History reveals that antisemitism intensifies at times of social disruption. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an alarming increase in antisemitic acts. In 2019, Statistics Canada found police-reported hate crimes against Jewish people accounted for the highest number of religion-based hate crime in Canada. Recently, the B’nai Brith Canada 2020 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported a record number of antisemitism cases last year, up 18.3% from 2019. In 2020, over 44% of antisemitic violence was COVID-related, including incidents of Jewish people being spat on and assaulted with weapons.
More severe forms of creed-based prejudice, including antisemitism, have emerged in recent times, often shaped by international events and transmitted through media, especially social media. A pernicious theme repeated this past year was to blame the Jewish community for the pandemic. For example, Bnai Brith reported graffiti on a trail sign in Milton that said: “There is no deadly virus. The Jew owned media lies to you.” Other graffiti in public sites included “Blame the Jews” and “Jews should be ashamed.”
Ontario has witnessed an unprecedented increase in antisemitic incidents this past year, such as the vandalism of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa. A Jewish person in Toronto was randomly hit in the face by a man who shouted “f--- Jews.” In North York, a city worker threatened to circumcise a Jewish boy for “a second and a third time.” In the Hamilton area, someone painted a red swastika on the hood of a car parked near a synagogue.
The media is full of reports of the many ways Jewish communities continue to be the targets of hate. We have seen antisemitism erupting at pro-Palestine events in Toronto and Montreal, hateful banners unfurled in Vaughan and businesses, parks and schools defaced with antisemitic graffiti. We see assaults and other life-threatening behaviour that has no place in Ontario.
Denouncing and fighting hate and discrimination, especially antisemitism, was why the Ontario Human Rights Code was enacted in the first place. In the early 1960s, the world was still dealing with the shocking aftermath of the Holocaust. Jewish people were barred from entry to Canada, including at times of greatest need fleeing Nazi Germany in WWII. They were routinely denied access to jobs, facilities and services, because of virulent antisemitism. The first Code, in 1962, envisioned a better path forward for Ontario and the majority of the complaints the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) pursued in the 1960s were on behalf of Jewish people.
Governments and community leaders have consistently spoken out against the hate that continues to erupt in our communities – all because of someone’s beliefs. But history has shown that saying the right things is meaningless, unless the words are tied to action.
That’s why the OHRC joins community calls for governments to review hate crime laws to ensure these laws are responsive to the lived realities of hate activity across Canada, and enforcement to ensure that police are doing what is necessary to support communities in distress and keep communities safe. Enhanced legal safeguards will also let victims know that they can step forward and will be better protected.
When the response to a hate crime is only rhetoric, we signal it is okay to discriminate, hate and hurt. This needs to change. On the eve of the National Summit on Antisemitism, the OHRC calls on governments at all levels to take action to confront the reality of antisemitic hate and change our laws now.