Editorial: Facebook, Holocaust Denial and a School Principal

Oct. 15, 2020

Well, Facebook has finally done the right thing.

According to a notice published over Simchat Torah, the social media behemoth is “updating our hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”

For an entity that prides itself on speed and freshness, this took a depressingly long time.

Jewish organizations from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have been imploring Facebook for years to take action against Holocaust denial and distortion. It took an immense push from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), which produced dramatic daily videos of Holocaust survivors, including from Canada, imploring Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to rid his platform of this toxic content for him to finally take action.

And for those who still believe that Holocaust deniers are simply ignorant white supremacists, consider the story of William Latson, the principal of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla.

During an email exchange in April 2018 with a parent, Latson insisted that Spanish River students could choose not to take Holocaust studies because “not everyone believed the Holocaust happened.”

He insisted that as an educator, he had to be “politically neutral.”

The parent was naturally astounded, maintaining that everyone knows the Holocaust is a historical fact. Apparently, not Latson, who responded in another email: “I can’t say that the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

The drama continued for months, with Latson finally being fired for continuing to make these claims. Just last week, he was reinstated with back pay, but will no longer serve in a teaching capacity (the school board voted to reinstate Latson 4-3, with the board’s only Jewish member strongly urging against it. Another member blamed the media.)

Holocaust denial has clearly not abated. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the world-renowned anti-hate institution, has described it quite properly as “an essential manifestation of antisemitism.”

That educated men like William Latson can take such public positions tells us that it’s not necessarily confined to the racist margins.

So there is no doubt that Facebook did the right thing. And perhaps by doing so, fewer more vulnerable minds than Latson’s will go unpolluted by hatred.

We’ll see. It’s still one thing for Facebook to enact the policy, but quite another to enforce it. If it does, Latson’s young charges will benefit, even if he doesn’t.

Antisemitic Priest Barred From Edmonton Archdiocese

Oct. 14, 2020

By JEREMY APPEL

An antisemitic Polish priest with an international following has been formally banned from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton after lobbying from B’nai Brith and Alberta’s former deputy premier, Thomas Lukaszuk.

Father Tadeusz Rydzyk runs the far-right radio station Radio Maryja, which has a television affiliate, Trwam, as well as a national newspaper and Catholic college. He has the dubious distinction of being denounced by two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for antisemitism.

Father Tadeusz-Rydzyk
Father Tadeusz-Rydzyk

In on-air comments in 2016, Rydzyk lambasted “synagogue-type behaviour” among some of his followers, and in private conversations, leaked to a Polish magazine said that then-Polish president Lech Kazcynski was taking orders from Jews. His radio station has also promoted Holocaust denial, with a guest in 2000 claiming that gas chambers at Auschwitz didn’t exist.

The station has also featured diatribes against “gender ideology” and the “Islamification of Europe.”

“Most anti-Semites are racist in many different ways,” said Abe Silverman, B’nai Brith Alberta Manager of Public Affairs, referring to Rydzyk as an “equal opportunity” bigot.

And Rydzyk isn’t a fringe figure. Poland’s ruling ultranationalist Law and Justice party has reportedly offered subsidies of about $7.5 million to affiliates of Rydzyk and Radio Maryja. The Polish post office printed a stamp in honour of Radio Maryja’s 25th anniversary in 2016, the Anti-Defamation League reported.

“He has a massive following,” said Lukaszuk, who served as deputy premier under former Alberta premier Allison Redford and is a dual Canadian-Polish citizen. “His following isn’t so much religious as it is political.”

Lukaszuk said there’s major overlap between Rydzyk’s followers and supporters of the government.

“He controls a lot of votes. That’s all there is to it. The current governing party before the election campaign literally goes to him for a blessing and he endorses him through his media, and that carries a lot of sway.”

Lukaszuk brought Rydzyk to Silverman’s attention when the priest celebrated Mass at Calgary’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in 2018, which was approved by the diocese.

