And Though The News Was Rather Sad


Yesterday, we were learning with Dr. Paul Frosh, Professor of Communications at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. We were discussing Israeli media coverage of Second Intifada terrorism, and the media’s role in constructing a national identity around the conflict. He introduced us to his thesis that Israeli news media has the ability to create “civic and national solidarity through… depictions of catastrophic events (especially terrorist attacks).” In Israel, television news has the ability (either inherently or deliberately) to bring people directly into events, addressing them (us?) in a way that assumes they (we?) are a part of the story from the very beginning. We were asked to question how nationhood in Israel is built and reinforced through coverage of collective trauma.

Interesting concepts for a group of North Americans who have little-to-no connection to collective trauma. I asked myself: “In the intersection between traumatic events and the discourse prompted by news outlets, is there a parallel in Canadian society?” I cannot think of any. Those who accuse Canada of being a boring place may be blissfully right in this respect. Things are pretty quiet in the Great White North.

So I moved to thinking about American society. Of course, the immediate inclination is to hold up news coverage of 9/11 as the obvious American mirror to Israel. But I would actually argue that this is not an exact parallel; it’s more of a simulacrum. While the news coverage of 9/11 depicted trauma on a national scale, it was a singular event. While the event remains a touchstone of supreme importance, after a while the story – at least on a national level – was able to be “wrapped.” Contrast this to Israel, where coverage of intifada terrorism never truly wrapped up; you can hear this in the language of newscasters at the time, who opened their broadcasts with phrases like “This time, it happened…”and “A particularly bad day of attacks.”

So is there a more direct parallel in American society, and if so, what are we to make of it; how can it help us understand the intersection between media and trauma?

I think the closest phenomena you can get to in the United States is mass shootings. While the spate of shootings in recent history are not as common as terror attacks in Israel, they are more frequent than you’d think, with the death toll often higher than in past suicide bombings. In their coverage, many news outlets have used language similar to that of the Israelis, establishing a patchwork connection between attacks. It’s actually gotten to the point where officials are searching for new language just to describe such shootings:

“The growing number of mass killings over the past five years left the country in search of a term that would distinguish mass murder by gun from those using other weapons.”- Huffington Post

And yet, outside of anti-gun advocacy groups, there does not appear to be a narrative on a national scale linking these events together through the media. While dismay is certainly conveyed at another attack, most appear to be treated as tragic, local events (with notable exceptions such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook – though I would argue this is due to the unique child-oriented character of each trauma). I’m curious as to why there is no national trauma evoked at the senseless murder of American citizens and subsequent ongoing national conversation. Shouldn’t there be?

Traumatically, mass shootings in America and terrorist attacks in Israel appear different, as the motives behind the attacks are not the same. In America, they are not necessarily directed at a population solely based on their collective identity. But should this negate a collective response on a national scale? Couldn’t American news media adopt a sense of national responsibility and direct itself towards mobilizing responsible civic nationhood?

Ultimately, the question we were presented with by Dr. Frosh – and the one which I believe should be directed towards the leading American national newsrooms – is this: How does a country comes to discuss with itself how to move past trauma? In Israel, this has meant searching for ways to overcome the national trauma of terrorism and move forwards in support of peace negotiations.

In America, this question is different, since the discourse is not yet taking place in a substantial way on a national scale. America needs to ask itself: How do we discuss with ourselves how to respond to a gun-oriented culture that makes mass shootings possible?

As Dr. Frosh argued, the ability for a country to have a national conversation is built upon a great deal of national consciousness. Without the ability to consider or express these concepts, the trauma can’t be dealt with. As a result, America is bleeding-out from thousands of open gun wounds.

In which I discover that the RCMP may be spying on me… and other interesting blog-related stats

A few interesting things I’ve noticed about my blog today:

1. Oh hey, I wrote my 200th post on this blog the other day and totally forgot about it! If you include my old blog (I used to write at Blogger… it was kind of like living in the projects), I’ve written 290 posts since November 27, 2004. That’s about 45 per year. Not bad, but I wish I had written more and written better.

