The Israel Taboo

Money and sex aren't the only things Canadians don't talk about

Two men talking on a broken bench
Illustration by Peter Ryan

Last summer, I went on a canoe trip down the Petawawa River, paddling the same rapids Pierre Trudeau once travelled. In the middle of this iconic Canadian scene, a friend and I started chatting about Israel. As our voices slowly rose, two other canoes approached, and we all put down our paddles for an impromptu summit. Surrounded by and oblivious to the peace and tranquility of Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario, we started arguing. Is a corrupt occupation ruining Zionism? Is boycotting Israel anti-Semitic? Are Israelis guilty of human rights violations? How much responsibility should Palestinians take for their situation? Our token WASP kept quiet, unable to get a word in, until finally he asked, “How will they ever figure out how to get along in the Middle East? Even the Montreal Jews can’t agree.”

No matter what you say about Israel, someone will get angry. Venturing to question the Jewish state gets you labelled an anti-Semite by right-wing Zionists, but left-wing activists can be just as vicious. Admit that you want Israel to remain a safe haven for Jews, and you’ll be told your Zionism is racist. My Jewish friends are scared of lefties, and my lefty friends are scared of Zionists. As a lefty Jew, I’m scared of both.

A few years ago, I gave a talk in Los Angeles at the University of California’s Center for Near Eastern Studies, where I spent a semester during a post-doctoral fellowship. I was making the case that Israelis in the occupied territories misuse Holocaust memory when they argue that settling Palestinian land is necessary to guard against a second Holocaust. A representative of a Zionist watchdog organization showed up, ostensibly to guard against anti-Semitism in Middle Eastern studies departments. When he posted his misunderstanding of my lecture online, I received a series of standard threats from strangers. One expressed a hope that I would “show [my] sincerity by leading the way to the gas chambers,” while another stated, somewhat ungrammatically, that I was “carrying a death wish for himself.” Within twenty-four hours, my post-doctoral supervisor in Montreal got an email saying I was a “turd” who would “shit his pants” if I was put “on the front lines.” This entirely accurate insult highlighted an unacknowledged truth: talking about Israel does put you on the front lines. When emotions explode into anger and accusations start flying, you are no longer discussing the conflict. You are a part of it.

My media activist friends have a traditional Marxist theory about why it’s so tough to talk about Israel. For them, it boils down to power, which means money. Zionist money funds lobby groups and media watchdogs that attack the pro-Palestinian media. My friends argue that this creates a climate of antagonism, and that many media outlets systematically avoid the question of Israel because it’s too much hassle to deal with the backlash.

Wait a second. Are my lefty friends saying Jews control the media?

The left has a long tradition of such anti-Semitic clichés. You may recall the scandal in 2004 when the Vancouver magazine Adbusters published an article titled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?,” which infamously listed “the 50 most influential neocons in the US,” with black dots beside the Jewish names. But keep in mind the watchdog organization that targeted me at UCLA. There certainly are well-funded Zionist groups that pressure and attack anyone perceived to be critical of Israel. It is intimidating; one has to think twice before talking publicly or writing about the conflict.

This is because the weapons of this war are not only bullets, stones, tanks, and explosive jackets. The extremists attack and defend with words or, more specifically, with invocations of the Holocaust and accusations of genocide—to the point of absurdity. Today, almost twenty years after Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, comparisons with Nazi Germany have become cynical clichés. Palestinians put swastikas on Israeli flags, Israelis compare Arab leaders to Hitler, and Zionist settlers accuse those proposing to withdraw settlements of being complicit in the final solution. Given the number of so-called Nazis out there, you would think Germany had won the damn war.

Debates rage over whether anti-Zionism can be defined as the new anti-Semitism. The Palestinian-driven campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions attempts to link Zionism and Israel to apartheid-era racism in South Africa. Since the 1980s, members of Israel’s hasbara programs have used academic, religious, and government resources to teach Zionists rhetorical tactics and ideological strategies to defend Israel against criticism in social media and elsewhere (if you are reading this online, you may hear from them in the comments below). While hasbara translates as “explanation,” this Internet-era “public diplomacy” more often resembles old-school propaganda.

The problem with this linguistic warfare is that it re-entrenches existing positions. Everyone wants to convince, and no one wants to listen.

In highlighting the role of money in shutting down the conversation about Israel, my Marxist friends miss an essential point: extremist ideological positions would not be so effective, or appealing, if they didn’t tap in to real emotions and fears. You can’t understand the way many Canadian Jews are deeply attached to Zionism, to the point of being unable to consider another point of view, without addressing Holocaust survivors and the history of anti-Semitism in Canada, and in Montreal in particular.

