Jerry Amernic: Appeasement is the wrong response to antisemitism

This growing problem demands a more forceful response than what we've managed in the past
A person holds up a sign during a pro-Palestine rally in Montreal, Sunday, November 12, 2023. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The world changed the night of November 9-10, 1938. It was Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass—when Jews, their homes, and businesses were attacked in Nazi Germany. It would be a wake-up call of what was coming. The world also changed this past October 7.

While both dates are outgrowths of ideological fanaticism, October 7 is different because social media makes it easy for any ideology to infect eager minds, no matter how uninformed. Indeed, imagine what Hitler propagandist Joseph Goebbels would have done with TikTok.

Maybe we don’t have to. In past weeks we’ve seen college and university students support not only Palestinians but Hamas, which is what happens when unbridled free speech intersects with people who don’t know history and don’t have the facts. The latest perverse twist is support on social media for Osama bin Laden.

No wonder the state of our youth when you look at who is shaping them. At a congressional hearing in Washington on December 5 the presidents of three major U.S. schools—Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—were asked if calling for the genocide of Jews on campus violates their code of conduct. All three squirmed uncomfortably and came up with answers like “If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment” and “It is a context-dependent decision.”

It takes me back to a comment made by David Frum on one of his podcasts for The Hub when he said universities are run by “spineless cowards.”

Indeed, it has become fashionable on university and college campuses to be anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-Hamas.

After October 7 I saw CNN interview students from UCLA taking part in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies. The Jewish student with his Israeli flag was not interviewed on campus because he said he wouldn’t be able to do that. The other student was on campus and when asked about the massacre replied: “We have to conceptualize it with the entirety of a 75-year occupation.”

But what is there to conceptualize about a terrorist who murders babies?

I have a friend, a Holocaust survivor who spent four years in concentration camps. He calls the Holocaust a defining moment in human cruelty and says for years he felt embarrassed because he survived. He gives talks, often at schools, about his wartime experience—but now, he tells me, those talks are being cancelled. His story goes against the new narrative.

He was part of a group that started organizing in the 1980s in the wake of the Ernst Zundel trial. Zundel, a German immigrant to Canada, was the world’s leading Holocaust-denier publisher. His first conviction was tossed out on a technicality and the second overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada. It found that the law which convicted him was an unreasonable limit on freedom of expression. He was later extradited to Germany where he got five years in prison.

Germany has experience with Nazis.

In Canada, we have the Charter and the right to peaceful assembly. By and large, people respect the law which is supposed to protect everyone and that’s fine and good in a perfect world, but the world is not perfect. When it comes to security and potential harbingers of hate, this country has a knack for resorting to fairies and pixie dust. In other words, keep your fingers crossed, don’t offend anyone, and hope for the best. 

Just like the New York Times did with Hitler in the 1920s. On November 21, 1922, that newspaper ran its first-ever mention of him:

Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s antisemitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using antisemitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.

So, not much to worry about here. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But kid-gloves treatment of the most vile among us embodies the Neville Chamberlain school of appeasement. The then-prime minister of the United Kingdom returned from his 1938 meeting with Hitler and showed the world the German chancellor’s signature on a slip of paper. He called it “peace in our time,” and we know how that turned out.

We cannot measure what the appeasement of Hitler cost the world. In current times we see this again with the appeasement of Vladimir Putin who invaded Ukrainian territory in 2014. Don’t forget that in 1994 Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement respecting existing borders, provided the latter turn over its entire nuclear arsenal, which it did. Similarly, Hitler’s Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939 which sat well with the Russians until Germany invaded in 1941.

One day they may say Canada wrote the book on appeasing. After all, we are a good place to launder money and to be a Nazi or any other terrorist. Alas, we have a sorry record of prosecuting, and dealing with, such people.

Take Helmut Rauca who lived comfortably for decades in a leafy Toronto suburb. He was complicit in the murder of thousands of Jews from the Kaunas Ghetto in Lithuania. He came to Canada in 1950, became a citizen in 1956, and lived under the radar until 1982 when Germany requested his extradition. They had been looking for him since 1961. In 1983 Rauca dropped all appeals against his extradition and was sent to Frankfurt. Later that year, awaiting trial in detention, he died of cancer. He was the first Nazi war criminal extradited from Canada.

Nazis in Canada should not be mollycoddled with laws that may or may not permit their hatred to go unfettered. The same should hold for other terrorists or terrorist sympathizers who live here. No matter where they are from. No matter their cause.

So, anyone who takes part in a pro-Nazi demonstration on Canadian soil with signs showing swastikas should be charged and prosecuted. If the wording of the law is vague, then add teeth to it. By the same token, anyone taking part in a pro-Hamas demonstration should face the same music.

And consider that those who attended pro-Palestinian rallies and wielded Palestinian flags immediately after the massacre of more than 1,200 Israeli civilians by Hamas may not have been openly committing terrorism, but at the very least were offering tacit approval. Why else hold such a demonstration at that time? In France, this sort of thing is banned, but France has had incidents.

Here are the facts. There is no argument for moral equivalence in the Israel-Hamas war. To say otherwise is to profess abysmal ignorance of history and current reality. Israel is not perfect, but it’s a democracy with free elections and the other is a terrorist organization. End of story. All those signs that read “Free Palestine” should add the words “from Hamas.”

Some more things to chew on.

  • A new Economist/YouGov poll found that one-fifth of young Americans believe the Holocaust was a myth. No reason to think it’s different here.
  • Years ago Haifa University in Israel polled Israeli Arabs about this and found that 41 percent of them agreed with that view.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, Muslim populations around the world hold an “unfavourable” view of Jews. In Jordan it’s 100 percent. In Lebanon 99 per cent. In Egypt 98 percent. And right down the list.

What does that mean for Canada? These numbers should be a wake-up call. Blatant antisemitism risks becoming a growing and pervasive problem in Canada given its apparent prevalence in these different demographic groups, from Middle Eastern immigrants to the youth on our university campuses.

Of course, public policy and foreign policy should not be knee-jerk reactions to polls and surveys. But what is currently taking place on the streets and on campuses is frightening.

What does my friend the Holocaust survivor think about it? He replied with an analogy. What if some group was advocating for the removal of a specific minority group here in Canada? It could be First Nations, LGBTQ, or Ukrainians. Let’s say this group carried signs saying such people should be driven into the sea and expelled from this land, which is pretty much the mantra of Hamas where it concerns Jews

Which begs the question. Would the wokers, the university unions, and the law professors out there be okay with it? Would our government and all the legal machinery in this country grant them protection under the umbrella of free speech and the right to peaceful assembly?

I doubt it.

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