Oct 16, 2015
Jewish values and the politics of division
By: Maureen Silcoff
We are all aware of the comment in 1939 by Frederick Charles Blair, a senior immigration official under William Lyon Mackenzie King. Regarding the pending arrival of the MS St Louis to Canada, he stated: “No country can open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jews who want to leave Europe. The line must be drawn somewhere.” The ship was turned away.
Over 75 years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the following statement at a leaders’ debate in reference to Syrian refugees: "These guys would have had us, in the last two weeks, throwing open our borders and literally hundreds of thousands of people coming without any kind of security check or documentation."
While we can discuss the differences between the two contexts, the similarities in casting out a fear around hundreds of thousands of refugees are notable.
The Conservatives successfully courted the Jewish community over the last decade. They have spellbound a certain segment of the community with pledges such as “Canada will stand by Israel through fire and water."
The Conservatives promoted themselves through the politics of fear. They tapped into fear of anti-Semitism and terrorism. They were smart. They chose the ideal community for that tactic. Anti-Semitism past and present looms large, particularly in the minds of the older generation of the community. People fear that Israel, the place of Jewish refuge, could be annihilated. The Conservatives have manipulated this fear and transformed it into votes.
So desperate are they for the support of this community that MP Mark Adler, while trying to have a photograph taken with Mr. Harper at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, cried out “It’s the re-election! This is the million dollar shot."
In order to solidify what they might see as slipping support in the upcoming election, the Conservatives targeted synagogues over the high holidays. As they approached synagogues, congregants were greeted with Conservative posters with Mr. Harper wishing them a Shana Tova or Happy New Year or with the “fire and water slogan,” giving some the impression that these signs were actually endorsed by their synagogues.
Not everyone was impressed.
And not everyone in the Jewish community has been wooed. In fact, a significant portion of the community remains outside this romance, feeling disenfranchised from both what may be seen as the “mainstream” Jewish community as well as from the politics of fear.
But the voices are present. And they can be heard. They sing a song about tikkum olam or repairing the world, a traditional Jewish value that one might think has been lost with the Conservative romance.
I have discussed Canada’s refugee policy at numerous events in the Jewish community. I am heartened not only by the support for fair treatment of refugees, but also by the groundswell of interest in restoring social justice in Canada.
Recently, the Toronto Board of Rabbis stated that the government must do more to assist refugees. Then, the Jewish community woke up when faced with the largest humanitarian disaster in decades, the Syrian refugee crisis. More than a dozen synagogues are reportedly sponsoring Syrian refugees. Jewish Immigrant Aid Services held an information session about sponsoring Syrian refugees for the Jewish community.
And Jewish voices sing out not only about refugee issues, but also about the politics of division that has most recently emerged as anti-niqab rhetoric.
Given our history, rather than being paralyzed by the politics of fear, many people in the community have chosen to act. Based on a moral imperative to take a stand because of our history as a vulnerable people, people have chosen to speak out against creating hierarchies of worth.
Last week, after a discussing how the Conservatives have engaged in a step-by-step decimation of our refugee, immigration and citizenship laws, a person commented: “When politicians speak, now I know how to listen."
I see hope in these voices. Hope that at least for some of us, Jewish values will prevail when we cast our votes.
Maureen Silcoff is an immigration and refugee lawyer and a co-founder of the Jewish Refugee Action Network.