2. With my recent posts about the Canadian Election (see sidebar for a complete list), my hits from Google have gone way up. Most people have been searching for information on Stephen Harper, particularly related to the Facebook Creeping fiasco. I pretty much tag Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff equally, so the fact that people aren’t arriving here by searching for Iggy makes me think a few things:

a) People don’t know anything substantial about Harper’s and the Tories’ (nonexistent) platform and are desperately searching for something. So desperately, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

b) People genuinely like Stephen Harper and are enthusiastically trying to collect as much as possible that’s been written about him. So enthusiastically, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

c) The RCMP is spying on me. No joke – this is a very real possibility.

In any event, that’s where we stand right now with this blog thing.

I’m a “lazy idiot who is raping the economy” (UPDATED)

Updated. See new stats at end of post.

Apparently I am, at least according to Mr. Rush Limbaugh, seeing as I work in the non-profit sector. The good stuff starts at 1:20…

“A bunch of lazy idiots, many of them don’t want to really work. Non-profits – siphon contributions as their salaries and so forth and think of themselves as good people, charitable people. I mean these people are rapists in terms of finance and economy.”

Well then, good to know. I suppose the staff at summer camps across North America really do just amount to a lazy and unintelligent workforce bent on destroying the economy.

This mass-generalizing seems to becoming pervasive throughout the American right as of late. From the ridiculous assertions that Limbaugh and Beck spew at the left each day, to the guilty-by-association condemnation of American Muslims over the past month, this vitriol is contributing to a pandemic of argumentum ad hominem. Limbaugh raises no quantitative or substantive arguments against non-profits, specifically or in general. Instead, he lumps an entire sector of the American workforce together in an attempt to tarnish their character.

What’s the point? If you have a problem with liberal policy specifically, then bring it up in a coherent and meaningful way. Engage in serious debate. I’d love to see the numbers on how religious non-profits are contributing to the demise of the American economy. Instead, all I get is an insult hurled right at my chosen line of work from some fat guy on the radio.

UPDATE: After this brief rant, I started wondering how exactly nonprofits fit into the US economy. Maybe Mr. Limbaugh should have used Google, too. Here’s what I found: According to the The Hill, the US non-profit sector represents almost 8% of the GNP, while the 2008 Nonprofit Almanac reported that nonprofits represent “5% of gross domestic product (GDP) of the U.S. economy, 8% of wages and salaries, and 10% of employment.” Now what was that again about raping finance and the economy?

Is this really necessary?

MYTH: ‘The Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites and were in Palestine long before the Jews

That’s the headline on a recent Jewish Tribune feature, which goes on to “prove” that the Palestinians have no ancestral heritage via the Canaanites. Whew! Glad we were finally able to get this myth out of the way. I’ve been worrying about it for so long, I’ve been thinking of sending it to the Mythbusters.

With slightly less sarcasm and incredulity… what can including this feature in a “news”paper possibly accomplish? There’s no academic legitimacy here, and whether it’s true or false is ultimately irrelevant at this point in history. All it does is serve to “other” the Palestinians and paint them en masse as an opposing group. It’s part of the “me first, ME first, ME FIRST!” line of arguing.

It’s simplistic, reductionist, xenophobic, and dumb.

Moreover, it appears that a regular “Myth” feature isn’t even a part of the Tribune. What on earth is this doing here?

Canadian Judaism on Page One: Antisemitism, blood libels, fear & hatred

If you wanted to take the pulse of the Canadian Jewish community and all you had to rely on was the Jewish Tribune, the “largest Jewish weekly in Canada,” you might assume that Canadian Jewry was in a constant state of existential panic and anxiety.

A quick glance at the cover stories from the Tribune over the past few months reveals the following headlines:

“Antisemitism is no longer in the closet and Jewish students…don’t know how to deal with it”
“Growing anti-semitism has Jews fleeing Sweden”
“Jews flee Malmö as antisemitism grows”
“Antisemitic blood libel aimed at IDF in Haiti”
“Israel Olympic flag stickers vandalized”
“B’nai Brith audit to include national poll on antisemitism”
“Obama Antisemitism ‘czar’ slammed for criticizing Israel’s Oren”
BLOOD LIBEL CIRCULATING IN CANADA(All caps, bold, and unusually large font courtesy of original publication)
“Passenger shouts ‘Kill Jews’ on Miami plane”
“Leaders discuss ways to combat antisemitism”
“Third Global Forum on Antisemitism set for next week”
“Antisemitic incidents in Australia hit record high”
“Digital hate: ‘No guarantees good guys are going to win’”
“Canada, UK ‘pioneers’ of campus antisemitism, expert says”

I’m sensing a trend here. To be sure, nearly every edition of the paper from the past three months leads with front page stories on Canadian or worldwide antisemitism. Blood libels. Czars. Death. Hate. Fleeing Jews. Vandalized stickers. How depressing. These headlines smack of Yellow Journalism, and are more fitting of rag tabloids than a supposedly substantial Jewish paper.

