Black, Jewish Communities Join Forces to Combat Racism

Sept. 22, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Two communities with long histories of persecution are linking arms to push for a better future.

B’nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce have signed an agreement to collaborate on efforts to end antisemitism and racism in the country.

The deal, signed in a special ceremony Sept. 16 in Toronto, commits both groups to share their knowledge and strategies for attacking their common problem.

“It is easy to get swept up in the divisiveness rhetoric that that often accompanies political discussions,” said B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn. “We are coming together today to reject divisiveness and together forge an uplifting, positive and concrete path for the future of our communities.”

Andria Barrett, president of the two-year-old Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce (CBCC), said B’nai Brith’s long history of advocating for the Jewish community will help her organization in its struggle.

“We see B’nai Brith as an ally in our quest for equality, equity and opportunity,” she said. “This is an important partnership that will amplify the efforts of both organizations.”

B’nai Brith, Barrett said, “has demonstrated time and again that [it is] skilled at advocacy.”

Canada’s Black and Jewish communities have a long history of working together. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1909 in Niagara Falls, Ont., and in the infancy of the 1960s civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr., Jewish groups marched with their Black neighbours.

“For generations Jewish Canadians and Black Canadians have stood side-by-side in our efforts to oppose discrimination and build a brighter future,” Mostyn said.

That support famously included Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with King. Another involved Hamilton Rabbi Eugene Weiner, who organized a group of local clergy to fly to Selma, Alabama, where images of white police attacking peaceful protesters ignited a wave of protest.

Despite sharing goals and methods, the relationship between the communities has always been informal. Now, the leaders said, swelling anti-Black racism in the United States and antisemitism growing around the world made a formal alliance important.

“After the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we realized we were at a turning point in our history,” said Aubrey Zidenberg, chair of the Special Advisory Committee to the League for Human Rights.

“Both the Jewish and Black communities have suffered through years of racism, injury and exclusionary policies,” he said. “Together we can collectively achieve great things in this magnificent country of ours.”

Beyond protest marches and briefs to government, both groups hope to use their shared skills to foster positive growth in the country. A special focus will be on efforts to improve the economic situation of marginalized communities.

“It is far too easy, especially in these troubling times, to complain and yell and scream and sometimes to bring things down without having answers for some very serious societal problems,” Mostyn said. “We are both looking to make a real difference across this country.”

Editorial: Don’t Let Ignorance Prevail

July 29, 2020 –

John F. Kennedy once noted: “The rights of everyone are diminished when the rights of one are threatened.” It’s hard not to think about Kennedy’s words when dissecting the present leadership run of Annamie Paul to head the federal Green Party of Canada. As reported in the CJR on July 27, Paul is Jewish and Black.

There is little doubt she has the right stuff to run for leader. A Princeton University graduate, lawyer, and the international affairs critic for the party, Paul has been a loyal member of the Greens for years. Sadly, her run for some seems more about her Jewish faith and the colour of her skin than her abilities to hold the position.

According to Paul, she, along with another woman of colour running for the leadership of the federal Conservative party*, Leslyn Lewis, have been the victims of anti-Black racism, and in Paul’s case, this has also been mixed with Jew-hatred. These verbal attacks were hurled anonymously during Zoom leadership debates. The parties are investigating, and if it turns out that the bigot responsible is a Green or Conservative member, he or she will be immediately tossed.

That is very clearly the correct course of action, but why must it come to this in the first place? We are always left aghast at the level of ignorance and intolerance that emerges from time to time in the public sphere. And frankly, it wasn’t always this way.

There have been a number of high-profile politicians, from former federal NDP leader David Lewis; his son, Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis; former Ontario PC Leader Larry Grossman; one-time federal Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, and others whose Jewishness was rarely, if ever, an issue.

Of course we are not blind to antisemitism in this country. It’s always been with us but it never really seemed to permeate the politics of the nation. So why now?

For one, our technologically advanced era provides a new ease with which racists may transmit their venom – anonymously to boot.

As well, Canada and the rest of the world are facing a pandemic. This is unprecedented. We have been locked down, afraid, anxious and deeply concerned for our future. At such times, we see both the best and the worst of people, and we see it magnified many times over.

This is as true for politics as anything else. As a Jewish community, we must continue to hold our head up high. We are a diverse group of people and perhaps this pandemic and the tumult it has created will help us focus.

People of colour, no matter their faith or place of origin, have most notably on this continent faced bigotry, oppression, and slavery, and have lived in fear of its consequences. We need to stand tall with leaders like Annamie Paul and Leslyn Lewis. Despite their party’s problematic stance on Israel, their presence on the national scene gives us all hope for the future.

*This corrects an earlier version of this editorial, which said Leslyn Lewis was running for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. The CJR regrets the error.