Canadian Jews, while liberal in many ways, are surprisingly right wing when it comes to Zionism. According to a census analysis done in 2006, 25 percent of American Jews identify as Zionist, while 42 percent of Canadian Jews do. Toronto and Montreal have some of the highest rates of visitation to Israel of any Jewish community in North America, at 75 percent. This gives the impression of a seemingly univocal, unconditional support for the Israeli state in Canada, at least within the Jewish community.

Toronto and Montreal are quite different from Tel Aviv, where I went in early 2012 to interview Jews who had become pro-Palestinian activists. We sat in the cafés, and while these Israelis criticized their government, raged against the power of the settlers, and testified to Palestinian suffering under the occupation, I kept looking nervously over my shoulder. “Relax,” one refusenik told me. “This is Israel. You say what you want here.”

Back in Canada, I visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre to ask Jacqueline Celemencki, the education coordinator, why Canadian Jews are more conservative in their Zionism. Her answer is simple—and difficult. After World War II, Montreal received the third-largest group of Holocaust survivors in the world. “The Holocaust plays a critical role,” she says. “It dismantled and destroyed generations and generations of Jewish life that will never be re-established in many countries, so the only hope for the future is a collective identity based on this controversial and contested piece of land.”

She points out that among Montreal Jews, as in many victimized groups concerned with survival, a mistrustful attitude persists. Unity and solidarity within the community are valued more than debate and dissent. This resonates with the experience of many young Montreal Jews I know, who are more comfortable talking critically about Israel in Tel Aviv or New York.

Yet New York and Israel took in even more Holocaust survivors than Montreal after the war. So why are New York Jews more liberal, and why is it easier to trash-talk Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv? I met Stephanie Schwartz to discuss these questions over coffee in Mile End, one of Montreal’s historical Jewish neighbourhoods, where I live and where my father went to Talmud Torah. She does research for an online museum of Montreal’s Jewish community, has a Ph.D. in religious studies (specializing in Canadian studies), and researches multicultural Canadian Jewish identity.

She explains that in Montreal, the centre of Canadian Jewish life up until the 1980s, most Jews never felt fully accepted. Caught between the two solitudes and victimized by European-imported anti-Semitism, Jews were excluded not once but twice over, from both French and English institutions, which made it difficult to get hospital jobs and university spots. While the city harboured pockets of British and French brands of nationalism, neither appealed to eastern European immigrants. American republicanism encouraged Jews to hop into the melting pot, but Canada’s bicultural, and subsequently multicultural, structure encouraged more segregated ethnic identifications. Unlike their American cousins, who helped define fast-talking, neurotic New York, Montreal Jews rarely felt included or welcome in Canada’s national project. Hence the appeal of Zionism, and the distant utopia of Israel, a place that is controlled by the Jews.

Trauma also plays a role in shutting down the conversation. Too often, the word gets used as a synonym for violence. More properly, the Greek word for “wound” refers to how past violence can haunt victims by seeming to reappear in the present. This obfuscates our perception of the present and impedes our capacity to respond appropriately to contemporary situations. Trauma can also refer to the impact or effects of violence that we are unaware of, and that we may not have directly experienced. Scholars define this as second-generational trauma, endured by parents and transmitted to children, but it is not only passed on through families. Stories about historical violence circulate in the media, the news, movies, and oral histories. What scholars refer to as traumatic discourses can affect people in subtle ways, even if they or their parents were not victimized personally.

Jews have lived within traumatic narratives for a long time. The technical name for this is Judaism. For thousands of years, people have been kicking the shit out of Jews. Long before the Holocaust, our history was already a litany of disasters and ritual commemorations of victimization. As my relatives often joke on Passover, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

Illustration by Peter Ryan

I didn’t exactly grow up on the mean streets of Babylonia. In the Vancouver suburb of White Rock, I was the only Jewish kid any of my friends knew, and I don’t think they had any opinions about Jews either way. Mostly, I was the same as any white suburban kid, easily accepted by Canadian society. No one would have even known I was Jewish if I hadn’t kept talking about it.