Out of 33 front-page stories from the past three months, 16 are related to antisemitism. That’s nearly 50%. And that doesn’t include the weekly “If you are the victim of antisemitism, call the anti-hate hotline…” banner appearing at the top of every edition. One also notices that most of these are stories taking place outside of Canada. Interesting.

Is this truly the story of Canadian Judaism week-to-week? When telling the story of what it means to be Jewish in Canada, is half of it about hatred and antisemitism? I don’t believe so.

Now obviously the newspaper includes more than just the headlines on page one. And obviously the story of Canadian Judaism reaches deep beyond what’s printed on the first page of one newspaper. But I’m judging the Jewish Tribune on the grounds that the most crucial, newsworthy, ground-breaking, pulse-feeling stories are those printed on the first page. Ask any journalist and they’ll tell you the same thing. Perhaps someone from the Tribune should google “How do newspapers decide which stories to put on the first page” and see what turns up.

Page one is what people see when they pass newspaper boxes on the street and it’s the first thing they see when they open the paper at breakfast. Page one sets the tone for the entire paper. Truly, it is where the pulse is taken. It seems to me that the writers and editors at the Tribune might be taking Canadian Jewry’s pulse on the wrong part of the body.

At best, this trend amounts to poor journalistic standards. Surely there are stories taking place around Canada that are more deserving of front page status. Surely there are innovative, exciting, and newsworthy events worthy of highlighting on the front page of the largest weekly Canadian Jewish newspaper. Surely a story about a single deranged American passenger on an American flight to Miami does not qualify for front-page status. According to the Tribune, it does.

At its worst, this trend amounts to dangerous fear-mongering. Focusing on antisemitism to this extent creates an atmosphere of fear and hatred. It grossly misrepresents what it means to be Jewish in Canada. As Canadian journalist and political analyst Gerald Caplan recently noted in a Globe and Mail article:

“By any conceivable standard, we Canadian Jews are surely among the most privileged, most secure, most successful, most influential minorities in Canada and indeed in the entire world. We don’t have a powerful Christian right-wing that is openly prejudiced, as in the United States, and the anti-Semitic incidents that do occasionally happen, while deplorable, are almost invariably caused by kids, crackpot white supremacists or marginalized thugs.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with growing antisemitism. Of course we should. And should we not be concerned with events beyond our own borders? Most certainly we should. But how about a diversified portfolio? How about journalistic integrity? How about an expanded viewpoint? How about a balanced mix of interesting, local, Canadian Jewish news stories? Lately, that’s not what you’ll find in the Jewish Tribune.

One final, important point regarding the Tribune’s and B’nai Brith’s (the Tribune is a subsidiary of B’nai Brith) perception of antisemitism and its relationship to the actual state of Canadian Jewry. While cases of antisemitism are likely of concern to Canadian Jews, they are not indicative of and should not be conflated with an existential danger to Canadian Jews. As Caplan notes in his article:

The B’nai Brith annually publishes the number of anti-Semitic incidents that are reported to it, but these reports are never checked out or confirmed. And whatever those numbers, the vast majority of Canadians Jews know perfectly well that they now live their entire lives completely untouched by anti-Semitism.

In its journalistic choices, the Tribune is failing to accurately portray the state of Canadian Jewry today. As the self-proclaimed “largest Jewish weekly,” they should rise to the challenge of delving deep into stories that highlight the unique flavour of Canadian Judaism, and in doing so ask themselves what kind of newspaper they want to be. They should strive to place stories on the cover of their newspaper that are truly newsworthy, not only stories that are eye-catching in their alarmism. And when stories of antisemitism merit deep attention, they should report on them from the context of Canadian Jewry in 2010, not from the paradigm of 1930s Germany.

Perhaps the ultimate question to pose to the Tribune isn’t ‘who do you want to be?’ rather, ‘who do you think we Canadian Jews really are?’ Are we a vibrant and safe people, or are we cowering in the corner in fear of persecution at the hands of people waving “Der Sturmer-type propaganda”?

