Israel, Journalism

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?

Canada, Politics

Who is “Joe the Canadian” today?

Remember Joe the Canadian? What a great symbol of Canada he was. Understated, yet proud. One who celebrated the diversity of Canada, and stood up for our uniqueness on the world stage. A proponent of peace keeping, multiculturalism, hockey, and chesterfields. While he didn’t say it in the famous commercial, back in 2000, one of the distinguishing features of being Canadian at the turn of the millennium was appreciating a nuanced and balanced perspective on domestic world affairs.

Ten years later, what do Canadians look like?

If you ask the current Conservative government – the people charged with representing us domestically and internationally, people that you might assume (and rightly so) would have a good answer to that question – here’s what you might hear back…

Michael Ignatieff – the Canadian – is unCanadian. Jack Layton – the Canadian – is part of the Taliban. Dalton McGuinty – the Canadian – is a small man of the Confederation. Richard Colvin – a man charged with representing Canadians – is an untrustworthy liar. And Irwin Cotler – the Canadian (and the Jew) – is an antisemite.

These “definitions” are too sharply defined; they cut Canada and Canadians into isolated segments and divide us into useless categories. Unsurprisingly, the Conservative paradigm is one of sharp dichotomies: Big people and small people. People who are trustworthy and people who are liars. Canadian and unCanadian. To be sure, this paradigm itself is pretty unCanadian. At least it would be according to Joe the Canadian.

But wait a minute – wasn’t Stephen Harper just speaking about “putt[ing] aside old quarrels and… embrac[ing] a common future?” Oh wait, he was talking about the Olympics.

The latest round of demagoguery (though can it be called a “round” if it’s just a continual pattern?) has centered on the Conservative’s defunding of the Human Rights organization, Rights and Democracy, over their alleged anti-Israel stance. Of course, this fits in nicely with the Tories’ hardline ‘you’re either wish Israel or against them’ stance.

It is rare that I find myself agreeing with Haroon Siddiqui, and even rarer that I would quote him to back up my argument, but I’m happy to do so today as he is bang on in his assertion that “Israelis thrive on democratic debate and dissent but Harper… want[s] to shut down debate in Canada.”

For those too afraid to side with Sidiqqui, Liberal MP Anita Neville, co-chair of Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel (and Jewish herself), has also argued that “by making [support of Israel] frequently into a black-and white-issue, [the Tories] are setting it up as a wedge… And it’s creating a backlash.”

This is an issue that has garnered international attention. And rightly so.

William Schabas, the Canadian director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights recently posited an opinion that resounded incredibly loudly with me, noting that the current goings on are “extremely partisan and highly divisive. It isn’t very Canadian. It’s the kind of thing that I, as a Canadian living abroad, am very conscious of.”

I’m left wondering what a Joe the Canadian commercial might look like today. Do we really want to accept the Tories’ definition of who and what is and isn’t Canadian?

Perhaps that job should be left to the beer companies…

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General

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”
“BLEAK FUTURE FOR DANISH JEWS?”
“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”?

Canada, Judaism - General, Politics

Altruism or Astroturfing?

I’m always amazed and humbled by how quickly the international Jewish community responds to crises around the world. In the past few hours, I’ve been flooded with information on relief funds setup by various Jewish organizations, including my own, to respond to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti – a place with the tiniest of Jewish communities. This is a true demonstration of altruism.

And isn’t email is great? What we take for granted each day really is a technological marvel that allows unprecedented amounts of aid dollars flow to areas of need in a matter of minutes, courtesy of the organizations that are empowered to do so.

To ensure that these organizations’ aid initiatives are seen as being truly altruistic, and not just a way to keep up with the pack, careful attention needs to be paid to the press releases announcing them. Graphics can’t be too graphic, text can’t be over the top, and the message needs to be carefully crafted to encourage people to donate. There’s a fine line between creating a powerful message and sensationalism. Any good marketing professional knows this.

It appears, though, that B’nai Brith Canada still doesn’t quite understand the basic elements of word choice. Joe Bogoroch, President of B’nai Brith Canada, should have opened up a dictionary (or how about wikipedia?) before sending out their press release email today. In their call for people to send in funds, he used the following text:

“We call on members of the community to once again show their generosity and donate as much as they can afford to the victims of the quake. We hope that our grassroots (my emphasis added) effort will provide some measure of comfort, dignity and normalcy to the victims whose lives have been torn apart.”

