As anti-Semitism rises, a rabbi keeps the faith

'The more we know each other, the less likely our children will develop prejudice and bias'

Rabbi Miriam Margles
Rabbi Miriam Margles has been the spiritual leader of Danforth Jewish Circle for 10 years. She says one of the best ways to beat out anti-Semitism is learning to be a better ally.  ELLEN SAMEK/TORONTO OBSERVER

When Rabbi Miriam Margles heard of the attack on four Orthodox Jewish boys, she was equally heartbroken and angry.

“Anytime there’s violence, it’s heartbreaking, especially when it’s motivated by hate and even more so when it’s young people involved,” she said.

Margles is the rabbi of Danforth Jewish Circle, an unaffiliated synagogue on Danforth Avenue. The congregation started in the upstairs of a Greek restaurant in the late 1990s and now shares worship space with Eastminster United Church on the Danforth. Even with anti-Semitism on the rise, Margles still has hope that what her synagogue does can be a part of the solution.

Social justice, education and creating multi-faith relationships in the local community are key parts of what Danforth Jewish Circle does. Helping allies understand what anti-Semitism does to the Jewish community is key for Margles.

“It’s so valuable for allies to understand that, for example, when Jews seem to act with defensiveness and seem closed off, it’s because we’re afraid of being betrayed, like so many times in history,” she said. “Shutting down stereotypes, no matter how insignificant, is crucial.”

Karen Robbins, a congregant of the Jewish Circle, says she’s felt the opposite of anti-Semitism living in East York and has seen first-hand how knowing each other can create understanding and friendship across religious lines.

Robbins has been doing multi-faith work on the Danforth for 10 years. It started with a peace walk in 2008 where Jews and Muslims from the neighbourhood got together with the intention of learning more about each another.

That walk has led to a strong connection between the Jewish and Muslim communities in East York.  After the shooting in Pittsburgh, the Muslim community created a circle around Eastminster United while Margles’ and Robbins’ congregation prayed.

“If we know each other and experience each other’s traditions, it’s less likely for there to be prejudice or bias to develop or for our children to develop it,” Robbins said.

The alleged anti-Semitic assault that took place last month involved minors. Toronto Police say that four 17-year-old boys wearing traditional Jewish clothing were physically assaulted by a group of other young men while uttering anti-Semitic slurs.

A 17-year-old suspect was arrested and charged with assault and robbery. Nine others are still wanted. Witnesses described the suspects as being in their early teens.

For Dr. Barbara Perry, a professor and hate crimes expert at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, it’s social media that’s enticing young people to join far-right movements. The consequences can be dire.

“Through my research of these movements, law enforcement and former members of these groups have told me about the powerful intensity of the hatred and how exhausting it becomes,” Perry said. “At first, people who join might feel a sense of belonging, but a lot of the time their hatred towards others becomes self-hatred. It’s often insecurity and low self-esteem that led them down the path in the first place.”

These attitudes are rooted in history, going back to when Jews lived in Europe during the Middle Ages.

“In history, Jews were deliberately positioned as middle agents,” Margles said. “There was been a long history of Jews forced into high positions that involved them being tax-collectors and moneylenders when they weren’t allowed to own property or learn trades. They served a function on behalf of the ruling elite in that way. That’s where the stereotype of usury and Jews being connected with money comes from.”

These beliefs are still prevalent in modern conspiracy theories equating Jews with villainously and covertly ruling the global economy.

“Those who are critical of globalization and multiculturalism or of immigration patterns, blame all of that on a great Jewish conspiracy to weaken the West, and Euro-Christian culture in particular,” Perry said.

“They have this vision of Jewish people as the rich, liberal elite controlling global politics from behind the scenes.”

The consequences are also dire for the victims of the crimes and their communities, especially when those communities are already quite insular.

“Those very same emotions are experienced by people who were not the immediate targets, but they’re aware of that victimization,” Perry said. “They too become fearful and paranoid, anxious and depressed. They cope by trying to change their behaviour or becoming even more isolated from broader society because they’re afraid.”

According to a new Statistics Canada report on police-reported hate crimes, crimes against Jewish people have increased by 41 per cent across the country. Ontario had the highest increase in hate crimes overall.

The report also says there has been an increase in non-violent hate crimes, like occurrences of mischief. One such crime took place in the east end in January when someone spray-painted swastikas on a Leuty Lifeguard Station.

The federal government also recently refused to have Canada Post deliver a community publication called Your Ward News. The government claims that the publication contains anti-Semitic statements, as well as other disparaging comments about other minority groups. It is for this reason it says Canada Post will no longer deliver the paper.

What Perry finds most disturbing is the improved organization of far-right groups and how social media is giving them a way to join forces.

“When you see these far-right rallies these days, it’s not just one skinhead group. It’s quite a few of them protesting together.”

But it’s not just the far-right that can be anti-Semitic. Both Margles and Perry agree that the far-left can be just as guilty of hatred towards Jewish people.

“I think a lot of anti-Semitism on the far-left is rooted in anti-Zionism and hatred towards Israel,” Perry said.

Despite the outrage when hate crimes take place, Perry says anti-Semitism has always been there, lurking in the shadows, and it’s probably going to get worse.

Perry and her colleagues at the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at UOIT will be embarking on a two-year study of anti-Semitism in Canada, focusing on both the historical and the contemporary.

Ultimately, Margles finds this hatred to be rooted in people not knowing each other well enough, even in the most multicultural city in the world.

“You only attack someone else if you see them as other than you,” she said. “When you build relationships across the lines of difference, beautiful things can happen.”

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of the story, a quote by Dr. Barbara Perry — ‘I think a lot of anti-Semitism on the far left is rooted in anti-Zionism and hatred towards Israel’ — was inadvertently attributed to the wrong source. An incorrect location was also provided for Karen Robbins’ sons’ Bar Mitzvahs. These errors have been corrected. Unfortunately, the mixups were not discovered until after the print version of the East York Observer went to press. We apologize for the errors.

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Posted: Dec 5 2018 5:42 pm
Filed under: News