In the week following the election of Donald Trump as American president, Canadian media was full of reports of racist and anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated north of the border.
In Toronto, posters promoting the “alt-right” appeared in one neighborhood. In a recorded and much shared incident, in the city’s downtown a man hurled racist insults and shouted, “Go Trump!” at fellow passengers on a packed streetcar.
Over in nearby Etobicoke, “It’s the Jews” was spray painted on the wall of a school. And in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, a teenager faced 20 charges after being arrested for defacing six different synagogues, mosques and churches with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti.
The obvious question on the minds of Canadian Jews is whether the anti-Semitic, racist, anti-LGBT and xenophobic rhetoric unleashed by Trump’s campaign and subsequent election is spilling over across the border. “Do we as Canadian Jews have anything to fear?” they asked.
The answer, of course, depends on who is asked.
‘We’re getting sort of an echo effect, I think, but it’s very different from being at the center of the boom’
According to the Toronto police’s hate crimes unit, there has not been any recent increase in hate crimes in Canada’s largest city since the US elections. Organizations like the Urban Alliance on Race Relations also said that although the spotlight has been newly focused on hate acts, these types of incidents have actually been there all along.
Additionally, University of Toronto political science professor Randall Hansen told the Toronto Star that it would be unlikely for Canada to see the same sort of rise in racist attacks that have been reported in the US since the election.
“We’re two or three degrees removed from the campaign that led to this sort of racist sentiment,” Hansen said. “We’re getting sort of an echo effect, I think, but it’s very different from being at the center of the boom.”
Nonetheless, the ripple effect of the reported incidents across Canada was strong enough to prompt politicians to speak out and reassure Canadian Jews.
On November 14, the an Ottawa rabbi awoke in the middle of the night to find a swastika and an anti-Semitic slur painted on her front door. The next day, Liberal MP David McGuinty addressed Parliament saying, “We were shocked and horrified to learn of the anti-Semitic incident targeting a local Jewish home in Ottawa just last night… This incident clearly demonstrates that anti-Semitism still exists in Canada and that all of us must be vigilant, speak out, and actively work together to combat it. We simply cannot let this kind of discrimination go unanswered, or worse, seep into the everyday lives of Canadians.”
Trudeau: ‘To the Canadian Jewish community: I stand with you. Our government denounces recent acts of anti-Semitism in the strongest terms’
Two days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter to express his solidarity with Canadian Jews. “To the Canadian Jewish community: I stand with you. Our government denounces recent acts of anti-Semitism in the strongest terms,” he tweeted.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada-United Israel Appeal, told The Times of Israel that it has no evidence that the Canadian incidents are linked to the US election. At the same time, the organization advised Jews to be vigilant.
“Canadian society and politics are distinctly different from those in the US. We’re not immune from the influence of American dynamics, but nor do those trends automatically cross the border into Canada. Observers should resist the urge to engage in speculation, and instead work to uphold the values we want to see reflected in our society,” a CIJA spokesperson said.
While political and community leaders seem not to express immediate worry about the situation escalating, those closer to what’s happening on the streets are less sanguine.
Corey Fleischer runs a power washing company owner and removes visual hate speech for free in and around Montreal. Eighty-five percent of what he blasts away is anti-Semitic in nature, and he removes at least one swastika every day.
“I’m getting contacted now more than usual because people are noticing the graffiti more,” said Fleischer, who has seen a twofold increase in queries since Trump’s election.
Fleischer said that while some of the hateful graffiti spotted by callers was old, a good deal of it was fresh. He’s also seen an uptick in social media postings of photos of anti-Semitic markings since Trump’s election.
“Stuff gets out on Facebook and Twitter that mainstream media doesn’t necessarily report on,” Fleischer said.
The view from the pulpit is equally unsettling.
‘Could this have happened a year ago? Of course, but there is a sense that permission has been granted’
Rabbi Yael Splansky of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple told The Times of Israel that her congregants’ reactions to Trump’s election “are on the spectrum of bewildered to concerned to terrified.”
To her mind, incidents like the one on the Toronto streetcar are proof that anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment has already spilled across the border.
“Could this have happened a year ago? Of course, but there is a sense that permission has been granted,” she said.
The rabbi, who is originally from the US, has heard some of her congregants compare Trump to the late Rob Ford, the controversial and boorish former Toronto mayor who had widely been accused of giving license to the hateful rhetoric of racists and homophobes. A headline in the Globe and Mail has even referred to Ford as “the Trump before Trump.” Like Ford, Trump is perceived as being out of his depth, and people fear things going from bad to worse under him, as it did during the mayor’s tenure.
Splansky said she thought most Canadians, like the passengers who filmed the incident on the Toronto streetcar and ushered the alleged bigot off at the next stop, are eager to distinguish themselves from Americans and distance themselves from what is happening south of the border.
Splansky worries, however, that any shift in the economy could change that.
The rabbi has addressed congregants’ concerns in her sermons, and she has also organized a “Community of Conscience” forum for early December for congregants to discuss what the news from the US means for “us as Canadians and as Jews.” There will be a facilitated conversation with Splansky and Professor Rob Steiner, director of fellowships in global journalism at the University of Toronto, as well as round table discussions prompted by Jewish texts.
‘We’re not immune from the influence of American dynamics, but nor do those trends automatically cross the border’
However, while Splansky is taking a proactive approach, other Canadian Jews, including some who either live or winter in the US, have more of a wait-and-see stance.
“I’m not worried. The US is way bigger than Trump will ever be. It won’t have any effect on my life,” said Michael Kerbel, a 76-year-old “snowbird” who escapes frigid Toronto with his wife for Florida’s warm climes for five months every year.
“I’ve never thought that Trump is an anti-Semite. Some of his followers, yes. But not Trump himself. People are overreacting. He won’t be able to carry through on his campaign promises,” Kerbel added, referring to the president-elect’s stated intentions to ban Muslims from entering the country, and to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out, among others.
Kerbel’s 49-year-old son Mark and his family moved from Toronto to San Diego five years ago. They have green cards and are planning to apply for US citizenship, with no thoughts of returning to Canada.
“No one’s moving to Canada for real,” Mark said, dismissing reports about an increase in Americans’ interest in immigrating north of the border, including some published on election night saying that Immigration Canada’s website crashed due to an excess of traffic.
In contrast, Splansky provided the example of a dentist in her congregation who posted about a job opening in his office and got three applications from Americans the morning after the election.
‘I’m more concerned about BDS than the KKK in California’
Mark said he was not at all afraid for his or his family’s safety.
“I’m more concerned about BDS than the KKK in California,” citing anti-Israel activity on West Coast university campuses. And just as he opposes anti-Israel protests on college campuses, he is also disfavors students’ walking out of classes to protest Trump’s election.
“Trump won. It’s called due process. They’d do much better to work to get a better [Democratic] candidate next time, and also to get a higher voter turnout,” Mark said, referring to estimates that 42% of eligible voters did not cast ballots in the US election.
Mark plans on staying in San Diego, but as a Canadian citizen he can always decide to return to Toronto.
Splansky said that several of the American Jews with Canadian landed immigrant status she knows want to be able to similarly choose and have applied for Canadian citizenship in the last two weeks. Regardless of whether or not there has been an actual increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Canada since Trump’s election, these American expats believe that having the option to stay permanently north of the 49th parallel is their safest bet.