In response, Silverman met with Archbishop Richard Smith to express his concerns.

“The effect of this was that virtually all churches and diocese in Alberta will no longer invite Father Rydzyk to preach,” Silverman said. “I was very well-received and treated with the highest level of respect.”

Since Rydzyk’s programs and speeches are in Polish, Lukaszuk says the archdiocese likely wasn’t aware of the full extent of his bigotry.

At the time of Rydzyk’s visit, Bishop William McGratton of the Archdiocese of Calgary said the priest had changed his ways, pointing to a museum Rydzyk founded in Poland dedicated to the stories of Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, and to a 2016 meeting he had with an Israeli ambassador.

But Lukaszuk said the museum offers a sanitized view of Polish history, downplaying the role many Poles played in carrying out Nazi atrocities. And according to Silverman, the Israeli ambassador reprimanded Rydzyk when they met.

When Rydzyk tours the world, he doesn’t just celebrate Mass but also sells tickets to lectures to raise funds for his various projects.

“If we can somehow cut off his funding by having churches agree not to invite him and give him money, then that’s a win for us,” said Silverman. “If we can successfully start cutting off his funding, and this has to be done on an international level, including the funding he receives from the Polish government, we can maybe put a stop to this guy.”

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Edmonton said it had no plans to bring Rydzyk back to Alberta.

“If a request was made, it would be denied given Father Rydzyk’s history of making controversial comments that at times have caused distress and division,” the statement read.

Silverman said the ultimate goal is to prevent Rydzyk from visiting Canada again.

“We will go to other jurisdictions that have Catholic leadership and we will have the same conversations with them, and little by little we hope to have Father Rydzyk banned from Canada period. There may be a time when we go to the federal government and make a case, and hopefully they won’t issue him a visa.”

Said Lukaszuk, “if this guy is offensive in Calgary, he’s offensive in Toronto too.”

– This article first appeared in the Alberta Jewish News, where Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

Editorial: May the New Year Bring Healing Stateside

Sept. 16, 2020 – As a New Year begins, it is time to take stock of the year we leave behind and determine what each of us can do to help shape a better world to come. Our tradition tells us that while we need not complete our work to effect change, we must not shirk from trying.

The Jewish year of 5780 has been the most challenging time since the end of the Second World War. Increases in world hunger, further climate damage, war, racial divide, hatred and extremism have all increased in numbers hardly imaginable even a year earlier.

And as this year draws to a close, the world is caught in the grip of a pandemic unseen since the Spanish Flu of 1918. All this happens at a time political leadership in many places seems incapable, unsympathetic, and in some cases, incompetent.

Nowhere is this in sharper relief than with our neighbours to the south. It used to be that no matter which of the two political parties held power, the office of president was revered and respected. With the ascension of Donald Trump, the United States has foundered to a knife’s edge of no return.

Never before have the American people elected a president as singularly unqualified for the job. In the last three and-a-half years, Trump has proven to be a racist and misogynist; an Islamophobe who tried to close the borders of his country to Muslims; has flirted with wild, extreme right-wing conspiracies; and divided his country to such an extent that ultra-conservative militias feel comfortable storming state legislatures with automatic weapons cocked and loaded.

During this presidency, we have seen protests in the streets in the wake of the shootings of numerous people of colour by police, while Republican Party apparatchiks seem oblivious to the fatal harm being caused by Trump.

And all this happens when COVID has taken the U.S. hostage, causing, as of this writing, more than 185,000 deaths, many of which were avoidable had the president acted sooner and had a plan. As we know by his own words in Bob Woodward’s latest book on Trump, Rage, the president was well aware of the dangers posed by the coronavirus, and openly lied to the American people in a hapless effort to avoid panic.

No less a light than Abe Foxman, former CEO of the most significant Jewish organization worldwide fighting antisemitism, the Anti-Defamation League, broke his self-imposed decision not to endorse or be publicly partial to any political candidate. Said Foxman in an opinion piece he wrote this week for the Times of Israel, “When our democracy is weakened, and nativism is stoked, the rights of Jews and other minorities will be diminished too.” He continued, ominously: “It may not happen overnight, but it will happen, and Jews know this from bitter experience.”

