From the Desk of Avi Benlolo - My Week of Thanks

February 17, 2017


My Week of Thanks

It was just a few short years ago that I ran my first  marathon. Some of you may remember my personal effort to fund-raise about  $30,000 in 2010, in hopes of hitting the $2 million mark to support Friends  of Simon Wiesenthal Center's (FSWC) annual Spirit of Hope fundraiser.

 The gala Benefit has come a long way since then. Today, with three full  months to go, Spirit of Hope 2017 has already surpassed the $2 million mark;  table sponsorships and ticket sales remain robust. I believe it is fair to  say Spirit of Hope has become a "must attend" event that is listed  on the calendars of Toronto's  leading business, media and entertainment  moguls, and is eagerly anticipated for the top-notch speakers and exceptional  program for which it has earned its iconic reputation.

 When I first began running as a fundraising activity, antisemitic movements  (remember the now defunct Queers against Israeli Apartheid group?) were just  beginning to make inroads beyond the white supremacy crowd; they were easy to  ignore if you weren't a human rights activist, or a university student made  to feel uneasy and unsafe on campus.

 Appallingly, disgracefully, this is no longer the case. Rampant antisemitism  is harder to disregard than to find. From scrawled swastikas popping up on  everything from bus shelters to synagogues, an ancient hatred has come  creeping back.

 Nowhere is this more apparent than on university campuses. This week alone  two shameful incidents occurred. The first happened at McGill University in  Montreal - home to quotas on Jewish students that lasted into the 1960s -  when a member of student council advised his Twitter followers to "punch  a Zionist." Despite a clear call to violence against Jews, the reaction  of the student council board was to side with the student advocating  antisemitic violence - while targeting a Jewish student who called the  remark hateful. The  tepid response from the university administration serves as a slap in the  face to students and the wider Jewish community. In response FSWC has  launched a petition asking for the university  to take charge of this dangerous situation, to dissolve the antisemitic Students' Society, to offer support for Jewish students who are victimized on  campus, and to launch an immediate investigation into the culture of  ingrained anti-Jewish hatred at McGill. The first batch of 600 petitions  should arrive on Principal Suzanne Fortier's desk today. Click Here to  read and sign the petition.

 The second occurred when a Ryerson University newspaper revealed that a  student walkout during a motion to recognize Holocaust education at a  November student union meeting was orchestrated by the student union  president. The walkout prevented a vote on the Holocaust motion by denying  the necessary quorum. At the time the student union president called the  incident 'disturbing'. Now that screenshots of text message conversations  between student leaders have been shared, the antisemitism at the heart of  the walk-out is clear. As  one Jewish student noted in the Ryerson newspaper, "in any other  minority group, this would be considered a hate crime."

Sadly, these incidents are increasingly the norm, rather than the exception.  Their prevalence gives FSWC's educational programs an added urgency; we  need to accelerate our efforts at teaching the Holocaust, and must  generate even greater support for school boards to adopt FSWC's  January 27th Initiative recognizing International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  This is an ongoing project, and I am happy to share that  the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland & Clarington Catholic  District School Board  became the 23rd Ontario School Board to sign on to the initiative this  week. 

We also need to ensure our politicians are listening, and are  willing to act against hate when university administrations can't, or won't.  We need to be clear-eyed and see what we are fighting against: an age-old  hatred that was dormant for a while, but is blooming once again.

And so, seven years after I became a marathon-running fundraiser, the stakes  have become much higher. I am proud of how the Benefit has grown, and of the  growing number of individuals and companies who appreciate and support the  values it fosters. 

I am grateful for my community which has answered the call to  sign the McGill petition, and am so proud of Robert Lantos and Simcha  Jacobovici for speaking out about this disgraceful affair. I am proud of  FSWC's dedicated education team that is teaching nearly 1000 students in  Peterborough this week, and for our Spirit of Hope Campaign Team, donors and  corporate partners - they are truly awesome. 

I am thrilled to see the strong attendance at our events and  lectures, and excited about upcoming receptions and dinners in support of  Spirit of Hope. My meetings in the past few weeks with diplomats,  consuls-general and social activists have been incredibly rewarding, and I am  buoyed by an e-mail from a donor who wrote "As a Jew in Canada, I owe a  debt of gratitude to Avi for doing the heavy lifting on behalf of all of  us."

 I hope you will join me at Spirit of Hope on May 18, 2017.  An entire community is counting on us.

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