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B’nai Brith Canada: ‘Silence Is Not An Option’

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Some of you are looking at the title of my column and wondering two things – why I am writing about B’nai Brith Canada – arguably Canada’s version of the Anti-Defamation League and why would it be of interest to anyone who does not live in that country – as most of you don’t.

It’s because I think you will sleep slightly better at night – as I do – knowing there is an additional organization in North America whose mandate is to fight anti-Semitism – – one that is quite loud and insistent.

B’nai Brith Canada was created in 1875, making it the oldest Jewish organization in Canada. From inception, its agenda has been the promotion of human rights and battling anti-Semitism and racism. Now more than ever, their staff, who for the most part are observant Jews, takes very seriously the Biblical injunction to “watch over your soul.”

B’nai Brith Canada has repeatedly exposed the biases and prejudices of the powerful United Church of Canada. This summer the Church voted to boycott products exported from Israeli businesses in the West Bank and expressed remorse for previously asking Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.

B’nai Brith Canada has not hesitated to take legal action against the Church for its anti-Semitic rhetoric – which resulted in an apology from the Church.

The organization is meticulous in keeping an eye on Jew-hatred in all it’s manifestations, and is very vocal when it comes to supporting the State of Israel – in particular Yesha. Its Parliament Hill office connects regularly with politicians, civil servants and ambassadors, providing a strong voice on issues of concern to the community.

A decade ago, B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights, was the only human rights organization given intervener status by the court in the hate crime trial of David Ahenakew, a national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada. In an interview he gave in December 2002, Ahenakew stated that Jews were a “disease” and that Hitler was justifiably trying to “clean up the world” when he “fried six million of those guys.” (Unlike in the US where “freedom of speech ” can to some extent, legally allow the spewing of racist remarks, Canada has made hate speech a criminal offence).

If I were a cartoonist, I would draw B’nai Brith Canada as a ferocious, tenacious dog, determinedly biting down on the ankle of a surprised and panicked thug.

Very recently, B’nai Brith was alerted that a costume store in Montreal was selling what looked like a concentration camp uniform bearing a Star of David made of yellow and red triangles. The store apparently rents costumes to theatrical groups but makes them available to the public for Halloween.

Due to the organization’s intervention, the offensive costume was removed.

There are those in the community who feel that B’nai Brith is made up of a bunch of “fear-mongers.” They insist that Jews are safe in North America; that America and Canada have a track record of being a goldeneh midina – a golden land for the Jews with incredible freedoms and rights. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that there were signs on hotels saying, “No Jews or dogs allowed.”

And there is the infamous statement allegedly made by an immigration official after WWII who insisted, in regards to Jews coming to Canada, “none are too many.”

In 1939, both countries denied entry to over 900 Jewish refugees on board the MS St Louis, who were desperately trying escape genocide in Europe. The ship was forced to return to Europe. While some countries took in handfuls of Jews, most returned to their countries, where several hundred ultimately perished in the death camps.

(B’nai Brith Canada recently published a student resource book on Canadian immigration policies of the past, present and future titled, Welcome to Canada? to educate a new generation of youngsters, many of whom are first generation Canadians, whose parents come from the four corners of the world. The story of the St. Louis is included).

Those who are confident that there will never be a return to the days when Jews were persona non grata are in extreme denial.

No one wants to dwell on unpleasant realities. It’s easier not to think about loss or death – or anti-Semitism and the potential ominous threat to you and your loved ones. Maybe you do for a few minutes during a Shoah commemoration, but allowing it to infiltrate your daily life is too hard, too stomach churning, too depressing.

But closing your eyes won’t make the boogeyman go away. But organizations like B’nai Brith Canada are there to shoo him away – as far away and for as long as possible. For they know he is always lurking.

Several months ago, an elderly Holocaust survivor wrote a letter to Jewish Press columnist and Holocaust survivor Rebbetzin Jungreis, expressing her wrenching concern over her grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s future. Sleep eluded her as she worried about her young descendants growing up in a world where violent attacks against Jews were on the rise, and where Israel bashing – anti-Semitism given a new coat of paint – was rampant. She knew that if it happened once, it could happen again. That is why a child who almost drowned is terrified of water; why a woman who was mugged is afraid to go out; why a cancer patient in remission is wary of every cough, or headache. It happened once, it could happen again.

Awareness is a blessing as well as a curse. You are vigilant and alert, but it is a burden to have your eyes wide open. It is for the distraught bubby; and it must be for Dr. Frank Dimant, executive Vice President of B’nai Brith Canada and CEO of the organization’s Institute for International Affairs and the League for Human Rights – and the son of Holocaust survivors.

As it is for me, the daughter of a mother and mother who walked out of the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, the only members of their immediate families to do so.

There are things in one’s life that force you to open the eyes you’d rather keep blissfully shut. For me, one of the most traumatic events took place a couple of years ago; incredibly at my granddaughter’s “graduation” from pre-nursery.

She and her classmates were standing in front of their doting parents and grandparents, singing with great gusto, their faces aglow with the beauty that radiates from a child who knows he or she is loved and cherished and safe.

Suddenly, I was hit with the realization that there had been beautiful children just like these, with names like Malka and Dovid and Suri, who decades ago sang to kvelling parents and grandparents. Then I saw them as they were in those hideous photos from the ghettos that cover the walls of Holocaust museums. Ragged, cold, forlorn, bewildered, orphaned and abandoned, eyes dull with hunger and disease. I saw my granddaughter and her friends in these photos – and I could barely control my horror, because if a malicious hurricane of evil had thundered once before…it could happen again.

To help get its mission across, “not to allow silence to prevail,” B’nai Brith Canada publishes a weekly newspaper, the Jewish Tribune, which has become the largest Anglo Jewish publication in Canada. The publication will soon be available on public transportation, such as the subways and buses, and will be an invaluable resource to educate the general public.

In addition to monitoring anti-Semitism it has a 24 hour hotline where people can report anti-Semitic incidents, whether a slur or job discrimination, it is an organization that, to quote Dr. Dimant “cares about amacha” (the nation). We provide a voice for a large segment of the Jewish community.” It provides a myriad of social services and financial help to the elderly, the poor, struggling immigrants and Holocaust survivors.

B’nai Brith Canada is funded through donations and fundraisers. For more information visit www.bnaibrith.ca.

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