Foxman was sharp and critical outlining his fear of Trump and his minions adding that the president has “given succor to bigots, supremacists, and those seeking to divide our society…he and his administration dehumanize immigrants, demonize the most vulnerable, and undermine the civility and enlightened political culture that have allowed Jews to achieve what no Diaspora community outside Israel can claim in two millennia.”

Those in our community who support Trump point to his support of Israel, seen in the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and peace deals with Arab nations. But it cannot simply be about Israel all the time. The danger Trump poses to the entire world requires us to look well beyond our personal backyard.

Everyone has a role to play in mitigating an American disaster. It’s in our interest as Canadians, as it’s clear that where America goes, so goes Canada. While it may seem there’s little we as individuals can do, we still have a voice. We have collectively many relatives and friends in the United States, and now is the time to speak out and implore them to fix their country before it is too late.

The coming year – 5781 – can be a harbinger of a new and changed society only if we recognize the work that must be done. We don’t have to finish it this coming year, but we all must engage.

Shana Tovah Umetukah to all.

Editorial: Findlay Apology Not Good Enough

Sept. 2, 2020 – Who is Kerry Lynne Findlay and what did she do to anger so many Canadian Jews (and others)?

Findlay is the Conservative member of Parliament representing South Surrey—White Rock in the Greater Vancouver area. She’s a one-time parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice and served for two years in the Stephen Harper government as Minister of National Revenue.

Today, she is the Conservative environment critic who should have known better.

Last week, Findlay re-tweeted a short video of a 2009 interview then journalist Chrystia Freeland, now the finance minister, conducted with philanthropist and investor George Soros for the Financial Times. That in itself would not have raised many eyebrows, except that Findlay did a deep dive into the wild world of antisemitic conspiracy theories that place Soros at their centre.

About Freedland and Soros, Findlay had this warning: “The closeness of these two should alarm every Canadian.” Fellow Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Poilievre duly re-tweeted Findlay’s post.

Soros is seen by the underbelly of conspiracists – QAnon currently leading that pack – as nothing short of attempting to control the world, and as the embodiment of evil for donating to progressive causes.

According to the largest organization focused on fighting antisemitism, the Anti-Defamation League, Soros “has become a lightning rod for conservative and right-wing groups who object to his funding of liberal causes.” In far right circles worldwide, the ADL continues, Soros’ philanthropy is “often recast as fodder for outsized conspiracy theories, including claims that he masterminds specific global plots or manipulates particular events to further his goals.”

Many of those conspiracy theories employ longstanding antisemitic tropes, particularly that rich and powerful Jews lurk behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events, the ADL explains.

Soros is Jewish and a child survivor of the Holocaust. It was his survival that drove him to succeed, and he has become one of the wealthiest people in the world. He has also devoted his life and, it’s been estimated, more than $30 billion to following the Jewish dictum to make the world a better place.

Today, at age 90, Soros has become a hero to racial and ethnic minorities and those demanding necessary changes to the human condition.

The good news is that there was strong pushback from all sectors of Canadian society against Findlay’s tweet. Jewish organizations, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and many on Twitter criticized Findlay loudly and passionately. To her credit, she did offer an apology – of sorts.

Again using Twitter, Findlay wrote:

“Earlier today, I thoughtlessly shared content from what I am now learning is a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories. I have removed the tweets and apologize to anyone who thinks I would want to endorse hateful rhetoric.”

Kerry-Anne Findlay

This is a good start, but not nearly enough. Anytime Jews are connected to mindless conspiracy theories emanating from the far right, they are placed at risk. Findlay needs to go further and explain the context, reference the Jewish community, and let Canadians know the danger faced by Jews daily. A good word about the work of Soros helping countless individuals and causes would go a long way.

