Fear and devastation resulting from last weekend’s mass murder of eleven Jewish congregants in Pittsburgh has reached Canada, as community members from Vancouver to Toronto grapple with the tragedy and its disturbing implications.
One especially troublesome aspect of the incident relates to how the prime suspect of the massacre — Robert Bowers — regularly referred to Jews who help refugees and newcomers as supporters of foreign invaders who want nothing more than to damage the country in which they’ve arrived.
Such a conspiracy theory is commonly found among Neo-Nazi groups, a vast majority of which are fixated on the idea that Western (or Christian) civilization is gradually being corrupted by a selfish, parasitic Jewish presence.
This strain of anti-Semitism exists across the Western world, including in Canada, which has experienced its share of racist, anti-refugee rhetoric and incidents. The man who killed six Muslims last January in a Quebec City mosque referred to the massacre as an act to protect Canadian society from the criminal dangers of incoming Muslims and refugees.
Jewish support workers in Canada who help with refugee settlement now do so in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic crime in U.S. history.
“People are scared, to be honest. I think people really feel like this could’ve been a synagogue here.”
“People are scared, to be honest. I think people really feel like this could’ve been a synagogue here,” says Yacov Fruchter, the director of community building and spiritual engagement at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec congregation. Fruchter helped coordinate recent efforts to sponsor a Syrian family by members of the congregation and is active in speaking on refugee issues from a Jewish perspective.
“We were literally in synagogue here in our own communities while the shooting happened and we were all vulnerable in that moment, so people are scared, people are angry, and people have questions about whether our security is good enough,” Fruchter says. “So we’re balancing wanting our space to be open and welcoming, and at the same time safe.”
Statistics Canada recorded 221 anti-Semitic hate crimes throughout Canada in 2016, up from 178 in 2015. It’s the highest number of hate crimes perpetrated against any group in Canada that year. According to Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada, incidents of anti-Semitism have been gradually increasing for the past five years in Canada.
This rise has been accompanied by a concurrent increase in Neo-Nazi organizing across North America. Racist narratives accompanying these movements emphasize the threat posed by Jews, among other people, who’re depicted as “globalists” hellbent on depleting the social, cultural, and racial capital of the white race (and Western civilization) through a range of nefarious means. As of late, one strain of this broader conspiracy theory has focused on the Jewish community’s role in working with refugees and newcomers as a way of weakening the West.
Bowers peddled this narrative not long before last weekend’s shooting. His page on the social media platform Gab, a Twitter-like network, featured declarations that, replete with racial slurs, openly refer to Jewish refugee work as a ploy to allow Muslims into the U.S. so as to ruin American society.
The latest post on his page berates the highly-venerated refugee and newcomer support group HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for bringing violent “invaders” into the U.S. Bowers wrote that he couldn’t just “sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” and that he was, “going in.”
In Canada, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (or JIAS) is a close analogue to HIAS and performs similar services for newcomers. According to long-time Canadian Jewish advocate Bernie Farber, JIAS helped spearhead the Canadian Jewish community’s sponsorship of Syrian refugees in recent years, including that of the Beth Tzedec congregation in Toronto.
“These groups are really the furthest thing from any kind of Jewish political advocacy group as those like Bowers seem to think,” says Farber, who’s also the current chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “In his mind, he sees this as the way that Jews control immigration into the United States.”
He also emphasizes that the targeting of such immigrant groups, along with the spreading of anti-Semitic narratives regarding Jewish support for refugees, is a phenomenon that simply cannot be separated from the current anti-immigrant “rhetoric that Donald Trump has made so poisonous.” Farber says that people like Bowers see in groups like HIAS or JIAS what Trump “regurgitates” about immigrants and refugees.
“I’ve been nervous my whole life as a Jewish communal servant, that something could happen to one of us or on our watch,” Farber says. “Once the mosque in Quebec City was targeted in January 2017, I remember saying that it’s just a matter of time because a synagogue is probably next on somebody’s list.”
Last January’s attack at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City bears some similarity to what happened in Pittsburgh. Like Bowers, the Quebec City shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, held extremely anti-refugee views and initially portrayed himself as an active defender of Canadian society. Both shootings also took place in a place of worship.
“When it comes to everything they don’t like — be it immigration, LGBT rights, or feminism — the alt-right and Neo-Nazi movement pretty much blames it all on Jews,” says Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a leading analyst of Canada’s far-right movements who has published work on VICE. “Whereas the anti-Muslim and Islamophobic movement on the right is more likely to point to a Muslim conspiracy as the reason behind Canada’s open borders and immigration policy.”
Both narratives — one emphasizing a Jewish conspiracy and the other, Muslim malevolence — have been connected to an act of domestic terrorism within the past two years.
“The conspiracies in Canada may not be as well-developed, like maybe they’ll say the Bank of Canada is controlled by Jews or something like that, but it’s essentially the same trend, and not enough Canadian institutions are active in combating it,” Balgord says.
“We’re not going to stop doing what we do. The point is to continue to welcome people.”
Given the current state of hate and political polarization, along with what happened last year in Quebec City, he notes there’s certainly potential for what happened in Pittsburgh to replicate itself in Canada. He also argues that prevention of violent hate crimes has to involve disrupting hateful misinformation and propaganda, which is being spread around today with no penalty for the peddlers.
He also emphasizes that law enforcement in Canada must also take the far-right, Neo-Nazi threat more seriously, particularly since many non-profit and grassroots organizations — already spread too thin — often lack the resources and legal tools to constantly monitor and disrupt the flow of blatant, often hateful misinformation, be it in the far-right’s online forums or on the pages of the Toronto Sun.
Despite the increased anxiety that now accompany those who work to help refugees in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, community leaders like Yacov Fruchter emphasize that the point is to move forward, not stagnate in fear.
“But we’re not going to stop doing what we do,” says Fruchter, who’s currently preparing a talk on what he perceives as the Jewish responsibility to help “the stranger” or the newcomer. “The point is to continue to welcome people, to create spaces of love and understanding, because this isn’t about watering down anything due to what’s happened — it’s about the need to continue to enrich our communities.”
Cover image: Members of the Montreal Jewish community attend a Memorial Vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in Montreal on Monday, October 29, 2018. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press