by Judy Zelikovitz
(AJNews) – Passover is one of the most widely observed of Jewish traditions. Looking back at our long history, we gather around the Seder table every year to celebrate our ancestors’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. At that same Seder table, we look forward, retelling the story for our children of our exodus from Egypt to Israel, which, since Roman times, has been a communal, unfulfilled aspiration.
The Passover story is one of survival and courage. Led by Moses, the Jewish people wandered the desert for 40 years, choosing to face the unknown over further persecution and oppression by the Egyptians.
At the heart of the story, over these 2,000 years, are our tenacity as a people and our willingness to stand up to those who would do us harm.
Passover is also a time to take stock of where we are today.
Sadly, in 2023, even in Canada, Jew-hatred is still very much a reality. Only now it manifests not only in the streets but also in the virtual world – where social media has created a breeding zone for hate that has gone almost unchecked. And, as we have seen here and across the globe, what happens online can be an indicator of what is to come in the real world.
As online technology continues to develop and expand and the lines of our public and private worlds blur, hate is finding new means of expression.
In Canada, we have a Charter protecting, among many treasured freedoms, our freedom of expression. But Canada’s Charter of Rights is also our Charter of Responsibilities, and all freedoms come with limits. Dictating responsible use of our freedoms, those limits must apply to online communications.
Social media platforms both spread hateful ideas quickly to large groups of followers and mobilize those followers. The results are indiscriminate yet organized campaigns targeting, among others, Blacks, Muslims, LGBTQ2+, women, or Jews, who are trolled online, and, offline, threatened with violence.
In 2018 a man entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat Saturday morning services, murdering 11 innocent Jewish worshipers and injuring six more – the deadliest attack on Jews in US history. His own online history indicated strong ties to online antisemites.
This surge in online antisemitism has taken a celebrity turn with ignorant and hateful comments from Kanye West. His tweets do not just light up the internet. They engender real-world incidents of violence and hate, including spurring a group to fly a banner proclaiming “Kanye is right” over a busy Los Angeles highway and an attack on a Jewish New Yorker who was assaulted in Central Park by an individual yelling “Kanye 2024.” West has also defended basketball player Kyrie Irving’s promotion of a film linking Jews to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Weeks later, police officers arrested two young men who had threatened New York synagogues. Just hours before his arrest, one had tweeted “Jews owned the ships.”
Canada is not immune. In May 2021, during the Gaza war, online hate spilled onto the streets of Montreal when two young men were arrested after driving through a Jewish neighbourhood yelling slurs and threatening Jews – after posting their actions on TikTok.
Yet another Canadian example is the disturbing case of Laith Marouf, who has become infamous across the country for virulent, hate-filled tweets. They were disturbing enough that the government not only disavowed any future interaction with him but also sought to claw back previously distributed grants and change the responsible department’s funding process.
These are just a few of the many reasons CIJA has been advocating for legislation to address online hate. The time has come to tell online platforms that, if they cannot moderate online hate by shutting down those who post it, the government must step in. CIJA has demanded accountability. Freedom of expression is a cherished Jewish and Canadian value. But messages aimed at harming identifiable groups is not legal in the real world and it must be legislated against in the virtual realm.
We are hopeful that the government will indeed tackle harms from online hate with legislation, forcing platforms to take accountability for the content they leave up. We have advocated for a third-party regulator and that platforms become responsible for capturing, removing, and preserving – for prosecution – content that violates Canada’s hate laws.
Oppression comes in many forms. As we recall the story of Passover at the Seder table once again, let’s take a moment to remember our ancestors’ journeys and our personal responsibility to ensure that their will to fight oppression will sustain us today as it has for countless generations.
Judy Zelikovitz is Vice President, University and Local Partner Services at The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
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