Deborah Lyons (left) with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, December 2023. (Courtesy)
Deborah Lyons with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, December 2023. (Courtesy)
Interview'It’s the non-Jews who have to stand up for this battle'

Canada’s antisemitism envoy says Jew-hatred is at a high — and may get even worse

Six months into her role, Deborah Lyons sees an already dire situation exacerbated by the October 7 atrocities, saying the problem must be confronted at all levels

Deborah Lyons with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, December 2023. (Courtesy)

TORONTO — Deborah Lyons can be forgiven if she follows the news with trepidation since being appointed Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism last fall. Such is the alarming surge in Jew-hatred in Canada that reports about it appear regularly in the media.

“It’s clear from the data we’re seeing, particularly coming from police units across Canada, that there’s a huge increase in antisemitism in terms of hate crimes happening,” Lyons told The Times of Israel during a recent interview. “That’s without mentioning the so-called ‘awful but lawful’ incidents against Jews that we often hear about. I would say the level of antisemitism now in Canada is at an all-time high. It’s unprecedented.”

This week, B’nai Brith Canada published its annual audit of antisemitic incidents, showing a dramatic rise since the October 7 massacre, in which Hamas-led terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 252 to the Gaza Strip.

Based on cases reported to B’nai Brith, including through work with police, there were 5,791 documented acts of violence, harassment and vandalism targeting Jews in 2023, more than twice the total in 2022.

Non-Jews can no longer plead ignorance: Recently, the country’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, published an editorial that decried what’s been happening since October 7. Among the hate crimes listed in the article were the firebombing of a Toronto deli, shots being fired at a Jewish school, the vandalization of an Indigo bookstore because the chain’s founder is Jewish, and the targeting of Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues and businesses, as well as the vandalization of private homes with antisemitic images and words.

In recent weeks, inflammatory slogans at university encampments and in particular at anti-Israel rallies in Vancouver and Ottawa have added fuel to the fire.

“I want the Jewish community to know that I see and hear their concerns about the escalating antisemitic rhetoric and vandalism,” says Lyons. “I see their pain when at demonstrations, protest leaders call out, ‘Long live October 7’ and the crowd cheers. And I see the anguish of Canadian Jews when folks dismiss or minimize the fact that this chant and others like ‘Go back to Europe’ and ‘Globalize the intifada’ are being led by rally organizers. Amid this reality, I know that conversations are happening in homes and offices about the future of the Jewish community in Canada. It’s unacceptable and unfair that this should even be considered.”

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students and activists gather for an eighth day at an encampment on the campus of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, on May 4, 2024. (Alexis Aubin / AFP)

Canada was already grappling with a rise in anti-Jewish hate before the intensive surge in global antisemitism in the aftermath of the October 7 atrocities.

“Well before the Israel-Hamas war, antisemitism was at a high level in Canada,” says Lyons, 73, seated at a table in her Toronto hotel room during a working visit to the city. “Around 2018, it started to increase pretty steadily, and more so during the pandemic. It was on an uptick which then turned into a dramatic upsurge after October 7. As the [Gaza] war persists and until we get resolution, I think we’re going to continue to have a very heated environment.”

That might be a best-case scenario if there’s no change in the response of leaders.

“I believe we’re truly in a crisis,” Lyons adds. “I’m worried that not enough people are recognizing it, or if they recognize it, they’re bewildered about what they can do about it. I hope we’ve reached the sad peak of antisemitism and that it won’t get worse, but I don’t know. It will depend especially on how much our leaders step up to the responsibility they have in front of them.”

Deborah Lyons (right) with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his office, November 2023. (Courtesy)

Lyons, who’s not Jewish, acknowledges there’s no easy fix, saying that today’s situation cannot be resolved by a single level of government alone, nor the office of one envoy. Rather, she says, antisemitism must be confronted by leadership at all levels, which is why her office is working with mayors across Canada to encourage them to rally their communities around the cause.

A half-year into her role, Lyons now better understands what needs to be done after speaking with countless people about the situation and reading extensively. On her table was a copy of “People Love Dead Jews,” a 2021 book by Dara Horn that explores antisemitism and the commemoration of Jewish tragedy.

“We’ve got to continue working with schools, universities and law enforcement, addressing the social media platforms and paying close attention to the new legislation against online hate [known as the Online Harms Act] and making sure we have the data we need to have,” says Lyons. “In addition to the litany of things we’ve observed, we simply need to keep at it and to get more people engaged.”

A double-barreled mandate

Unlike her US counterpart Deborah Lipstadt, Lyons has a double-barreled mandate that includes preserving Holocaust remembrance in addition to fighting antisemitism. The former has taken a backseat to the latter due to the reality since she took office. With a larger budget this year of CAD 7.3 million ($5.3 million in US dollars), Lyons now has a greatly increased staff of seven people, four of whom are Jewish, including her deputy, Rachel Chertkoff.