The Nine Pillars of ‘No Silence on Race’

July 14, 2020 – By ALEX ROSE

When conversations about race, oppression and privilege exploded across the world following the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, they made Sara Yacobi-Harris wonder to what extent the broader Canadian Jewish community was concretely addressing its own instances of racial discrimination.

In the midst of this “racial reckoning,” Yacobi-Harris, a Black Jewish woman from Toronto, founded the campaign, ​“No Silence on Race​,” which calls on Canadian Jews to “commit to the creation of a truly anti-racist, inclusive and equitable Jewish community.”

Sara Yacobi-Harris

Yacobi-Harris established the effort with two other activists, Daisy Moriyama and Akilah Allen Silverstein.

On June 30, the campaign published ​an open letter​ “from Black Jews, non-Black Jews of colour and our allies, to Jewish organizations in Canada.”

The letter lays out nine pillars to guide organizations in making structural changes to combat racism and actively make mainstream Jewish spaces truly inclusive and equitable for Jews of colour. It also asks them to publish statements of their own outlining how they plan to meet those goals by July 29.

Yacobi-Harris said the campaign was necessary for “many, many, many reasons,” including the lack of representation for Jews of colour in most Jewish institutions.

“It’s about seeing ourselves represented in Jewish spaces, and seeing ourselves represented in Jewish literature and programming and histories that we celebrate,” she said, before quoting the beginning of the letter: “We are Jewish community board members, educators and leaders. We write from a place of love for our Jewish identities and our community, while also grappling with the cultural erasure, exclusion and structural racism that we experience in Jewish spaces. Nevertheless, we are compelled to be in Jewish community because it is who we are.”

Although the campaign is new and specific to the current collective Jewish experience, Yacobi-Harris says Jews of colour have been dealing with these issues for a very long time.

They often avoid mainstream Jewish spaces because they are not always received equally, sometimes even experiencing overt racism. For that reason, there are a number of Jews of colour who have devoted their entire lives to ensuring that Jewish spaces are inclusive and hospitable for Jews of colour.

As important as their work has been, though, Yacobi-Harris says real, comprehensive change isn’t possible without everyone committed to a unified goal.

That’s why the first pillar of “No Silence on Race” ​is “allyship.”

“Allyship is earned through trust, through action and through impact.” Yacobi-Harris explained. “You can implement as many policies and strategies and initiatives as you want. But if the culture doesn’t shift within our community, the conversation doesn’t shift, we don’t talk about our individual responsibility, then eventually the policies and strategies will hold less weight and be less meaningful. That’s why we need people behind it who truly understand their individual role in creating change in our community.”

After allyship, the next pillar is education, which is about engaging with issues at all levels of an organization and systematically implementing policies, strategies and initiatives based on education and training from consultants who are Jews of colour and other people of colour.

The other seven pillars include investing in a leadership strategy for Jews of colour, working with an equity consultant, and committing to more programming and partnerships with a more diverse range of cultural institutions.

So far, Yacobi-Harris says the response has been very positive, with people and organizations reaching out to learn more about continuing the work of anti-racism and equality.

“No Silence on Race” has heard a lot of people thanking them for the work they’re doing, saying the community needs it and people want to do more.

The response to the campaign, combined with the climate of open conversation that precipitated it, has left Yacobi-Harris feeling hopeful about the work Jewish institutions will do to make themselves actively inclusive for Jews of colour. After all, she wouldn’t have put the effort into creating this initiative if she didn’t think it could make a difference.

“People do see this work as extremely important,” she said. “And they do see the gaps that exist in our community and how much work we all have to do. And how beautiful and inspiring and supportive and important this initiative is.

“And so, having received that feedback has made me hopeful that change is coming, that action is coming and that this commitment is important for everyone and for our community,” she said.

Yacobi-Harris also encouraged representatives from Jewish organizations to contact nosilenceonrace@gmail.com to set up a meeting or have a conversation about how to best implement the nine pillars.


As the World Grapples With Racism, Israel Seeks to Empower Ethiopian Youth

By SHARON GELBACH

The growing protests against racism in the United States have aroused strong feelings worldwide, and Israel is no exception. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of prejudice and being treated as second-class citizens.

Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s national hospital, enjoys a global reputation for medical innovation, but many are unaware that it is also at the forefront of helping to integrate members of various minority groups in Israel.

In the past several years, Sheba has integrated hundreds of new Ethiopian olim (immigrants) into the hospital workforce, going as far to provide them with free classes to help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy and improve their language skills.

Most recently, Prof. Eldad Katorza, senior physician at Sheba, decided to give youth from the Ethiopian community a head start by folding them into a pilot program within “Project Arrow,” which he directs.

