe when I walk past a police officer. And as a Jew, I want to feel safe when I enter a synagogue. But it can’t be that one fear is understood, while another is dismissed.
Whether dealing with Ye’s threats, Nazi salutes or denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, like other minorities, Jews must be included in the conversation and permitted to define and describe the discrimination we face. Nothing about us without us.