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Jerry Amernic: Appeasement is the wrong response to antisemitism

Commentary

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.

Rory Gilfillan: Who killed Canadian history? We did

Commentary

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the history that we teach is the history that we deserve. Twenty-five years ago, historian Jack Granatstein called it. Writing about the dearth of history in provincial curriculums, Granatstein’s seminal work, Who Killed Canadian History? wasn’t so much a critique as it was a prophecy. 

The most pernicious aspect of our selective memory isn’t what’s redacted but what never sees the light of the day. If you haven’t heard of Captain Gilday and the Black Devils Brigade, or Canada’s first female lawyer, Clara Brett Martin, you’re not alone. It’s a consequence of choices that have persisted and even accelerated since Granatstein issued his prophetic warning a quarter century ago. As he wrote then: “The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.” 

Second World War soldier Tommy Gilday, who was one of those people, likely didn’t carry stickers that said “the worst is yet to come,” helpfully translated into German. But it’s plausible.  

Stuck on the helmets of the enemy his unit killed in the night, the idea was effectively this: become a folktale. Operating first in the Aleutians, then behind the lines in Italy, and finally in Southern France, the First Special Service Force was a new innovation in the art of war. The idea was as simple as it was brutal. Recruit lumberjacks, hunters, skiers, and forest rangers from both sides of the Canadian border. Teach them to leap from airplanes, scale mountains, and fight in close quarters. Teach them to be ruthless and then unleash them on the enemy. A journal taken from a captured German officer gave them the moniker that stuck: The Black Devils.

Gilday grew up in a Canada that most of us would hardly recognize. In the 1920s he taught himself how to ski when ski hills barely existed and equipment was primitive. Later on, he climbed mountains suspended by hemp rope, steel pitons, and guile. Gilday was part of a vanished generation of Canadians who prided themselves on being rugged and self-reliant. When the war came, like most men his age, he enlisted, did his duty without fanfare, was decorated for valour, and went on to live a productive life. He would not have seen his service as extraordinary and in many ways, it wasn’t. This is just what you did.  

Canadians going overseas in the first half of the 20th century would be all but unrecognizable to us now. They weren’t the caricature of Dudley Do-Right. They weren’t self-deprecating and apologetic. Many were inveterate gamblers, some like Gilday were adventurers, others were heavy drinkers prone to brawling, and most of them were not only irreverent but also downright hostile to rigid British class structures. But they were tolerated and welcomed because despite being rough around the edges, Canadians were just the kind of people you could count on. Men good in a fight. Men who wouldn’t back down and above all, men who showed up and stayed for the duration.  

It’s unlikely that Canada was born on the bloody slopes of Vimy Ridge or in the cockpit of a Halifax bomber flying straight and level through flak bursts at twenty thousand feet, but I suspect that Granatstein was right: the stories we tell matter, and the ones we teach to our students (and certainly the ones we don’t) at best generate indifference and at worse encourage self-loathing. 

The decay of the ruddy Canadian that people like Gilday represented is the result not so much of the lack of Canadian history that is taught today but the content which reads more like a 16th-century morality tale rather than a balanced and relentless search for objective truth. The consequences of this ideology are now being reaped. We have repeatedly told a generation that, unlike their great grandparents, they can’t handle anything—and then have recoiled in disgust when it turns out they can’t. We have insisted that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, our country is bad and then lament the fact that most people can’t be bothered to vote anymore. We’ve been left with what Granatstein characterized (citing the famous 20th-century political scientist Gad Horowitz) as “the masochistic celebration of Canadian nothingness.” 

We hold historical figures to standards that either weren’t available at the time or were part of a worldview that is no longer valid and then judge them to be lacking. Ironically, Clara Brett Martin’s antisemitism may not be so distant after all. I often wonder, what people 150 years in the future will think of our trigger warnings and safe spaces. 

Where Canadians served and sacrificed at home and on the front lines, today we have decided to leave the heavy lifting to others; a notion that would have been repugnant to Gilday’s generation. In the absence of duty to others and the conviction that citizenship comes with obligations, we have chosen to venerate a health-care system that is neither free nor accessible, forsaken a military alliance where we don’t pull our weight, and outfitted our armed forces with sidearms so antiquated that they aren’t merely the same models but literally the same pistols that our forefathers would have carried in the 1930s. It is not without some poetic justice that we now have an identity synonymous with an American-owned franchise that peddles tepid coffee and a multinational corporation that sells watery beer.

I have spent my career telling stories about men like Tommy Gilday, the Canadians who flew the Dam Busters Raids, and the women who worked in the factories and then fought for the vote. These stories reveal intrinsic truths about the human condition and also define what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Canadian history reminds us that people have endured far worse, and squandered much better, and that sometimes in the darkest hour ordinary people are called to do extraordinary things and face impossible odds. Outside of my class, these are not stories that are often told anymore, and as classical scholar Richard Livingston put it: “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.” 

The ideals we have instilled over the last forty years have bred complacency and indifference. Where our grandparents responded to evil with action, we deny its existence, wear rubber bracelets, post on Twitter, mouth platitudes from great a distance, and then wait for others to take our place on the sharp end. Consequently, we have the country that we deserve.

Every fall, I show my students the picture of the man in the crowd; the one man at the Nazi rally who is not saluting. I ask them what would it take to be that man. We all think that we will be the one who will stand up to tyranny. We all think that we will join the resistance and swim against the tide. We all think we will be the hero of the story. And yet, history tells us that most of us will not. 

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” In Canada, we have cut our giants down and, in the process, answered Granatstein’s question: who killed Canadian history?

We did.