Deborah Lyons, left, with US special antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt in Washington, DC, March 2024. (Courtesy)

“Currently, antisemitism represents the majority of my work, by far,” says Lyons. “But there’s often an overlap. With our work on social media, which is one of our top priorities, a big component of that is dealing with Holocaust distortion and Holocaust denial.”

Lyons also devotes time to Holocaust remembrance-related initiatives.

“We’re pushing forward on Holocaust education in primary schools,” says Lyons, who this month spoke at a Yom Hashoah ceremony at the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, as she did in late January at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Toronto’s City Hall.

“When I say education, I’m largely talking about mandatory Holocaust education that [provincial] education ministers — who we’re helping in every way we can — have already implemented or will be doing so while adding to learning about contemporary antisemitism. We’re doing work as well with the Holocaust museums across the country,” Lyons says.

Lyons confers regularly with her predecessor, former justice minister Irwin Cotler; his daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism; and Lipstadt. She’s also a member of the World Jewish Congress’s Special Envoys and Coordinators Combating Antisemitism Forum, which brings together representatives from 35 countries.

Deborah Lyons, center, with Holocaust educators Dahlia Libin and Marnie Bondar in Calgary, February 2024. (Courtesy)

Lyons understands the frustration of many Jews when public figures automatically include Islamophobia while discussing antisemitism, as if both were occurring at the same level in Canada.

“It’s really perplexing that people can’t speak out clearly and say, ‘this is antisemitism, it’s wrong, and it’s happening at an intense level in Canada that we’ve never seen before,’ full stop,” says Lyons. “And then, if there’s an issue of Islamophobia, you speak to that. This continuous connecting of the two is, I think, an attempt by politicians to create some kind of false balance, which frankly, does a disservice to everyone, especially to our Jewish community that’s experiencing much higher levels of hate crimes and hate incidents and intimidation than we’re seeing with Islamophobia. Why people simply can’t acknowledge that, I really don’t know.”

‘A wicked crush on a Jewish guy’

Born in New Brunswick in eastern Canada, Lyons has no memory of meeting anyone Jewish while growing up in the town of Miramichi.

“I don’t recall the first time I witnessed antisemitism but I do remember vividly, as a young child, first learning about the Holocaust,” she says. “I couldn’t process or decipher how something like that could have happened. I think that was one of the things that formed me as a young child, not being able to imagine that human beings deliberately killed 6 million Jews.”

Deborah Lyons, flanked by former antisemitism envoy Irwin Cotler, left, and recently retired Canadian supreme court member Michael Moldaver, lights Hanukkah candles at Canada’s parliament in Ottawa, December 2023. (Courtesy)

The first time she had contact with Jews was after leaving home to study at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where she earned a BA in biology.

“I had a wicked crush on a Jewish guy my first year at university,” she recalls nostalgically. “We would spend time together at the library on Friday nights. We were such nerds.”

One of the first things Lyons did after taking office last fall was travel across Canada to meet with Jewish communities to gain their perspective, establish a dialogue and see what they’re experiencing. Most of the country’s 400,000 Jews live in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Halifax.

She’s sensitive to the extreme anxiety among Jews after the shock and trauma of October 7 and from the disturbing increase in antisemitism since then. It helps that with her empathetic, personable and down-to-earth nature, she engages easily with people.

“Part of my work has been responding to the pain and agony and fear and insecurity the community is experiencing after October 7,” says Lyons. “We have to be acutely concerned about how people are feeling.”

After being selected as the new special envoy by the Trudeau government at the recommendation of Irwin Cotler, Lyons was supposed to take office last September, only to have it delayed until a week after October 7. Months earlier, she had entertained — but ultimately dismissed — thoughts of retiring after having worked for nearly a half-century, much of it as a diplomat, and spending more time with her grandchildren.

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

From 2016 until 2020, Lyons served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel, an experience that she remembers fondly and that she says helped her connect with Canada’s Jewish community. Still, Lyons initially thought that not being Jewish might prove an obstacle for her as special envoy.

“At first, as a non-Jew, I was concerned if I was the right person,” she says. “Then, it became very clear to me it’s not Jews who created antisemitism, which is enacted by non-Jews. How ridiculous to think it’s only Jews who should lead the fight against antisemitism. It’s the non-Jews who have to stand up for this battle.”

Lyons knows more is at stake than many people realize.

“Antisemitism doesn’t only affect the Jewish community,” she says. “Tolerance of antisemitism in a society is an indicator of the fragility of a democracy and the rise of extremism. For me, this work is something we’re doing to support our Jewish neighbors, friends, family, and loved ones, but also because if we can’t protect our Jewish community, we can’t protect anyone.”

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