We must also add that Poilievre, as of this writing, has remained silent, as has newly-minted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Both could use this opportunity to speak out forcefully against Jew-hatred, but to date, have not.

Hate crime statistics consistently show that Canadian Jews remain the number one victim of haters and bigots. Surely Findlay’s response should reflect this reality, and both Poilievre and O’Toole would be wise to join the chorus against hate.

There’s always the tired old charge that Jews over-react to every little thing, and maybe this is one of them. Trust us: It’s better than the opposite.

Addendum:

According to a report in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 3, O’Toole said he learned of the issue after Findlay’s tweet had been deleted, adding that he spoke with some Jewish leaders to say that the Conservatives are a strong voice against antisemitism.

Editorial: Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Care About Holocaust Denial

Aug. 6, 2020 – No less a thinker than Homer Simpson once pronounced: “It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s that I don’t care.” It is difficult not to consider these words when confronted by the actions of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook.

Facebook is arguably the most important social media platform of our time – maybe the most influential information outlet of all time. It has brought together old friends and lost relatives; it has allowed for the continuation of friendships around the world; it has spawned groups dealing with everything from recipes to physics. But Facebook also has a dark side, which prompts our thoughts today.

In years past, in order for hate groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Holocaust deniers to spread their vile messages, they were mostly forced to stand on busy street corners, handing out their abhorrent messages. If two people walked away with a leaflet, it was considered a good day.

In 2020, all that is required for hatred to seep into our communities is a laptop and internet hookup. Consider numbers that would make legacy media hyperventilate: Worldwide, there are over 2.7 billion monthly active users of Facebook, and 1.8 billion people on average log onto the site every day – a 12 percent increase over just a year ago.

Facebook has been confronted often with requests to take more corporate responsibility by guarding against its use, or misuse, by hatemongers. From time to time, some individuals have been deplatformed. Sadly, the numbers are few and the will from Facebook seems weak.

For the Jewish community, the focus is on the numerous Holocaust deniers who use Facebook as their vehicle of choice to spread their poison. Those of a certain age might remember Toronto-based Ernst Zundel, who was once the largest purveyor of Holocaust denial material in the world. He would salivate today at how Facebook could distribute his lies.

It may seem unbelievable, but Facebook has consistently refused to recognize Holocaust denial as a violation of its “community standards.” Indeed, consider the opening statement of the site’s terms of reference for its standards when it comes to hate speech:

“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Zuckerberg explained in a 2018 interview: “I don’t believe that our platform should take that [Holocaust denial] down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” notably adding, “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong…”

News flash for Mark Zuckerberg (who was raised in a Jewish home): Holocaust denial is not just getting historical facts “wrong,” it’s intentional all right, and the most contemptible form of Jew-hatred imaginable.

In recent weeks the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, has begun a campaign dubbed #NoDenyingIt!

It’s an online campaign “to ensure the voices of Holocaust survivors are heard by Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and that is: ‘Holocaust denial posts on Facebook must be removed!’ As one survivor put it, ‘They are calling us liars. We are witnesses,’” the Claims Conference stated.

Holocaust survivors have been sending short videos every day to Zuckerberg demanding he stop this hatred. It’s horrible that in the dusk of their lives, these elderly men and women must ask Facebook to do the right thing. It’s time for Zuckerberg to stop doing a Homer Simpson and to show he understands – and cares.

Questioning the Two-State Solution: A Dilemma for Progressive Jews

By JEFFREY WILKINSON

Recently, liberal Jewish thinker, journalist and teacher Peter Beinart wrote a highly provocative article in the journal Jewish Currents, followed by a shorter piece in the New York Times calling the two-state solution “dead” and advocating for a binational state with equal rights for all.

In his longer piece, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Beinart reflects on moments in Jewish history where seismic shifts happened in religious and cultural practices that may have seemed threatening at the time, but were instead movements that propelled us to be better and stronger. So how will we respond to Beinart’s call for another seismic shift in our thinking and practice?

