Toronto·Analysis

Indigo bookstore vandalism sparks debate over definition of antisemitism

The vandalism of an Indigo book store in Toronto illustrates the challenges that may come with both defining antisemitism, and when anti-Israel actions or sentiment cross the line from legitimate protest to hate.

No consensus when criticisms of Israel cross the line into antisemitism, expert says

Protesters gather outside an Indigo store in Toronto, on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. The demonstration, organized by the group "Jews Say No to Genocide," gathered outside the bookstore chain owned by Heather Reisman, was partly in response to arrests made on November 10 after the store was vandalized with red paint and had posters plastered on its window, claiming the Jewish founder of the company is “funding genocide.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Protesters gather outside an Indigo store in Toronto on Thursday. The demonstration was partly in response to arrests made after the store was vandalized with red paint and had posters plastered on its window, claiming the chain's Jewish founder is 'funding genocide.' (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

For author and political activist Naomi Klein, red paint and posters plastered on an Indigo book store in Toronto, accusing the chain's founder Heather Reisman of "funding genocide" for her support of Israel, had nothing to do with the fact that she's Jewish.

"That's an outrageous slander," she said at a rally this week in front one of the bookstores in support of the 11 people charged in the incident.

Instead, Klein said, Reisman was targeted for her support of a program that provides free tuition for soldiers who serve in the Israel Defence Forces but which critics say is an inducement to get non-Israeli Jews to volunteer in the Israeli military.

"Whoever engaged in this activism was protesting the CEO of Indigo's political activity. Not her identity. Not her religion."

It's a position also taken by the Jewish Faculty Network, a group of professors across Canada concerned that legitimate criticism of Israel is being labelled antisemitic.

'Vile antisemitic attack'

But Reisman's Jewish background, say some members of the Jewish community, is exactly why she was targeted.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies described the vandalism as "a vile antisemitic attack." The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs compared it to the Nazi-incited riots of Kristallnacht back in November 1938.

Anti-war activists protest outside of the White House.
Activists outside the White House call for a ceasefire in Gaza on Nov. 4. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, the case is being treated as a possible hate crime because "the victim was specifically targeted because they are (or are perceived to be) Jewish, which meets the criteria of an identifiable group," a Toronto police spokeswoman told CBC News.

But whatever one's take, the incident suggests the challenges that may come with both defining antisemitism and when anti-Israel actions or sentiment cross the line from legitimate protest to hate.

Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, says it's important to recognize that there is no consensus about when criticisms of Israel cross that line.

"That's long been a subject of debate and disagreement," he said. "And I think that that's really intensified over the last few weeks."

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, agrees that it has gotten particularly complicated since Hamas's attack on Israel and the subsequent rise in both criticism of Israel and direct antisemitism that has targeted Jews in a variety of ways. 

She says her organization has repeatedly disagreed with Israeli policies and that it's totally appropriate for anyone to engage in such debate, whether in response to the war in Gaza or more broadly.

police tape in front of synagogue.
Police investigators examine the exterior of a synagogue in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., which hit by Molotov cocktails earlier this month. (Francois Joly/Radio-Canada)

What's been happening since the war started, however, is that some criticism of Israel has become explicit antisemitism, she says.

"The most obvious manifestation of that is the way or the ways in which Jews are being held collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government."

"We're seeing this in attacks on Jewish institutions, Jewish businesses, Jewish individuals," she said. "That is antisemitism. Plain and simple."

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, also questions how an individual or business — because of some connection to Israel — merits being targeted because of the policies of its government.

"Play that out using different labels," he said. "I'm opposed to a Canadian policy. Therefore, I'm going to target somebody who identifies as a Canadian for abuse or hate? That's a ludicrous proposition."

Antisemitic impact

Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee's U.S. director for combating antisemitism, says a remark might not be intended as antisemitic, and that person might not be an antisemite.

"But the words, or what's being said, could have an antisemitic impact. And that's really what the focus should be," she said.

For example, using the word "holocaust" to describe what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians in Gaza.

"We see a lot of that Holocaust distortion which I argue is actually a form of antisemitism — weaponizing the genocide of the victim group against them."

Dr. Phillip Berger of Toronto, who recently co-wrote a letter on behalf of Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism, says he recently saw a photo of a banner at an anti-Israel demonstration that said: "Supporting Israel is like supporting the Holocaust."

"How can one debate whether that's antisemitic or not?" he said.

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Berger says it's perfectly fine to criticize Israeli policies — that that is not antisemitic — but adds he believes many Jews in Israel and beyond feel threatened like they never have since the founding of the state of Israel.

"And it seems that only for Jews are they supposed to fight a deathless war with no destruction," he said.

"And who is to determine proportionality? Why is it only for Jews that the argument of proportionality always comes up?"

Alejandro Paz, who is on the steering committee of the Jewish Faculty Network, says he doesn't believe the definition of antisemitism has become murkier since Oct. 7. He said "there's nothing antisemitic" about protesting what some suggest is "genocide in the making" in Gaza.

He also says it's "demonstrably false" for some organizations to say it's antisemitic to use terms like "apartheid" or "decolonization" or "settler colonialism" to describe Israeli policies.

Michael Bueckert, the vice-president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, says he believes that people who've been involved in the work on Palestinian rights are very attuned to the history of antisemitism, how it operates in society and different potential pitfalls.

"People are always making these arguments about Palestine activism that people are forced to learn about what antisemitism is and are very keen to distinguish between talking about Zionism as a political ideology versus Jewish Canadians, for example," he said.

"And in making those necessary distinctions and not holding average Jewish Canadians responsible for what Israel does and all sorts of things."

Bueckert argues that pro-Israel voices constantly try to conflate the issues of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, rather than distinguish them.

He said businesses that are boycotted or targeted only if there's a direct link to the oppression of Palestinians, and that it's "really critically important that our activism doesn't tend to target Jewish people as such, that it's really important that that their strategy and ethics involve."

Waxman, the UCLA professor, says targeting such businesses gets tricky when targeting a business owner who is Jewish but also an outspoken supporter of Israel. 

"What's tricky is that because most Jews support Israel, these kinds of protests and actions end up targeting Jews and making Jews therefore feel unsafe and insecure.

"So they have the effect of creating an environment in which Jews feel unsafe and vulnerable, even if they're not actually motivated by antisemitism."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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