“Project Arrow” (chetz in Hebrew, the initials of chokrim tze’irim, meaning “young researchers”) is an apprenticeship program for medical students designed to pave their way into the world of medical research.

Established in 2006, the initiative matches select medical students with experienced researchers to serve as mentors. During once- or twice-weekly meetings, the student-mentor team works through every stage of medical research, from formulating the initial question, to collecting and analyzing data, to presenting the results at medical conferences.

This year, for the first time, each research duo included a third tier: high school students from the Ethiopian community.

Katorza believes in the importance of encouraging students to pursue research, noting that in medical school, they do not receive sufficient exposure to research thinking or methodology.

“I believe that research makes a doctor more knowledgeable, more curious, more creative,” he said. “A doctor who engages in research is a much better doctor.”

Employing this premise, Katorza now plans to open several slots for nursing school students in the coming year’s program.

“Nursing is also a field that stands to benefit greatly from adding researching to its ranks; it will raise the bar of nursing in Israel,” he said.

Even in the early stages of planning the pilot program for the Ethiopian high school students, it quickly became evident to Katorza just how crucial, timely, and challenging his initiative was.

“I asked my son, then in 11th grade, to look around his own school in Givatayim for students from the Ethiopian community who might be suitable for the program,” said Katorza. “As it turned out, there wasn’t a single Ethiopian student in his school, nor in any of the good schools in the area.”

The reason can be traced to the socioeconomic realities in Israel today. By and large, members of the Ethiopian community tend to dwell in poorer neighborhoods where community services and schools are on a lower level.

These conditions put Ethiopian teens at a disadvantage from the outset, and due to economic necessity, youth are pushed to join the workforce at an early age, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

“Almost four decades have passed since the first wave of Ethiopian aliyah,” observed Katorza, “yet judging from their rate of participation in academia, their level of affluence and other markers of social mobility, it appears that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to help them bridge the gaps and facilitate their successful absorption into mainstream Israeli society.”

Anxious to change that trend, Katorza decided to include outstanding students from the Ethiopian community in “Project Arrow.”

But it wasn’t simple to locate high school students from the Ethiopian sector who met the criteria for participation in the program: High marks in the sciences, high motivation and interest, and living near enough to the Sheba campus to attend weekly meetings.

Ultimately, Katorza was aided by an organization called Fidel (“alphabet” in Amharic), which promotes the education and social integration of Ethiopian-Israeli youth.

The Fidel staff welcomed the opportunity to incorporate Ethiopian students into the program, and provided 10 candidates, from which the top five were chosen.

Katorza said the pilot was a resounding success and will be repeated in the coming year.

“We found that once they are freed from the limitations of their environment, the students manifested amazing capabilities,” he said. “We endeavored to help build their self-confidence, empower them, and teach them that they can do anything they put their mind to.”

Throughout the year, in addition to their full participation in research, the Ethiopian high-schoolers were also exposed to clinical activity at the hospital.

“At the beginning of the year, the students didn’t have any specific plans for the future,” Katorza said. “Now, they are now seriously considering a medical career.”

One of those is Yair Jalmar, 17, from Beer Yaakov, who participated in a research project with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Shai Tejman.

“This project helped me develop my interest in medicine and learn more about the advanced technologies and devices as well as the various departments in the medical field,” Jalmar said.

Former participants in the Arrow Project have gone on to publish their findings in prestigious medical journals, and several have joined the team at Sheba.


Sharon Gelback
Sharon Gelbach

Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1982. She is a writer, editor and translator and lives with her husband and family in Jerusalem.

My Jewish Experience: Creating Allies in the Fight Against Anti-Black Racism

By AKILAH ALLEN-SILVERSTEIN

When people see my last name, “Silverstein,” there is no mistaking it: My Jewishness is obvious. But the question is, more often than not, “So, I guess you’re married to a Jew?” I am light-skinned and wear a Star of David, so the assumption that I could not be mixed race is odd. My favorite is when I’m asked, “How did that happen?” While I generally hold my tongue, I often want to respond, “how did your parents conceive you?” to point out how ridiculous that question is.

My parents with me and my sister, Kitchener, 1992; Sybil, Akilah, Barry, Asha

While I realize there isn’t an overwhelming number of people who look like me within the tight-knit Jewish community, we exist and we’re not going away.

The questions started even before I was born. “I don’t know if we can be seen in a restaurant together, and what would you do with the children?” My grandfather had – let’s call them “questions and concerns” – when my father, an Ashkenazi Jew, introduced my Black mother, who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to his family.

My parent’s wedding, Guildwood, 1987, Sybil Allen & Barry Silverstein

I can comprehend his disappointment at her not being Jewish, but I can’t help but wonder that if she were white, would the concern of being “seen” have come up?