Predictably, there were rebuttals from many sides, including complete rejection from the more rigid advocates of Israel, calling Beinart irrelevant. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went so far as to call him antisemitic (a rich claim to be aimed at a devout Jew).

The focus here is on the response from the “progressive” Jewish community. While the term “progressive” encapsulates a wide swath of Jewish thought, I refer specifically to the large numbers who refer to themselves as Zionists but also voice concern, to varying degrees, over Israeli government policy, particularly in terms of the occupation, settlements, possible annexation, and Palestinian human rights. Beinart has long been a part of this progressive Zionist movement, though he has been retreating from the two-state camp for some time.

He makes three key points. The first, holding on to the two–state solution, based on today’s political realities, including the lack of viable left-leaning political movement supporting it, is akin to supporting the status quo indefinitely.

Second, a binational state has been successfully achieved in other places in the world, so it is attainable.

Lastly, the focus on Israel as the liberation of the Jewish people and the only “insurance policy” against another Holocaust can no longer be used as the sole justification for defending injustice and inflicting suffering on Palestinians.

The dilemma for progressive Zionists is that if the very idea of “progressiveness” is to be willing to challenge the status quo and resist injustice, how do we respond when we ourselves are being called out for maintaining the status quo? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on why so many are resisting Beinart’s call for a re-examination. Is it not innately “Jewish” to reflect and re-examine?

While there are layers to dealing with this dilemma, we must begin with what I would offer is the root of the challenge: Trauma. Historical trauma, present trauma, and the fear of future trauma.

The challenge that Beinart’s article presents for progressives is really a challenge that is already baked into the idea of progressive Zionism: To be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. I would suggest there is an existing irresolvable tension in supporting Palestinians while also supporting the very institution that oppresses them.

In spite of these seemingly incompatible goals, there are many deeply committed to this trilateral cause to support peace, support Palestinians, while remaining steadfastly Zionist. I have struggled with these contradictions for many years. To deal differently with Beinart’s call, and with the two-state dilemma more broadly, we need to deal with the built-in contradictions in our “pro-pro-pro” stance.

The key to this journey, in my own experience, is in recognizing that that this “pro-pro-pro” commitment is viewed through a 1967-forward lens. If we dig more deeply into this, it means viewing Palestinian oppression only in terms of settlements, the occupation, and the daily injustices that the Israeli government and military inflict on Palestinians.

The two-state solution is entirely a ’67–driven solution: Returning to the pre-’67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation, and resolving the settlement issue. This allows us to maintain Israel without acknowledging or addressing the core trauma for Palestinians: 1948.

It is, in many ways, a “have our cake and eat it too” solution. Yes, it does involve compromise from us, but not in terms of trauma. We get to have our liberation from trauma (Israel), without deeply addressing Palestinian trauma.

There have been many responses to Beinart’s article from Jewish progressives. They centre on the idea that abandoning the two-state solution is tantamount to cultural suicide. In a recent webinar, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of JStreet, a strongly progressive lobby group in the United States, asked Beinart why he would “abandon the Jewish State at a time Jews are under such threat?” That this fear of impending trauma continues to dominate the progressive Jewish narrative means that we have not found a way to deal with the central contradiction of being supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.

To face Beinart’s call head on, we need to be able to see justice for all as a response to the genesis of the trauma for Palestinians. We need to examine whether our call for a two-state solution is in fact “progressive” or is it clinging to the status quo? We need to ask if the binational state is really the existential threat to Jews that we have made it out to be. Granting that this is a genuine fear, does holding on to the status quo create greater safety for Jews in the long-term, and even if it does, is it a just solution for all, including Palestinians?

While I agree with Beinart and have come to similar conclusions myself some time ago, my purpose here is to remind us that re-examination is an essential tenet of our tradition, and that we should never feel that the call to question is inherently dangerous. We are strong enough to have this difficult conversation with ourselves and we must have it if justice for all is indeed our guiding light.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.