Jewish communities on edge amid ‘troubling rise’ of anti-Semitism in Canada

Click to play video: 'Israeli-Palestinian conflict sows division in Canada'
Israeli-Palestinian conflict sows division in Canada
WATCH: Israeli-Palestinian conflict sows division in Canada – May 17, 2021

Sofia Kletinich and her mom arrived at a peaceful pro-Israel gathering in Montreal on May 16, wearing an Israeli flag.

The 21-year-old Montrealer, born in Jerusalem, initially spoke of singing and dancing at the rally. But any hope of a cheerful assemblage quickly gave way to fear and violence when, she said, men wearing Palestinian flags showed up and began throwing rocks at her and others adorned in Israeli flags.

“F–k you” and “f–k Israel” could be heard in a series of videos viewed by Global News as fights broke out between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters. Montreal police confirmed they threw tear gas to disperse the crowds after several officers were injured — some by the objects that were thrown. Kletinich said she accidentally inhaled the tear gas, which burned her throat and eyes.

“I felt like I’m going to have to hide this fact that I was born in Israel for the rest of my life living in Canada, because it was just terrifying,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe.”

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A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas brokered by Egypt went into effect on Friday, providing relief to Palestinians and Israelis after 11 days of seemingly endless bombings marked by violence.

For now, the fighting between Israel and Hamas is over, but some say the conflict has given way to a wave of anti-Semitism not seen since the last time the conflict escalated in the Middle East in 2014, leaving more than 2,300 people dead. And Canada is not immune.

When police showed up to break up the clash, Kletinich was separated from her mother. She thought she had escaped the fighting when, she said, people she did not see at the protest started pointing at her flag and screaming at her, with several more men eventually chasing her down the street.

Kletinich looks visibly afraid in the footage recorded on her phone. Loud cursing and yelling can be heard in the footage as she runs towards other people wearing Israeli flags and asks if she can walk with them, fearing for her safety.

“Just the fact that I was showing support for the country I was born in just made me feel like a tiny little ant on Saint-Catherine Street that everyone wanted to stomp on,” she said.

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Kletinich said she worried this was just the beginning.

“It’s only going to get worse if someone doesn’t put a stop to this,” she said. “What if this isn’t just a wave?”

Click to play video: 'Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators clash in downtown Montreal protest'
Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators clash in downtown Montreal protest

Kletinich’s experience is not an isolated one. Multiple demonstrations across Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver resulted in police intervention earlier this month, as Nazi salutes, swastikas and burned Israeli flags appeared at some rallies, while counter-protesters violently disrupted some pro-Israel demonstrations.

According to the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism’s preliminary data, more than 17,000 tweets using variations of the phrase, “Hitler was right” went up between May 7 and May 14. The ADL’s analysis of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram found “explicit praise for Hitler, promoting tropes about Jewish control and demonizing all Jews” including posts that used a racial epithet for Jewish people and called for “race war now.”

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The exact number of religious-based hate crimes committed in Canada this year is unclear.

Global News contacted police stations in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver — none of which were able to provide 2021 data on religious-based hate crimes.

Statistics Canada found police-reported hate crimes against Jewish people accounted for the highest number of religious-based hate crimes in the country in 2019 at 296 incidents, while religious-based hate crimes against Muslims tallied at 181.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday acknowledged a “really troubling rise of anti-Semitism” across Canada, adding that it “needs to stop.”

“We need to be there to pull together to understand that people can have disagreements. But intolerance and hatred has no place in Canada,” he said.

Evan Balgord, executive director at the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said that “we are almost certainly experiencing an increase in inflammatory rhetoric, hate speech, and hate incidents targeting the Jewish and Muslim communities and their members in Canada.”

“Some of the Nazis we monitor are cheering on Hamas, others Israel — they just want to watch Jews and Muslims die, troll, and pit each community against each other. It muddies the waters,” he said, in an emailed statement to Global News.

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“It also muddies the waters when some conflate all criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism, or others who conflate Israel with all Jewish people and engage in anti-Semitism.”

Click to play video: 'U.S. sees rise in anti-semitic attacks'
U.S. sees rise in anti-semitic attacks

The B’nai Brith Canada 2020 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported a record 2,610 cases of anti-Semitism last year, up 18.3 per cent from 2019. This translates to roughly 217 incidents per month, 50 incidents per week, and seven anti-Semitic incidents per day — 44 per cent of which were violent.

In a statement released on May 16, B’nai Brith Canada said the number of anti-Semitic assaults recorded so far in May of 2021 “easily surpasses” the total for all of 2020.

“Anti-Semitism is a small but can be a quite vocal and disturbing minority in Canada,” said Randal F. Schnoor, a professor at York University’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

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He said a combination of civil strife in Middle Eastern cities and an explosion of ill-informed social media posts could be partly to blame. But he said it would be difficult to pin down the disproportionate level of interest surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It surprised me a little bit to the level of vitriol and hate that we’re seeing and it’s really sad, but it’s the reality,” he said.

Blurred lines between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

Schnoor said it was important to distinguish between anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic, or anti-Jewish sentiment.

“Critiques of Israel are certainly acceptable within a reasonable level as critiques of any country are. And I would also say being supportive of Palestine in of itself is fine as well,” he said.

It is natural for people to have pride in their heritage and their country, he added. But a discussion about countries shouldn’t devolve into personal attacks.

Once a person starts making specific attacks on Jewish individuals or blaming the Jewish people as a whole for what Israel is doing, Schnoor said, “then you’ve crossed the line, and you’re now attacking Jews and it’s gone beyond Israel.”

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“In this case, I think we’re seeing quite a bit more blending of the two where we are seeing indeed overt attacks on Jews, physical attacks, harassment all over North America and certainly here in our Canadian cities,” he said.

“We’re seeing more of that now than we have in a long time.”

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