I was raised in the Caribbean in a predominantly Black society, and the only remnants of a Jewish community are a synagogue and cemetery from the 1700s on the sister island of Nevis. I visited Canada at least once a year and would spend lots of time with my father’s extended family. I have many wonderful memories of Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and trips out to London, Ont. to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins.

Me, my sister and my cousins, Kitchener, 1995; Asha Allen-Silverstein, Drew Silverstein, Kate Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein

I have a wonderful relationship with my father and his family. Even my grandfather came around. After he passed away, I was overwhelmed helping to clean up his apartment, decorated with numerous photos of me, my sister, and her son, his first great-grandson, his absolute favourite.

Me and my grandfather, Toronto, 2014; William Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein
Me, my baby sister and my grandmother, Kitchener, 1992; Roma Zwickle, Asha, Akilah

When I returned to Canada and completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to learn more and become more involved in the Jewish community. A Jewish coworker told me about Birthright Israel, and I was accepted on a trip in the spring of 2017.

I was nervous at first, assuming I would be the only Black participant. The voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had never gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah.

These fears were mostly unfounded. I wound up having a wonderful experience, and even celebrated my bat mitzvah on Masada. Meeting an Ethiopian Jewish woman and seeing many other ethnicities represented in Israel opened my eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people. And while I was the only Black participant on my bus, at least 15 others were from mixed marriages. I subsequently led a Birthright trip two years later.

Almog Tamim, Barak Berkowitz, Akilah Allen-Silverstein, Max Marmer (BirthRight, Israel, 2018)

My decision to lead a trip stemmed from my gratitude at being given such a wonderful gift, one that allowed me to develop a Jewish identity and be proud of my heritage in a way I did not understand before. I wanted to ensure no one feels like an outsider, and to remind them that being Jewish does not mean the same thing for everyone. I recently joined the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada’s youth leadership counsel.

This is my story, but I’ve haven’t always felt as accepted as I let on. Many people in the community still don’t see me as Jewish, and when they do, it’s only because I’ve had to explain my existence.

Instances of blatant racism towards Black people are still far too prevalent. I was recently getting to know a new friend. She’s Jewish and has lived in Thornhill for 15 years after emigrating from Israel with her husband and son. She adapted quickly to the community and had many friends and relationships. But when she and her husband divorced, and a few years after she began dating a Black man, she was shocked by the hurtful and racist comments and responses she received from many Jewish friends who she had previously thought were open-minded, kind and accepting.

Late last year, I attended a diversity and inclusion workshop where a Jewish lawyer spent considerable time venting her frustration and shock towards the openly and unapologetic vocal racism her parents frequently expressed towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour).

Why is this behaviour so troubling? As a community, we have suffered immense trauma, oppression, and discrimination in the form of antisemitism. What group understands better how propaganda, harmful stereotypes, and systematic forms of discrimination and dehumanization can lead to unimaginable horrors?

We have, in many ways, become an insular society that prides itself on protecting and preserving our cultural heritage and religious traditions. This is beautiful, and many aspects of such a tight-knit community fill the stories my father tells me of his upbringing in London’s Jewish community.

However, Ashkenazi Jews in North America have benefitted immensely from their “white-passing” privilege, ensuring that they have been able to bypass certain systemic forms of racism which have disenfranchised BIPOC. As a Black Jewish woman, I cannot help but feel hurt and frustrated at the overwhelming silence from the Jewish community on most issues of race and the overt perpetuation and participation of racist behaviours towards Black people in particular.

Our Jewish teaching of tikkun olam is a concept defined by acts of kindness to repair the world. It’s a fantastic calling and crucial responsibility to which I want my Jewish community to take the lead, and to call out and be true allies against any form of racism against BIPOC. 

While I have, for the most part, been made to feel welcome in many Jewish spaces, I often wonder if I were single and happened to be dating an Ashkenazi Jewish man, would his family accept me in time, as my grandfather had? Would my Blackness be an issue? Would someone in the family still be concerned about being seen with me in public?

I would be remiss not to mention that over the last few weeks, I have been inspired by the numerous posts, personal notes and a true commitment to listening, understanding and being part of the proactive change that I have seen from some of my Jewish peers.

I’m hopeful that meaningful change may come about as true allies are developed with friends who can support, fight for, and work to undo the systemic racism and oppression still facing BIPOC. As someone who proudly identifies as a Black Jewish woman, I am asking you to take a hard look in the mirror and decide which side of history you want to be on moving forward.

My dream is to see both of my communities united in the fight for equality, liberation and the right of self-determination for all.


Akilah Allen-Silverstein

Akilah Allen-Silverstein lives in Toronto. She is a Certified Financial Planner, passionate about community engagement, gardening, cooking, exploring the outdoors, and travelling.