Inside story'Maybe we were living in a fool's paradise'

Amid hostility and kosher restrictions, Canadian Jews fear their ‘golden age’ is over

The community is mounting a legal fight against restrictions that coincide with Israel-skeptic policies and expressions of antisemitism

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Demonstrators stage a pro-Israel rally in front of the Beth Avraham Yoseph synagogue in Toronto, Canada on March 8, 2024. (Courtesy of BAYT)
Demonstrators stage a pro-Israel rally in front of the Beth Avraham Yoseph synagogue in Toronto, Canada on March 8, 2024. (Courtesy of BAYT)

Canada began feeling inhospitable to Moshe and Leah Appel, a Jewish Orthodox couple from Montreal, long before October 7.

But the outbreak of war on that day between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the explosion of antisemitism it unleashed in Canada and beyond, “knocked down a couple of walls” that had been keeping the couple in Canada, Moshe Appel, a baker and father of three, told The Canadian Jewish News in a recent interview about his family’s aliyah, or immigration to Israel.

“That is the reality in Montreal, where if you are visibly Jewish, you’re not safe,” Moshe Appel told CJN in January following his move to Jerusalem the previous month. He cited multiple incidents of violence and intimidation against Jews, including at their synagogues and schools.

Whereas such concerns are not uncommon across North America and beyond, some Canadian Jews have begun to worry about the very viability of their community of some 400,000 people. They fear for its future amid growing hostility to Jews on the streets, antipathy in government toward Israel and bureaucratic regulation they say limits their ability to practice their faith.

A recent example of the regulation was the government’s introduction last year of new animal welfare-related limitations on kosher meat production, which prompted Jewish community activists this month to prepare a lawsuit focused on defending the practice.

Regardless of the legal action’s results and merits, however, many Canadian Jews view the move on kosher meat as fresh evidence that their society, which they had long considered a “golden medina,” as one rabbi called it, is becoming inhospitable.

Moshe and Leah Appel and their two children shortly after they immigrated from Canada to Israel in December 2023. (Courtesy of Moshe Appel)

“I think it’s the first knocking on the door for a Jewish community,” continued Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, the city’s largest Orthodox congregation. “It’s a sign that things are becoming less and less hospitable in this country for its Jewish population,” he told The Times of Israel.

The new regulations enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency prohibit hoisting animals for processing until they are completely immobile.

Orthodox Jewish law requires animals to be conscious and intact when their necks are cut. This precludes the use of stunning with a bolt to the brain, which is employed to instantly immobilize animals whose meat is not intended to be kosher.

This stunning allows for processing non-kosher meat many times faster than kosher meat, rendering kosher meat production unprofitable for businesses involved.

Since the guidelines went into effect, shechitah has stopped completely in the largest of the four abattoirs that Canadian kosher meat producers lease on an ad-hoc basis for shochtim to produce kosher meat there, said Korobkin. The remaining three cannot afford to continue much longer, according to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, an umbrella organization that represents Canadian Jews.

Illustrative image of a man preparing meat at a kosher slaughterhouse. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

The production of halal, meanwhile, continues despite the regulations because local Muslim communities don’t regard bolt stunning as preclusive to D’biha, the Muslim counterpart of shechitah. In animals used for halal meat, their necks are cut immediately after stunning and they are hoisted, motionless, for processing as they bleed out.

Taken on their own, the new regulations, which do not affect the production of kosher chicken meat, have a limited impact on kosher meat’s availability and price. Before and after the regulations, Canadian Jews have relied partly on kosher meat imported from the United States and Latin America.

Richard Robertson, director of research and advocacy at B’nai Brith Canada, the local branch of that Jewish human rights group, downplayed the scope of the shechitah problem. “It has an isolated impact on the lives of Orthodox Jewry in Canada,” he said.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he added, helped “expand the ability of our Orthodox community to practice their religion without encumbrance by rules or regulations,” Robertson, 33, said. The issues around shechitah, he added, were “a misunderstanding of the practice” by authorities.

Congregants pray at the Beth Avraham Yoseph synagogue in Toronto, Canada on March 24, 2024. (Courtesy of BAYT)

Loud and proud for 50 years… and counting?

Toronto and Montreal have vibrant Jewish communities whose growth – mainly due to immigration from Europe and especially the former Soviet Union – has made Canada one of only six countries that had a larger Jewish population in 2020 than half a century earlier. The ranks of Canadian Jewry swelled by a whopping 37 percent in those 50 years, making the community the world’s fourth largest with more core members than in all of Latin America combined.

Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, which is often indicative of malaise in Jewish communities, is relatively low for Canadian Jewry’s size, with an average of 361 newcomers a year in the years 2018-2023 (a 10% decrease from the average in the five previous years).

Robertson said that he has confidence in the future of Canadian Jewry.

Yet the meat regulation’s timing, which coincides with concern about the long-term future of Canadian Jewry, is making some view it as a harbinger that portends darker times. Many Canadian Jews had considered their country a haven from problems that are stunting Jewish life elsewhere in the West, and even those affecting the Jewish minority of the US.

Illustrative: Anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 9, 2023. (Cole Burston/AFP)

“Within all spheres of Canadian Jewish life, there are now attacks going on,” said Frank Dimant, the previous CEO of B’nai B’rith Canada. “Nothing is off limits anymore: Synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish institutions. They can all be under attack at any given moment,” he said.

