Fighting the rise in antisemitism through Holocaust education

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Fighting rising antisemitism with Holocaust education
WATCH: Fighting rising antisemitism with Holocaust education – Jan 27, 2023

On a grey January morning, parked outside a high school in York Region, there is a large bright blue bus with the words “Tour for Humanity.”

The mood inside is just as sombre as the weather outside. A group of Grade 7 students is listening quietly as an educator asks, “What do you know about the Holocaust?

Slowly, a handful of students raise their hands.

“Tour for Humanity is essentially a mobile classroom,” explained the Tour’s director Danielle Lurion. “It travels across the country reaching different schools … to reach communities that couldn’t necessarily come to us. We are based in Toronto Metropolitan City, but there are millions of people and millions of students in schools that are not able to come to us so we thought, well, how do we reach them?”

The students learn about the Holocaust, genocide and historical and contemporary human rights issues.

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“The hope is that they will make one positive change, that they’ll take one thing that they learned today and they’ll apply it,” Lurion said. “The goal is not to have every student change the world, it’s to have one student change their world or the people around them. It’s to make them question something that they have learned before or to do further research on something that’s new that they’ve now learned.”

The bus has made its way through Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec, inspiring students, community leaders and first responders to stand up against hate in their schools and communities.

“It’s almost impossible for students to understand the present without knowing the past and how it came to this point,” Lurion said.

In an era of social media with videos containing hate targeting Jewish people and others posted to TikTok and Twitter daily, experts say an understanding of the past may be more important now than ever before.

In October, rapper Kanye West, or Ye, tweeted, “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”

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“Young people, in particular, do look up to celebrities,” said Sir Richard Evans, historian of modern Germany and modern Europe. “If they listen a lot or watch a lot of musical performances of rappers and other cultural icons, then it gets easier for them to absorb what those people are saying. So I think they need to act responsibly and to be rather careful about what they say.”

Beyond high-profile figures, and outside social media, some believe antisemitism is becoming mainstream in society.

“We have to look at the Statistics Canada hate crime statistics,” said Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. “The most recent ones released indicate that 52 per cent of all hate crimes to a religious group are targeted to members of the Jewish community and we constitute just one per cent of the Canadian population.”

“Too many Canadians are experiencing firsthand antisemitic incidents,” she said.

Earlier this month, Ottawa police charged two high school students with public incitement of hatred, criminal harassment, and mischief following an incident in which they were accused of displaying a hate symbol and using antisemitic language.

Global News spoke with the father of one of the alleged victims, who expressed shock and disbelief.

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“My son and a friend of his, two Jewish students, were brought into the shower locker room of the gym and there was on the floor of that locker room a swastika that was made out of ski poles and … another student was walking around Heil Hitlering,” David Baker said.

Freedman said this is becoming too common.

“If we just look at a small microcosm, like the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), we see that kids are giving the Nazi salute, they’re forced to see swastikas, they’re threatened with gas chambers, and they’re really dealing with vile social media posts,” Freedman said. So when I say it’s become mainstream, it’s because this has become the normative experience for Jewish kids in 2023.

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, OCDSB school trustee, who herself has been the target of antisemitic emails and death threats, has pushed for a Jewish Equity Coach for the school board.

“What we’ve seen in Ottawa over the last few years is a significant rise in antisemitic incidents. … There’s a sense that what’s happening in a sort of microcosm of our schools in Ottawa is a reflection of what’s happening on a larger scale, both across the city but also across the country and also around the world,” she said.

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Dr. Kaplan-Myrth has been an outspoken advocate during the COVID-19 pandemic for safety measures, such as masks, and has run multiple vaccine clinics in Ottawa.

“I became a target for hate,” she said, adding, “People are aghast when they see the kinds of threats that I receive — people saying that they want to gas me and my entire family, that they want my children to burn, to die, to be tortured. All of it is so horrific.”

As Freedman points out, antisemitism knows no boundaries and “presents on both the left and the right.”

“We’re quite familiar with antisemitism on the right. It would be swastikas, Nazi symbols, ideology and the like, and people are pretty quick to condemn it. … What happens is when we experience it on the left, it gets dismissed because Jews are viewed to be powerful and privileged, really internalizing this unacceptable antisemitic trope.”

B’nai Brith Canada’s latest audit of antisemitism incidents found that almost eight antisemitic incidents occurred every day in 2021. It was a sixth record-setting year for antisemitism in Canada.

