Restoring the Tree of Life: Facing Hate through Policy

by Myra Lisselle Wein

From sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night, Jews commemorate the Sabbath, a day of rest. Yet on the morning of Saturday October 27th, that day of rest was shattered by a massacre in a Pittsburgh congregation; a devastating reminder of the hard truth that anti-Semitism is alive and well. Among the 11 lives lost Saturday morning was Rose Mallinger. A 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, Rose already survived the ugly face of bigotry and fascism, so losing her life so suddenly to hate underscores the depth of this tragedy. Blatant xenophobia in all its forms is hardly a new aspect of  American society, and the lack of gun control and vacuous political leadership against hate has left us struggling to heal a community and facilitate the recovery of humanity in the aftermath of hate.

It’s not just the United States. We, as Canadians, need to take a hard look at the signs and symptoms of hate in our own backyards. In 2017, the Toronto Police Service reported a 28% increase in hate crimes. The Jewish community was the most frequently victimized group for mischief to property occurrences, followed by the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.  The Toronto Police report concluded that prosecutions are sometimes difficult to complete, citing that many of these incidents are vandalism with no witnesses present. But what about the hate we witness on social media? The Pittsburgh assailant Robert D. Bowers would openly share his toxic views on Jews and refugees in public posts on social media platforms, somehow failing to alarm anyone.

One response to this kind of hatred is to increase security, which is not a new policy for Jewish synagogues, especially in the Greater Toronto Area.Presenting identification and seeing paid duty officers at high holidays and community events is hardly a new sight to see. But is this the solution with which we have become comfortable? To accept hate as inevitable in our multicultural society, and expect to have to guard against it? I sincerely hope not. There needs to be a conversation at all levels of government as to how we effectively bring about tolerance, because it is clear what we have been doing so far is not  enough.

How can policy practitioners and influencers  prevent hateful views from festering into violent action? Mechanisms are already in place on most social media platforms to report content and hate crime units are a permanent fixture in police forces. Straddling the line between hyper-vigilance and reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech can be challenging when developing a criterion to intervene when someone posts a troubling ‘opinion’ online. Online moderation evidently does not go far enough – ignorance is the root of the problem. Education may be the key to nipping anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideas in the bud at their source. Such education would have to be more than the stereotypical elementary school posters with illustrated faces of children from around the world smiling together. We need real, institutionalized education on the meaning of tolerance and diversity, that extends beyond the classroom. Education for all ages, backgrounds, and economic stripes, in the form of clear, blatant statements from political, business, and community leaders that hate is not welcome here, with real social, economic and criminal consequences for propagating it. 

Another important consideration is how to address potential hate speech from political candidates. In the recent Toronto Mayoral race Faith Goldy, a candidate known for her far-right, white nationalist views, secured the support of over 25 thousand votes. Ontario Premier Doug Ford posed for a picture with her at an event, and to this day has yet to clearly denounce her. How in the first place was such a candidate permitted to run? Perhaps our electoral rules need to go beyond mere citizenship. How does a young, Canadian-born woman, educated in a global institution like the University of Toronto, become a mouthpiece for The Fourteen Words, a cornerstone of white supremacy? Perhaps Goldy was completely dismissed and never effectively engaged or confronted on her views by her peers and teachers. Though Goldy’s support only made up 3.4% of those who went to the polls, it is troubling that such an individual captured third place in a race for mayor of Canada’s largest city. Giving voices like hers a microphone empowers xenophobes to freely perpetuate their harmful ideologies. The existence of and support for voices like hers creates an echo chamber for hateful notions that should have been silenced decades ago.

So how do we pick up the pieces? How do we deal with the trauma that has been dealt to our open and democratic society? Consider this ironic connection: the famed children’s television personality Mister Rogers – a strong proponent of the idea that neighbours can and should coexist in peace – was a Pittsburgh native himself, and did not live far from the Tree of Life synagogue. In 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mister Rogers came out of retirement to deliver a message to the children experiencing the day that changed the world. His message: Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world and humanity. Real healing is going to take more than a band-aid solution or tweets of thoughts and prayers. It’s going to take tangible, meaningful zero-tolerance policies for all forms of hatred and xenophobia. Anti-Semitism is an issue that did not appear overnight, and it definitely won’t disappear anytime soon. It’s time we all walked the walk and talked the talk when confronting aggression against Jews and all victimized groups – women, racial, sexual, and religious. Like the Tree of Life, we need to replant the seeds of coexistence, protect our freedom from hate from the roots up, and ensure that expressing our identity and diversity does not mean being chopped down by leadership, institutions, and opinions that permit otherwise.

Myra Lisselle Wein is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree with High Distinction majoring in Diaspora and Transnational Studies and minoring in Political Science and Canadian Studies from the University of Toronto. She has experience in parliamentary protocol and public relations, the Ontario Public Service, non-profit and private sectors. Her policy interests include digital governance, migration and diversity, and social policy. In her free time, you can catch her skating or talking about Shania Twain.