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…

Contempt: Simply Stated

For some of us, looking at the past week’s events is actually quite a simple matter. Painful, but simple.

While faring much better than the rest of the world, Canada is indeed confronted with a worsening economic situation. And in the midst of this crisis, immediately following a campaign predicated on restoring stability and workability, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have shut down Parliament. They have flatly rejected the concerns of the majority of the elected officials, and shown themselves to be incapable or unwilling to engage in civilized discourse.

The Toronto Star’s Carol Goar surrounds her dismay with quirky and effective rhetoric:

“The Prime Minister whom voters re-elected seven weeks ago to provide a ‘firm hand on the wheel,’ seized the first opportunity to veer wildly into the oncoming lane, gambling that he could damage his adversaries more than he hurt himself.

Stephen Harper miscalculated. He is now struggling to save his discredited government.”

Worst of all – Harper’s given our elected officials a two month paid vacation from their jobs during which he will no doubt spend an exorbitant amount of funds on anti-coalition propaganda. Fiscal responsibility? Economic stability? Productive parliamentary discourse? Are we truly going to sit back for two months while this goes on?

Antioxidant Writing

CBC Radio had a programme on this morning which was discussing how the Canadian Chinese media is covering the current crisis in Tibet. While the press here obviously enjoys much more autonomy than it does in China (“Hello? Can anyone in China see this website?”), apparently Tibetan protesters are being referred to as “rioters,” and the violent Chinese crackdown on these “rioters” is being referred to as the “restoring of order.”

Ok. So I’m not on the ground in Tibet and I don’t have the ability to judge this situation with 100% impartiality and objectivity, but it seems to me as though the cloak of Chinese state censorship has extended to the far reaches of their Diaspora. While I obviously think that this is probably not the best way that the Chinese Canadian media should enjoy their freedom of press, I’m not educated enough on the intricacies of the whole affair to offer any conclusive argument. My opinion is that Chinese Canadians who enjoy rights ensured by Canada should make use of them and speak up. And maybe they are… a cursory Google search for “Chinese Canadian criticism of China” did yield some results, although none from any Chinese Canadian media outlets. A good blog commentary on the issue can be found here.

Of course, one thing led to another, and I started personalizing the issue. I live in a Diaspora, too. Does not living in our ancestral homeland affect the way the Jewish media writes about Israel? Apparently it does…

Larry Cohler-Esses, who has been the editor of the Jewish Student Press Service, has worked for The Washington Jewish Week, The Jewish Week (New York), and has been dispatched worldwide (to Syria and Yemen, no less) had this to say in a 2004 interview on the Jewish press:

“People don’t read Jewish newspapers for the reason they read regular newspapers. People read regular newspapers to get information, whether they agree with the paper or not. People read Jewish newspaper to affirm their sense of identity. Often that means you are writing articles that people don’t particularly want to know about.

“If you want to know to know about Israel, you can get most of your information from The New York Times and the Washington Post. You read the Jewish newspapers to get your sense of Israel’s rightness and correctness in the world affirmed.”


Are we employing self-censorship here in Canada and the US? What happened to “Two Jews, Three Views”? I’ve often complained that the Canadian Jewish News is not exactly the most newsworthy paper in the country. To be sure, there’s more criticism in the Israeli media of politics, military actions, and internal social affairs, not to mention culture, sports and the regular skewering of fellow Jews. You get the idea. Even the Jerusalem Post has a more nuanced collection of articles than the New York Jewish Week, or the Canadian Jewish News – the largest Canadian Jewish weekly. A quick look through the “Israel,” “News,” and “Politics,” sections of these sites provides more than enough evidence. For a people who have been at the forefront of championing the mainstream, secular media, we’re doing a pretty shoddy job of ensuring journalistic integrity in our own newspapers.

Like with Tibet, I don’t purport to offer any conclusive solution. But I do believe that perhaps salvation lies in people continuing to read what independent Jewish journalists have to say, i.e. read (and write) blogs. The variety of opinion is healthy for the mind. We’re like the dark fruits and vegetables in the produce section. Full of antioxidants.


In other news (extremely relevant to me today), apparently Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare, nor were they written by another man named Shakespeare. One woman claims to have evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a Jewish woman.