“The audit of antisemitic incidents which I’ve been able to produce on an annual basis through our League for Human Rights has been showing sort of over a 2000-number threshold for the last number of years, and that’s completely unacceptable. We have seen the numbers going up,” said CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, Michael Mostyn.

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“We, unfortunately, did witness a tremendous amount and rise in violent acts of antisemitism,” he added.

Mostyn said there was a notable increase of antisemitic incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the rise in conspiracy theories around the COVID crisis, we did see a corresponding morphing of antisemitism to combine those conspiracy theories together. So it is troubling, it’s online, it’s in the real world, it deals with issues of the Holocaust or Holocaust denial. We see it from the left, we see it from the right, we see it from different religious backgrounds. We see it from a totally atheist perspective,” he said.

Mostyn also pointed to the “harmful” impact of pop stars and influencers who share hateful rhetoric online.

When somebody like a Kanye comes out and makes antisemitic statements that people that are grounded in this world, people that have some wisdom, have been around for a little while, might just look and say, ‘Well, that’s crazy,’ young people that idolize this individual don’t think that. They think, ‘Well, there’s something to it, if there’s smoke, there’s fire,'” he said.

Recently, American TikTok star and influencer Montana Tucker, who is known for posting videos of herself dancing, launched a series called How To: Never Forget aimed at reaching and teaching her millions of Gen-Z followers.

“My grandparents both are Holocaust survivors. My grandma was in Auschwitz and a dream of theirs was always for me to go visit,” she explained in one of the videos as she brought viewers on a trip to Poland.

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With fewer Holocaust survivors to share their stories firsthand, Dara Solomon, the executive director of the Toronto Holocaust Museum, which is now under construction, said she hopes the hundreds of recorded testimonies will help.

“This is testimony that was taken when the Center was first founded in the ’80s, and then testimony continued to be taken in the ’90s. We have the Shoah Foundation testimonies as well. So literally hundreds of survivors’ stories are told through these kiosks that are placed throughout,” said Solomon as she brought Global News on a tour of the museum set to open in a few months.

“You hear from a survivor talking about what life was like in the 1930s, what happened when the laws came to pass that started eroding the rights of Jews, what happened when they had to sew a yellow star onto them or be identified in different ways, what happened to their parents, why their business was taken from them,” she said.

The Ontario government recently mandated Holocaust education as of Grade 6 to help younger students gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the Holocaust.

“The students of today are very different than they were in the past. They’re exposed to so many things online, for better or worse, and so learning Holocaust education needs to be taken in as a whole — and what else are they learning and how can they make those connections and bring it in sensitively,” Solomon said.

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Solomon said the museum will help visitors to take a “deep dive into the Holocaust” so that they can then reflect and have a conversation about the connections between this chapter in history and everyday life today.

“We hope to inspire them through the actions of the survivors who went through this terrible trauma and yet came here, rebuilt and then used their voices to stand up against injustice,” she said. “They taught the Holocaust but they also were activists in their own world and when they saw things going on in the world, here at home or abroad, they spoke up and used their voice. So we hope that’s one big takeaway from the museum experience.”

On a much smaller scale, in Fredericton, N.B., there is also a Holocaust museum of sorts. It was the brainchild of Jasmine Kranat, herself the survivor of a violent antisemitic attack.

“At 12 years old, I was beaten up for being Jewish,” she recalled.

Kranat grew up in London, England, where she was attacked by a group of teenagers on a bus who asked her, “Are you English or Jewish?

The incident made headlines across England in 2007 as CCTV cameras captured images of Kranat being punched repeatedly.

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“These girls, they beat me up to the point of unconsciousness. It was on a public bus. No one did anything. And it became a huge issue because one, the bystander effect, but two, a hate crime against a 12-year-old,” she said. “They wanted to suppress my advocacy and my faith and my belief in Judaism but they did the complete opposite.”

As a way of fighting back against her attackers, Kranat, who now lives in New Brunswick, saw an opportunity to educate people about the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism.

“I feel like 80 years later, the education that I’ve observed, the conversations I have had with people, it’s shocking to think that only 80 years later people are not really knowing about what happened,” said Kranat.

She developed a Holocaust exhibit, which was brought into high schools last year and later opened to the public.

“We had people come from all around New Brunswick to learn and to educate themselves, and that says something about the need for this sort of exhibit,” she said.

“We have to combat this. We have to combat hate of all different forms, discrimination, antisemitism, racism, and we have to do it together as a community.”

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