In 1978, when I was seven, my father decided it was time for my Jewish education, which commenced with NBC’s Holocaust miniseries. It was the first time he had spoken to me as if I were an adult. I was wide eyed with amazement, and excited to stay up past my bedtime. For the first time, I saw the images from the concentration camps, emaciated corpses piled up on top of one another, a jumble of bones. Those scenes were burned onto my retinas, and they have remained imprinted on my mind ever since. Just as important was the story that went with them. My dad looked me straight in the eye and told me this has been happening to our people for thousands of years, and who knows where, who knows when—but it could happen again.

What does a kid do with that kind of information? I never experienced this eternal Jew hatred, but it became a permanent theme in the fantasy world of my suburban backyard. I didn’t play cowboys and Indians. It was always me against Hitler. That bastard. But this childhood fantasy was not just a game. In a deep sense, I was convinced that I wasn’t really Canadian. From an early age, I figured that if push came to shove Canadians would turn against me.

One day, I snuck out to buy licorice from a convenience store a few blocks away. I looked up at the man behind the counter and wondered if he would ever put me and my little sister into a concentration camp. Now, that’s a pretty messed-up thing for a ten-year-old to think. What’s even crazier is that years later when I remembered his face, I realized that the man must have been Pakistani.

During the ’70s and ’80s, my formative years, British Columbia was rife with overt racism. I only heard seven or eight anti-Semitic jokes in high school, mostly rugby players at high school dances singing, “She’s got the nose that kills,” to the tune of Mötley Crüe. But I must have heard thousands of anti-Pakistani, anti-Chinese, and anti-Aboriginal “jokes” that were part of a process of real discrimination. Like many white Canadian teenagers searching for approval from their peers back then, I repeated those jokes. Convinced I was a victim, I was oblivious to the victimization of others around me and, to my shame, even participated in it. This is what traumatic narratives can do: blind us to the victimization of others, whether Pakistani or Palestinian.

It is hard to conceive of Jews as an oppressed minority when our prime minister fully supports Israel, has established the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, and works overtime to court the Jewish vote. But does that mean anti-Semitism is a relic, part of Canada’s ugly history of discrimination, or is it a lingering potential that could re-emerge at any time?

If I am honest with myself, and with you, I have to admit that I’m still not sure. On the very day I write this, Pauline Marois’s PQ is presenting the Charter of Quebec Values, which proposes forbidding Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others from wearing religious symbols if they work in publicly funded institutions. Many, including me, see this as primarily a white francophone response to Muslims in Quebec, but many of my Jewish friends are freaking out. Saying Jews can’t wear yarmulkes, or telling Montreal Holocaust survivors to take Hebrew off their storefronts, is guaranteed to trigger traumatic associations, conjuring up the 1935 Nuremberg laws in Germany, which were designed to restrict the Jewish presence in public life.

Now, hold on: I am not calling Marois a Nazi, but this threat has triggered a long-standing sense of exclusion and a fear of non-belonging among Jews as well as many Muslims, immigrants, and people of colour. I am certainly not immune to it. My battles with Hitler were imaginary, but my father grew up Orthodox in Quebec and was called maudit juif (“cursed Jew”), regularly harassed, attacked a few times, and even beaten up for being Jewish. It is easy to entertain the paranoia that the Québécois have remained anti-Semitic, and to imagine that anti-Semitism is secretly, silently lurking beneath the surface—an eternal conspiracy, as in Le péril juif.

This is what makes the fear of anti-Semitism so difficult to get over. When you are raised to think your people always have been and always will be persecuted, it becomes hard to know if there is actual, immediate danger. This is how trauma works: historical violence haunts you so much that you can’t tell if a threat has actually reappeared or whether it is only an apparition. Traumatic violence isn’t just something that happened to you or your parents or even your grandparents. It is an abstract, intangible threat that hangs over your head, and makes it tough to figure out who the victims are, right now. Religious Jews and Muslims in Montreal? Indigenous peoples across Canada? Palestinians in the West Bank? Traumatic narratives blur our perceptions of victimhood past and present. Perhaps this affects Marois’s PQ as much as it does Montreal Jews.

When historical trauma—such as Canadian anti-Semitism, or the English oppression of the French in Quebec—haunts the present, it disables change, reigniting ancient fears and making us feel vulnerable, shutting down any possibility for real dialogue. A few years ago, I saw this in action. In a large auditorium at McGill University, a Palestinian doctor from Toronto, Izzeldin Abuelaish, was invited to discuss his book, I Shall Not Hate. His story is tragic and moving: three of his daughters were killed in Israel’s 2008–09 bombing of Gaza. As he shared his story, demonstrating his refusal to hate or demonize Jews, I looked around the audience and saw a wide variety of Jewish faces that were open, listening. They were not peaceniks or Zionists, just regular people. Abuelaish had found a way to talk to these Canadian Jews, to truly communicate with them, enabling them to witness the depth and tragedy of Palestinian suffering. It was extraordinary. In that moment, you could feel the possibility of a less violent future.

