Tuesday, November 3, 2009

British MP in Ottawa to Discuss Antisemetism and the Cesspool of the Internet

A few days ago, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a study showing that antisemitism in the US was at an all time low. Today, however, a British MP Denis MacShane, who is visiting Canada, published articles in the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post about what he sees as signs of a sharp increase in antisemitism around the world. This story was taken up and reported by the CBC who noted that MacShane is in Canada to provide testimony to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA).

The sharp contrast between the arguments of Mr. MacShane and the ADL are not necessarily contradictory. For example, the ADL survey may have been faulty, for any number of reasons. Mr. MacShane may have overstated the case (he is apparently the author of a recently published book on the subject) or he may be shining too powerful a magnifying glass on a small number of unrepresentative cases. There could also be a real divide between attitudes in the US and elsewhere.

The CPCCA, before which MacShane appeared on November 2, 2009 is not actually a government committee. Instead it is merely a coalition of Canadian MPs from all parties who meet to discuss antisemitism in Canada and how to confront it.

Having lived my whole life in Canada, and being very proud of where I'm from, I'm not sure I have ever encountered an act of antisemitism aimed directly at me. Of course, I have seen and heard of antisemitic incidents, but I, as an individual, was never the intended target, it was aimed more generally at the group to which I belonged. That being said, I always considered antisemitism to be a fringe position, held by a tiny minority of people. This may well be exactly the case. However, recognizing that they are not in any way a representative sample, when I read some of the comments of readers, and ostensibly ordinary Canadians on the Ottawa Citizen website or the CBC I shudder.

The Ottawa Citizen article written by MacShane lists a number of incidents he sees as a rise in antisemitism and opens with a reminder of a recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Ottawa, taking this incident as a signal of a resurgence in antisemitism. Some of the pearls of wisdom written on the site by readers are (all comments copied and pasted, no edits, no spell-check):

"We need to investigate why there have been many instances where Jews have been caught spraying hateful symbols on dormitories, synagogs and cemetaries."

"Why is there so much focus on the Jews? They comprise of about 4% or less of the world's population and yet they get a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Is this because they own almost all of the main media outlets and therefore control what is being said? (Thought control) This is very dangerous and I am happy that people are waking up."

"And the guy from Hungary was right about the global capital being Jewish capital, thats not anti-anything, the Elite Jews own just about everything there is to be owned... Maybe they are trying to destroy Hungary, have you ever been there?"

As well as a number of other comments saying, in a nutshell, it's not nice to vandalize a cemetery, but look at what Israel's doing in Gaza. As though the actions of Israel would in any way justify the defacing of an Ottawa cemetery with swastikas.

Over at the CBC, which merely reported on Mr. MacShanes Citizen article, neither Israel, nor Zionism nor anything in the middle east is mentioned even once. Nonetheless, comments immediately lash out at Israel. Some of the gems from the much longer thread of comments at the CBC:

"Tsk tsk tsk!! Some politicians are really taking us for idiots. “The beast of Anti-Semitism is on the rise”, they say, but yet, they don’t offer ANY explanations. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to face the truth!!! Since talking about illegal Israeli Occupation is no longer forbidden, in the Media world, and since more and more ppl get their info on the internet, I would say with certainty that there’s a direct correlation between the rise of Anti-Semitism and the truth coming out, about Israel’s ILLIGAL activities! But, you go ahead, Mr. Politicians, try to delude us from the truth and see where it will get you…don’t under-estimate our intelligence….you’re the one who should wake up!!!!!"

"Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Congo. Check out the numbers of people killed there? Don't they matter? No, because they are black and conveniently forgotten. The Jewish population, especially the Zionists, will be happy once again that their cause of the "great opressed" will be in the news again. How about other culture and genocides there. They should share the stage and this MP should talk about those also."

"Every time someone sais one peep about a jewish person it's ati-semitism. I think it's a load of crap. I despise the Nazis for what was done to 6 million Jews and countless others, but the fact that the holocaust happened does not give Jews the right to scream bloody murder every time someone shows disstain for there religion. I think every religion is retarted....in the eyes of some of these folks that makes me an anti-semetic nazis. Meanwhile who took over the fascist charge when germany was defeated??? The Jews and christians of Isreal and America!"

"Zionists love anti-semitism ( which is a misnomer. Arabs are semites.)"

And so on...

Many comments also deny that there is such a thing as antisemitism, pointing out that Arabs are Semites as well (true) but ignore the actual meaning of the word antisemitism in the English language: "hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group."