This is not the first time B’nai Brith has abused the concept of grassroots efforts. See here for more on that. Yup, that was astroturfing again!

To be sure, their effort in getting out a message for people to donate is supremely important and commendable. But make no mistake, this is not a grassroots effort. This is a top-down organized initiative from a well entrenched member of the Jewish establishment in Canada. Why add a highly political element to an initiative that should be apolitical? Why call it grassroots at all?

My guess is that Bogoroch and B’nai Brith hope that this singular word will make their organization appear more attractive, more attuned to the lives of younger Jews, and more folksy. Perhaps for those that don’t understand the concept, it does. But for most, it’s clear that this a fallacy. In essence, by using this word, B’nai Brith subtly puts their organization’s image ahead of the aid efforts.

UJA Federation, on the other hand – the supreme example of the Jewish establishment, crafted a powerful and well worded press release. And they got it out forty minutes before B’nai Brith did. It includes about five quick sentences that succinctly let us know what’s up. An excerpt:

“As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is simply not prepared to handle such a catastrophe and the Caribbean nation is appealing for international aid.

United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto has established the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund to assist victims who, suddenly, find their lives turned upside down and in jeopardy.”

Their webpage also thanks people for their “ongoing commitment to tikun olam, ‘Repairing the World’.” Nicely done, UJA. In just three sentences, we know why this is important, what UJA wants us to do, and how it’s a Jewish concept. It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to get us to join up with them. They just want to donate some money.

Ok folks, let’s just get it out there: Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and Federation, while becoming increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist of this generation, are still uniquely positioned to do some real good when crises like the Haitian earthquake arise. They have a vast, connected membership, with the funds and mechanisms to reach out to them. Why not get it right? Why not take the (brief) time to craft your message properly to maximize its ability to connect to people? Sadly, this is an endemic problem in the Jewish community.

If the legacy organizations want to remain relevant over the next twenty years, perhaps a quick and easy step in that direction would be to step back and look at the framework from which they speak…

Billboard Judaism, Canada, Politics

At the Close of Chanukah, Canada’s Jewish Question Remains Key

At the risk of beating a clearly not quite yet dead horse, I need to talk about the relationship between the Canadian Jewish community and the current government. For those playing the home game, I’ve penned some critical/emotional analyses a few times before:

Most recently about the Conservative government’s use of public funding to target the Jewish community with a partisan smear campaign against the Liberals.

Earlier, about the Toronto Star’s examination of Harper’s Identity based Politics and the dangerous precedence it sets.

During last year’s election, I wrote about and critiqued the sudden shift in voting trends among Jews in my home riding of Thornhill.

And then I followed that up with my astonishment at the Thornhill Jewish community’s support of MP Peter Kent solely on the basis of how much he “supported” Israel.

Personal politics aside, the increase in institutional association between the Jewish community and the Conservative government has troubled me. I felt (and do now, to an even greater extent) that the government was stepping vastly out of its bounds in creating a political environment predicated on religious identity. And I was (and am now, to an even greater extent) dismayed with much of the Jewish community’s myopic predilection to support whichever Canadian politician was more vocal in support of Israel.

I’ve taken some flack for these arguments, which is understandable. As I’ve thought about it more and reflected on what I’ve written, I also admit that a few times I may have conflated the Thornhill/Toronto Jewish community with the greater Canadian Jewish community. They are not one and the same. However, in much the same way that the pulse of the American Jewish community can be felt in New York, you can get a sense of the state of the Canadian Jewish community by scrutinizing Toronto and Thornhill (and to an extent, Montreal).

Which bring us to this week’s observance of Chanukah, a celebration of Jewish independence against political and religious oppression by the state. How appropriate.

Canada’s newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail (which I should note is a centrist/moderately conservative paper in political alignment), recently published an article by Gerald Caplan on the very same issue I’ve been harp(er)ing on for over a year: What exactly is it with Stephen Harper and the Tories’ obsession with the Canadian Jewish community?

