Bob Rae is special envoy to Myanmar, senior counsel at OKT LLP and teaches public policy and law at the University of Toronto. He was previously the premier of Ontario and a federal member of Parliament. The following is adapted from a speech delivered Nov. 24 at the Negev Dinner in Toronto.
Hateful and brutal attacks on Jews as a people, as a nation and as individual men women and children, did not start or end with the genocide of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is as old as the history of the Jewish people. The destruction of both the first and second Temples turned the Jews into a people without a home, a people forced to live under the power of others and a people forced to move hoping to find security somewhere, anywhere, in places where the hearts and minds of the majority were so often turned against them.
The determination of Jews to remain true to their faith and their history made their stay in many places unwelcome, difficult, and sometimes impossible. Branded as a people apart, Jews lived with the constant reality of hatred and discrimination and the threat of destruction and violence. In this history long periods of peaceful co-existence and even prosperity came to a tragic end, with expulsions, forced conversions, death and destruction on a grand scale. For hundreds of years in much of Europe, Jews were banished, forbidden to live, to worship, to be themselves.
Christians today (for instance, the Church of England just last week) are more prepared to admit the deep anti-Semitism that is intertwined in their theology, folk myths (terrible blood libels and defamatory stereotypes in popular literature, song, and art), prayers and even liturgy. Churches today are going some distance to understanding what is required to overcome this hatred. Like all reconciliations it begins with truth.
And the same is needed in Islam, both modern and traditional. Proselytizing religions have enormous difficulty accepting the good faith and integrity of those who decline conversion. And, as in many other civilizations, the discrimination against Jews led to them being forced into ghettos, being denied full rights of citizenship and the ability to live in civil society. It has led to killing, pogroms, the destruction of synagogues, to the spreading of lies and hatred that continues to this day.
In her great book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described how folk racism became “scientific racism,” and how in the 19th century, ideas of racial purity and superiority took hold in many different societies, but most dramatically, and with such terrible effect, in Germany. It took a populist demonic figure to put anti-Semitism at the heart of his own, and his country’s, politics. The Jewish people, and the whole world, paid the ultimate price as a result.
The world after 1945 vowed “Never Again” but this has proved untrue, both for the Jewish people and for many others whose lives have been threatened and even destroyed by the awful power of race hatred. The mass killing of the Tutsis in Rwanda and the forcible deportation and killings of the Rohingya in Myanmar are just two notable examples. Genocide is not, tragically, a thing of the past. It is a pathology of our current history. And with social media and new technologies, hate can reach a worldwide audience with the press of a single button.
For the Jewish people, not even the Holocaust brought an end to insecurity and discrimination. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 has not been followed by peace and mutual acceptance – and Israel’s struggle for the right to live in secure and recognized borders at peace with Palestinians and other neighbours is still being challenged. When references to Jewish conspiracies and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are in the founding documents of Hamas, anyone knows that a deep and destructive anti-Semitism lies at the heart of political movement for which a Jewish state – of any kind, within any borders – is completely unacceptable.
Our own work in Canada must continue. All of us know that anti-Semitism has been with us in our own country for a long time, and is still with us today. Incidents of anti-Semitism are still listed as among the most common hate crimes. These crimes reflect the resurgence of ancient hatreds and stereotypes, as well as new ones, and fighting them will require education, persistence and an even greater commitment from both ourselves and from others.
Those who know me know that I often come back to the words of Rabbi Hillel, whose three questions mean so much to every generation who will hear them. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
Being for ourselves, and knowing that others will only come to our help when we follow that obligation, is a sign of health, of life, of political and personal will and determination. But that must be followed by a commitment to others who also face hatred, insecurity and discrimination. And finally, the commandment to act – for it is by our deeds and not our words alone that we make a difference. In creating a permanent legacy to fight anti-Semitism we are showing our faith in ourselves, our future, and our common humanity.
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