The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Avi Benlolo to Lawyers4Wiesenthal at a luncheon this week.
Friends, we are blessed to live in the best of times and in a city and community that is one of the most giving – philanthropic – caring and compassionate. If there was a time and place in history you could choose to live in, when and where would it be? For me, it would be right here and right now.
Simon Wiesenthal, however, having experienced the Holocaust and the murder of his family and 90 members of his extended family, left us with a warning: freedom should never be taken for granted – you must fight for it each and every day of your life.
As lawyers, mainly, you get that.
But looking at the events around us today, including the attack on the Pittsburgh Synagogue, Eitz Chaim, just a few weeks ago (now fading into distant memory with the everlasting news trauma we face daily), we owe ourselves an explanation. More than ever, we must ask ourselves, are we doing enough – or are we taking our freedom for granted?
In my 25-year career serving this Jewish community, I still ask myself this very question every day – and especially in the last 18 years since we re-started Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center here in Canada.
Why? Because 6 million + Israel = us. That is our modern history in a nutshell.
Let me explain...
1. Antisemitism here at home and around the world is on a dramatic increase. Today, Statistics Canada released its 2017 hate crime findings. It found antisemitism increased by a whopping 63% in 2017 and that the Jewish community is still the most targeted community in this country.
In our Nanos Research study this summer, we found that 15-27% of Canadians hold antisemitic views. That’s over 5 million people. Poll after poll around the world show up to 60% increases in antisemitic rates. CNN reported yesterday in its survey that 28% of Europeans blame Israel for antisemitism in their country (as if 6 million people were not murdered on that continent before the birth of Israel). Moreover, 18% of Europeans blame Jewish people themselves for antisemitism!
2. Holocaust memory is fading fast. A recent American poll found that two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz is. Indeed, this may serve to explain why we are seeing greater number of Holocaust denial incidents. Many adolescents do not know what the swastika is and the fact that Canadians fought to liberate Europe from the Nazis.
3. Israel is under attack. Its enemies figured that if they cannot win militarily, they will win the old-fashioned antisemitic way – by bringing the Jews to their knees through economic and cultural boycotts. Last week, Israel was attacked by none other than Airbnb, which delisted 200 homes in what it classifies as "occupied territories," but what I would classify as Jewish neighbourhoods with ordinary people just trying to make a living like everyone else.
My friends, we cannot stand for this. We cannot stand by while our university students are being attacked on campus by leftist professors who are yelling "Israel apartheid" and students are walking out of their doors to find swastikas on the porch; we cannot stand by when private elitist schools host antisemitic plays or when swastikas are found plastered on schools; we cannot stand for unions and church groups who boycott Israel; and we certainly cannot stand for antisemitic rallies like Al Quds Day, which happens here at Queen's Park each year.
Could a Pittsburgh attack happen here? You bet. As many of you know, I take an annual delegation of police chiefs and educators to Auschwitz and Israel. The impact is quite significant and today, we have hundreds of allies across the country as a result. One of those is the Chief of Police of Medicine Hat – who told me that following his trip with us, he was inspired to pursue white supremacists in his community. They arrested one neo-Nazi and searched his home. They found 1,200 rounds of ammunition, three high-powered rifles, antisemitic hate literature and most importantly, a hand-written manifesto containing Jewish conspiracy theories. As most of you know, what do most mass killers leave behind? A manifesto. So – inadvertently – our program possibly stopped a ticking time bomb.
And as we speak now, an important hate crime trial is taking place on College Street. Just over a year ago, because of the intensive lobbying effort of our Lawyers4Wiesenthal group, we were able to have charges for the willful promotion of hate against Jews and women brought against the editor and publisher of Your Ward News. Not only that, but we were able to ensure that the Government of Canada upholds the decision to disallow Canada Post from delivering this hateful newspaper. It wasn't easy to get charges laid against these people, but we are hoping to see a successful resolution and are proud of the work we did on this file.
These issues are significant and for this reason, our organization has become robust in both advocacy and education. On a weekly basis, we educate between 1,500 and 2,000 students across Ontario. On most days, you can find our Tour for Humanity (our mobile tolerance centre) in a small town or city across the province, while a classroom is at our centre in North York and we are conducting an assembly with hundreds of students somewhere else. Our education team, alongside Holocaust survivors, is passionate and dedicated to this work day and night.
At the same time, we are working closely with police and educators from around the country. Just two weeks ago, we held the first hate crimes conference for police – bringing together specialists from across the country. It was the first time they collaborated and spoke about antisemitism in an open forum! We have been doing something similar for our Holocaust conference held annually in January marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are proud of the 36 boards of education that have signed on with us representing some 1.6 million students across the province.
Our work is extensive for sure, and I can stand here for hours proudly expressing to you its importance.
But here is the thing that drives me – given my awareness for the threat levels indicated above, coupled by our history as a people who have suffered inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust – history dictates that things are cyclical and we must act now. The honeymoon period is over. It's now time for each of you to join us – to join this effort and help us fight and win.
I cannot do this alone. We cannot do this alone. We need to come together and work together to fight. I can tell you that when our community and our friends come together, it makes me feel optimistic and energized about doing this work.
We do need your financial support so we can fund this fight. We also need your physical support at programs and events (you are already doing this) so that our voices carry and it's clear we are all standing together in incense. I invite you to come out to our events, come out to Spirit of Hope on May 23rd, come out or even host speakers, get involved. We cannot take our freedom for granted. We cannot do nothing. The way to beat the Airbnbs of this world is to be more active in every way possible, to tell them this is not happening on my watch – not now, not ever.