What is so shocking is that so many of these comments will gloss over real hatred and real intimidation of their fellow citizens, who happen to be Jewish, by simply lashing out at a political entity or policies they don't like. The willingness to, and the ease with which so many comments on these two websites ignore this hate crime and excuse hatred of a minority group that includes their neighbours is truly appalling.

It is similarly appalling, that these two websites, which claim to have moderated comments, allow this type of drivel to be published. Freedom of expression is, of course, a central Canadian value and it should not be limited, nonetheless, do these media outlets have standards that they're willing to uphold? Just because someone writes a comment, does not mean that it's worthy of being published.

I will be very interested to read what the CPCCA recommends and I hope they will provide worthwhile recommendations. In the interim, I remain concerned about some of the rhetoric on these mainstream media sites and would encourage those concerned to write to these outlets asking them to explain their online comment "moderation" policy and procedures and to bring some of these hateful comments, which slip past the moderator, to their attention.


Thermblog said...

The Ottawa Citizen link no longer has comments; do you think they've been deliberately removed? I'll try contacting them, as people should be able to see what's going on.

In 2003 (or so) Lowell Green brought up the subject of antisemitism on his CFRA show. There was an outpouring of hatred from callers; they just kept coming and most of the voices were not those of recent immigrants. Lowell played it over again the next day. I then realized that this thing was still with us, waiting to re-emerge.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...


Thanks for the comment, and welcome!

I just checked out the Citizen site and I see that comments have indeed been removed. I'm glad I've captured some of the more awful ones. Some of the comments were quite reasonable, but they seem to have all been deleted and I don't know why. This is not the ideal solution. Naturally, dialogue and free speech are fundamentals, but I am glad to see the virulence has been exorcised. I would encourage you to contact them and find out what happened. I'd be very interested to hear if you receive a response.

I listen to CFRA frequently (not because I like it, but because it's on in the car and I get my dose of news that way--I honestly find their commentors to be far too, shall we say, extreme for my tastes.) I wonder, do remember how Mr. Green responded to some of the more offensive comments that made it on air?

I have a friend who works for CFRA and asked her about the many callers who phone in on any given issue and begin their comments with: "I don't know anything about this subject, but I think..." I asked why these people are not cut off by the host before spewing uninformed nonsense (on any issue) and she said 1) people like to vent. She said how it's amazing how people will have long discussions with the show's producer before they even get on the air and 2) it makes for good entertainment. I think this is part of why some of these comments are able to be promulgated online.

I think, at the core of all this, is ignorance. I hate to break out the cliches, but how many of these horrible comments do you think were made by people who had never met a Jew? I would wager many. Many people simply have no contact with Jewish people or Jewish communities and so myths, half-truths and lies can take hold. It's so easy to hate and fear people you have never met and only hear about in passing, or don't pay attention enough to follow.

Thermblog said...

Thanks for the welcome Charlie.

As I recall, Lowell just let them rant after he realised what was going on. He usually gives people short shrift once he's labeled them an antisemite. With his last name he often gets mistaken for a Jew.

I have no idea how many people that day might not even have known a Jew but my experience suggests it makes no difference. Antisemitism is just an outlet for a tribal need buried in the psyche of humanity. For various reasons it's the most universal one. It exists in places where there are no Jews and among people with Jewish friends. You read the comments at the Citizen; with the excruciating logic on display, simply anything can be rationalized.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Thermblog, I'm a bit torn on whether or not I agree with your analysis. I firmly believe that exposure to the "other" makes a big difference in ones outlook and worldview. I've met people who didn't know I was Jewish for months had had never previously met a Jew. When they discovered I was Jewish, instantly, all notions of what they had understood a Jew to be--for better or worse--vanished. I also like to think that Anne Frank, writing in the worst of conditions was right when she wrote: "despite everything, I still believe people are basically good at heart."

On the other hand, yes it's true. People can rationalize anything they want and communities will band together against the outsider. This is probably true of all xenophobia and racism and not just antisemitism.

I still wonder though, how many people hold extreme antisemitic views. How representative are these people posting online and calling the radio? I've never called into a radio talk-show, but I have posted comments online, though I know I'm not representative of the average. It would appear to me that it's a small portion of the population that calls in to these radio shows and writes in to he news paper and often, it's done by people with some kind of a vested interest in the subject matter or those with too much time on their hands (I consider myself the former....the latter is certainly not the case for me!)

I am also reminded of Sacha Baron Cohen's skit where as Borat he gets ordinary people to sing "throw the Jew down the well." His response to that was that ordinary people were not antisemitic, they were just indifferent. So indifferent, that when it became fun, or the "group" thing to do, to sing this racist song, they would enthusiastically join in.

Perhaps this highlights that the real enemy is not ignorance alone. Perhaps it's also apathy?