Caplan is quick to note that “it wasn’t always this way.”

You should read the article. It provides a broader context to the current state of affairs and sheds a little more light on the issue than has been covered by the pundits. It’s certainly more revealing than anything you’ll see in the Canadian Jewish media. A short excerpt:

“Why is this Conservative government so determined to woo Jewish support? Why is it so reflexive, so mindless, in its support for Israel? Given their single-minded pursuit of ethnic voters, politics seems a more plausible explanation than conviction. Yet Jews constitute only 1 per cent of the Canadian population and are a factor in only a tiny number of seats. Most Jews vote Liberal and while some have defected to the Conservatives over Israel, most still will. So the unseemly Conservative embrace just doesn’t add up.”

And what about the reflexive Jewish embrace of the Conservatives?

Last week, the Orthodox Union and NCSY created an award, the “Outstanding Award of Merit,” and bestowed it upon Stephen Harper. As reported in the Canadian Jewish News article covering the event, Harper received the award due to him being “a role model for all Canadians.” Well he is the Prime Minister, isn’t being a role model to Canada kind of his job? Shouldn’t getting to be the PM be his reward? According to Rabbi Glenn Black, the CEO of NCSY, and a gentleman I once conducted a personal interview with on the state of Canadian Judaism, Stephen Harper is worthy of this recently invented award

“because of his consistent support of the Jewish community… There has never [before] been a prime minister… who has been steadfast in their support of righteousness and freedom… Israel is a lone democracy in a sea of hatred… [Harper] understands his role is to stand up against the power of evil.”

Well there you have it, folks. According to the largest Jewish movement in Canada, the barometer for how “Outstanding” and “Merit”orious a Prime Minister you are is how much you support Israel.

But wait! Lest we conflate support of Israel with support of the Jewish community (something nobody would ever do, right?), along comes Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, who said to the crowd: “We’re… proud to be part of a government that has taken a zero tolerance approach towards anti-Semitism.” One can rightfully assume that Kenney’s comment was in reference to the CPC’s misguided belief that the Liberals somehow have a less-than “zero tolerance” approach to antisemitism. What, do the Liberals oppose some forms of antisemitism?

(As a humourous aside, I should note that a search of www.ou.org for “Outstanding Award of Merit” only links to an article about cookie recipes for Pesach. Could it be that the OU’s headquarters know that this is ultimately the bestowal of empty platitudes in an attempt to crawl further into bed with the government?)

For a moment, let’s set aside the fact that given Canada’s diminishing role in international affairs, no single party can claim the highest level of support for Israel (whatever that means). Let’s also momentarily dispense with the fact that, as Caplan noted in his Globe 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.” Having rid ourselves of the weightiness of these actualities, we’re left with two resounding questions:

Even if one political party could claim greater support of Israel and the Jews, should they?

And should the organized Jewish community jump into bed with a domestic political party solely on the grounds of a single yet nuanced and complex foreign affairs issue?

As I’ve noted before, I believe the answer to both questions is a loud “no!” Truly, we must not allow for the blind conflation of religious beliefs and political voting patterns. In Canada, the line between Synagogue and State is being dangerously blurred. It’s clear others agree with me, and are starting to be a little more vocal. If you’re not convinced yet, let’s use the Chanukah narrative to learn a little more.

Our observance of Chanukah instructs us that we need to resist government intervention in matters of private and communal religious life. It also teaches us we need to be weary of those within our community who rush to support political parties for the sake of short-term gains. Let’s not forget that the war wasn’t just an external one against Antiochus, it was also a civil war within the Jewish community. As Adam Bronfman at Jewcy writes:

The Jews at the time of the Maccabees were struggling with how much influence they should allow from the Hellenistic culture which surrounded them… In this regards the story also tells a tale of oppression from within. Some Jews were assimilating completely into the Hellenism of the dominant culture…Chanukah is a tale of Jewish struggle, demonstrating both the internal and external battles our community has contended with.

I recall hearing a rabbi say once that while the institutional separation of synagogue and state needs to be closely guarded, politics and religion can enjoy a more nuanced and symbiotic relationship. The Maccabees were surely aware of this. Are we?

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

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…