Last week, a Canadian movie theater in Hamilton, Ontario postponed indefinitely a Jewish film festival due to unspecified “security and safety concerns” despite protest by the Hamilton Jewish Federation.

In November, bullet holes were found on the façades of two Jewish schools in Montreal. Police believe it was an act of intimidation directed at local Jews over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

At the city’s Concordia University, three people were injured and one was arrested that month following an alleged assault against pro-Israel students.

In another incident, a professor from the nearby University of Montreal, Yanise Arab, was suspended for allegedly shouting at a female pro-Israel demonstrator from Concordia: “Go back to Poland, whore.”

Build a wall?

Dimant said he is “not optimistic” about the future of Canadian Jewry also because of immigration, which amounts to almost 500,000 new immigrants per year in Canada, one of the highest rates per population of any country in the world. In 2023, Canada had 8 million immigrants with permanent residence, roughly a fifth of the total population.

About 1.7 million of those immigrants are Muslim, meaning that in Canada, unlike in the US, Muslims are a major demographic for politicians, and outnumber Jews 4 to 1. In Europe, the arrival of waves of immigration from Muslim countries has been followed by an explosion of antisemitic violence, among other societal issues.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, Canada, drives a rescue car donated to Israel during a visit to that country on January 24, 2024. (Courtesy of BAYT)

Similar phenomena are on display in Canada, according to Korobkin, the rabbi.

“A lot of it, unfortunately, has to do with the unbridled immigration policies of the current government, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East to immigrate without vetting them,” he said.

Many Canadian Jews support the government’s openness to taking in immigrants from less affluent countries, including Muslim ones, and dispute that doing so worsens Jewish communities’ circumstances.

“It is far easier to blame a newcomer than to determine the root causes of systemic issues,” Shelly Markel and Elise Herzig, the chair and director, respectively, of the Toronto-based Jewish Immigrant Aid Services nonprofit, wrote in a newsletter last month. Each year, their nonprofit holds a Refugee Shabbat event that “reminds us of the Jewish imperative to remain committed to humanitarian immigration,” they added.

Ripples of the war with Hamas

Meanwhile, the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel is resulting in anti-Israel agitation in Canada that is reminiscent of scenes from Western European countries with large Muslim minorities.

The hostility may have a chilling effect on Jewish life in Canada, but it is also emboldening some Canadian Jews to stand firm and push back.

“In recent months, I started wearing my Star of David [pendant] proudly wherever I go. And I’m not afraid anymore,” one student of Concordia, Dinah Elmaleh, told The Times of Israel.

Dinah Elmaleh walks across Hostage Square in Tel Aviv on December 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

For the Appels, who left Canada for Jerusalem, hostility was only part of the decision to leave, Appel told the CJN. While living in Victoria, where they had resided for years before moving to Montreal in the months before their aliyah, they encountered difficulties sourcing kosher dairy ingredients for their bakery. Leah had trouble finding modest clothing in Victoria, which has fewer than 5,000 Jews.

Quebec – the French-speaking province of Canada – is sometimes seen as less hospitable to Jews than the rest of the country for a combination of reasons, including anti-Israel agitation and local nationalism. (Quebec, where most Jews speak English at home, recently tightened legislation that facilitated enrolling some children to English-language schooling. This has complicated life for non-Quebecois rabbis whom the community needs to hire to maintain its growth).

Frank Dimant attends a pro-Israel solidarity rally in Toronto, Canada in November 2023. (Courtesy of Dimant)

Korobkin said, “They may be more boisterousness in Quebec against the Jewish population,” but this attitude is not unique to that province. The rabbi described the events in Quebec as manifestations of worrisome national trends.

Following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, in which its terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted another 253, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Hamas “terrorists,” adding that “no one in Canada should be supporting them, much less celebrating them.”

But his Liberal Party and government have since taken steps that signal their criticism of Israel, whose invasion of Gaza has left more than 31,000 dead, according to Hamas’ health ministry. The statistics are unverified and do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed more than 13,000.

Canada’s parliament passed this month a non-binding motion calling on the international community to work toward a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Canada has also frozen the sale of arms to Israel to ensure they are used legally.

File: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of talks with his Polish counterpart in Warsaw, on February 26, 2024. (Sergei Gapon/AFP)

The Canadian government may adopt a warmer stance on Israel if the Conservatives beat Trudeau’s Liberal Party in next year’s election, Dimant said. But any honeymoon with the pro-Israel contingent of Canada’s Jewish community “will be short-lived, because the pendulum will swing back the other way, to ‘woke’ society,'” Dimant said. Aliyah will increase, especially by Orthodox Canadian Jews, he added.

The anti-Israel sentiment is manifesting itself “literally on the doorstep” of Canadian Jews, Korobkin said. His synagogue for the first time in its history had demonstrators picketing outside it this month because it featured a real-estate show with assets on sale in Israel for immigrants. It was “offensive and disturbing,” Korobkin said of the protest by anti-Israel demonstrators.

“My community is terrified. We are being intimidated over and over by people protesting outside of Jewish buildings,” Benjamin Rubin, a former chair of Limmud Toronto, wrote in his blog in The Times of Israel Wednesday. The post is titled “Swan Song to Canada’s Jewish Golden Age.”

Combined, these developments are “almost like a shock to the system,” Korobkin said.

“This is really the first time that we’re seeing a convergence of multiple factors that are making Jews feel highly unwelcome in Canada, especially since October 7,” he said. “We’re starting to feel like maybe we were living in a fool’s paradise, and things are not the way we thought they were.”

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