After he finished, a voice spoke out. The man started respectfully but grew more strident, trumpeting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. When he compared Israel with South Africa, a sad thing happened. The room divided in two. One side clapped in support, while the tentative but open faces on the other side closed and turned angry. The bridge Abuelaish had been building collapsed. The comparison to South Africa returned the conversation to the battlefield. After years of watching such exchanges, I realized this: when anger erupts and people start attacking each other, we re-enact the violent antagonism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The war itself explodes into the middle of our conversations.

Illustration by Peter Ryan

Twenty years ago, I lived briefly in Safed, in northern Israel. This blue-painted artists’ colony became the centre of Jewish mysticism in the sixteenth century, when prominent Sephardic rabbis, expelled from Spain, moved to Palestine and popularized the Kabbalah. I ended up there because I was bored with school, so I dropped out of my second year at the University of British Columbia and took a construction job to pay for a ticket to Israel. After five months living in the Old City of Jerusalem, I travelled to quiet Safed to explore my spirituality and meditate at the graves of kabbalistic rabbis. It was a wonderful and profound experience, and I felt I was connecting to my history.

Ten years later, I found myself sitting on a couch in Toronto, chatting past midnight with a Palestinian Canadian friend, Hanadi Loubani. One story led to another, and finally she told me about her father. He had grown up just outside of Sa’sa’, a Palestinian village near Safed. In 1948, the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah Jewish Paramilitary, attacked the village as part of Operation Hiram and expelled all of the Palestinians who had not already fled. Nostalgic for his birthplace and unable to return home, Hanadi’s father would tell her bedtime stories about his childhood in Palestine. The story she remembered best was the one about his long, lonely walk to school. For company, he would tie a tin can to his shoe and kick it all the way to class.

The story of that tin can jolted me. While I was connecting to a mystical history in Safed, someone else was unable to return to his home a few villages over. Blam! In that moment, it hit me. I felt this other person’s suffering. Something tight and defensive inside me softened and relaxed a little. Israel was no longer just my story.

As a Jew raised on a traumatic narrative, I will always be sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism. I can’t, and won’t, forget certain things. But as a Canadian, I also feel implicated in the injustices of others. Sometimes, I will take a break from feeling Jewish guilt about the plight of Palestinians, and take a turn feeling guilty about the suffering of Indigenous peoples right here in Canada. For Jews, or anyone raised on a traumatic narrative, addressing and acknowledging the stories of other victims will help us to move on and to foster among all Canadians a greater sense of belonging.

There is a reason the phrase “cycle of violence” has become a cliché for describing intractable conflicts: it highlights how violence imprisons us in a repetitive loop of victimization, fear, anger, and retaliation. Acts of aggression, by Israelis or Palestinians, are invariably justified as counterattacks. Whether defensive, retributive, or even pre-emptive, one side’s violence is perpetually explained as a response to the other’s. Like children in a playground, everyone yells, “He started it!”

But anger is not power; it is impotence. When we yell, we throw away our agency, and the power to stop the cycle of violence. Defensive walls protect us from the enemy, but they also block our capacity for change and growth.

The voice of Jewish suffering in Canada and elsewhere is important, and well established, but the realities of Palestinian suffering have yet to transform the Canadian conversation. The future of Israel will not be created by fighting the ghost of Hitler in our backyard. All of us must calmly, consciously refuse to engage in the war of words, whether genuinely traumatic or deliberately funded, that silences debate.

As home to both Jewish and Palestinian diasporas, Canada is a place to let down defensive barriers and have a real conversation, one that will open the door to a new becoming. This is, after all, the dream of a dynamic, multicultural country: to reinvent ourselves and our communities, and to loosen the grip of traumatic pasts. This has nothing to do with guilt or righteousness. Refusing anger and starting a genuine dialogue about Israel is the only way to meet the future.

This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.

Joseph Rosen
Joseph Rosen (@TheJosephRosen) teaches at Dawson College in Montreal. He has written for publications including Maisonneuve, the Montreal Gazette, and Shtetl Montreal.
Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan has worked with the Wall Street Journal, Variety, and The Walrus.