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Investigation: The antisemitism that Oct. 7 unleashed in Canada

A gunman shoots at a Montreal Jewish school. A Jewish-owned grocery store is set on fire in Toronto. In Ottawa, police disrupt an alleged terrorism plot against the Jewish community.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has sparked a dramatic surge of antisemitism across Canada, according to a Global News investigation based on documents, interviews and figures compiled from police forces.

Homes, businesses, schools, places of worship, neighbourhoods and institutions have all been targeted in what community leaders are calling an unparalleled spike in hate crimes against Jews.

In addition, Canadian intelligence reports warn that Jewish community centres, day schools, synagogues and grocery stores are among the “possible targets” of “increasingly likely” extremist attacks.

Antisemitic incidents have jumped in every major city, police figures show. (The government defines antisemitism as a “certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”)

In Toronto, they more than doubled to 132 last year, while those against the larger Muslim population grew to 35 from 12, and the LGBTQ2 community was targeted 66 times.

Reports of antisemitism also increased more than twofold in Halifax, to 18 from seven in 2022, according to police. Alberta’s two biggest cities saw a rise to 45 from 25 the year before.

Most were in Calgary, where there were 27 incidents, up from 15, while in Edmonton the numbers went from 10 in 2022 to 18 — with 15 of those occurring after Oct. 7.

Ottawa’s Jewish population numbers just 15,000 in a city of one million, but was the most targeted group for hate, accounting for one out of every five incidents in the capital last year.

On the West Coast, there were more antisemitic hate crimes in Vancouver after Oct. 7 than in all of 2022, which the city’s police department attributed to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” said Nico Slobinsky, Pacific Region vice-president at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “We have seen the mainstreaming of antisemitism.”

“We see it in public spaces, in private spaces. We see it in the workplace, in schools, on university campuses. We see it sometimes being manifested even in interpersonal relationships with people you consider your friends.”

Just one per cent of the country’s population, Canadian Jews were already disproportionately the victims of hate crimes before Hamas launched its armed assault, and the Israeli military responded in Gaza.

But something happened after Oct. 7 that has brought it into the open in ways uncharacteristic of a diverse nation that prides itself on tolerance and the embrace of multiculturalism.

“It’s almost like a world gone mad,” said Rabbi Menachem Karmel, principal at Yeshiva Gedola, a Jewish elementary school in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood.

On Nov. 9, bullets hit the school entrance. Three days later, it happened again. Students were not in class at the time and there were no injuries, but the community was taken aback.

The shootings caused “a lot of panic,” said Karmel. Police have not made any arrests. The school has had to install security cameras and floodlights.

The incident was among 131 antisemitic hate incidents in Montreal between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30, according to police.

It is also the kind of attack that intelligence officials caution about in documents obtained by Global News that assess the potential for violence in Canada stemming antisemitism and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

In intelligence briefs released under the Access to Information Act, the Canadian government’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre said violent extremists were spreading antisemitic rhetoric.

Using social media as their “main pathway,” extremist influencers have praised Hamas and disseminated antisemitic content and conspiracy theories that incite violence, according to an Oct. 12, 2023 report.

“The narratives encourage hate crimes, violence and terrorism,” said the report, titled Canada: Trends Influencing Antisemitic Violent Extremism.

A report issued two weeks later predicted the Israel-Hamas conflict would “exacerbate the current steady increase in hate crimes targeting the Jewish community in Canada.”

“Violent rhetoric celebrating the Oct. 7 attack and encouraging like-minded individuals to conduct lone actor attacks could inspire individuals to conduct attacks targeting Israeli interests or the Jewish community,” it said.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Karmel said he was glad his grandparents were not around to witness the turn of events in Canada.

“To see this happening again, it’s terrifying,” he said. “It’s hatred.”

Marcus Stiller has never lived in Israel, but as a Canadian Jew, he hung an Israeli flag in the window of his Vancouver restaurant, Fish Café.

“I’m very loud and proud,” he said in an interview.

The flag caused no problems until after Oct. 7, when his restaurant began to receive a string of negative online reviews, one accusing him of supporting genocide.

Stiller, whose grandfather fled Greece during the Italian fascist occupation, said he doesn’t mind reviews, good or bad.

But this was clearly not about his food or service. Like Jewish business owners in Toronto and Montreal, he was being singled out over the Hamas-Israel conflict.

Things escalated when, on Nov. 19, he found a swastika and a far-right slogan painted on a wall behind the restaurant.

Next, he found a photo in his mailbox — a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s head cropped onto a uniformed Nazi with a swastika shoulder patch.

“This is how things start,” Stiller said.

“I’m not scared,” he added. “I am concerned, obviously, about the antisemitism. And I’m a little bit more concerned about my staff’s safety than mine.”

“But I’m not going to take the flag down.”

In a room above a massage parlor that advertises “sexy hot” staff, Younus Kathrada stood at a microphone delivering a sermon about a “religious war” against “filthy zionists.”

When he was done, his worshippers exited the building into a winter afternoon in the B.C. capital, and mingled on a sidewalk facing a graffiti-covered concrete factory.

Approached by Global News as he walked to his car, Kathrada did not respond to allegations by Jewish groups that he is spreading antisemitism.

But the Saudi-trained 60-year-old has long faced complaints over the weekly lectures he leads in Victoria and posts on social media channels.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israelis, he has claimed the conflict is a “jihad,” and those killed fighting would be rewarded with 72 virgins.

“We pray that Allah grants them victory over the criminal Jews,” he said in a recent Friday sermon that was later posted on his Facebook page.

A Victoria-area city councillor has asked police to investigate Kathrada’s videos. Jewish groups have also filed police complaints.

“Younis Kathrada preaches hate. There’s no other way to say it,” said Slobinsky, the CIJA Pacific Region vice-president.

The Victoria Police Department said it had received a report about Kathrada that was being investigated by its hate crimes coordinator.

A South Africa-born preacher, Kathrada has never been charged, and has denied promoting hatred or inciting his followers to do anything more than adhere to his version of worship.

In the days after Oct. 7, he posted questions online he said a news reporter had asked him, and provided responses.

“Do you think your comments are hate speech? Response: Are they serious?! Not a single word of what I have posted is hate speech,” Kathrada wrote.

Canada’s hate crimes laws exempt good faith religious expression from prosecution. The Bloc Quebecois introduced a private members bill in November that would scrap that as a defence.

The B.C. Prosecution Service updated its hate crimes policy on Friday to define as “prohibited acts” the public incitement of hatred, and the wilful promotion of hatred and antisemitism.

The changes recognized that “hate crimes can cause grave psychological and social consequences that may impact one’s own self-worth, inclusion and belonging, as well as personal and collective safety.”

Meanwhile, a Global News investigation has found that the non-profit group that runs Kathrada’s prayer centre has received government funding.

The city of Victoria acknowledged it had given $5,000 to Muslim Youth of Victoria, which operates Kathrada’s Dar al-Ihsan Islamic Centre.

The money came in 2021 and 2022 from the city’s Cultural Infrastructure Program for local non-profits that “own or operate cultural facilities.”

Government records also show that a federally regulated charity, the Islamic Society of B.C., gave $2,288 to Muslim Youth of Victoria. Neither group responded to requests for comment.

Kathrada became leader of the Dar al-Ihsan Islamic Centre, run by Muslim Youth of Victoria, in 2018. His weekly videos soon attracted attention.

The Middle East Media Reserarch Institue (MEMRI), a U.S. group that monitors online extremism, began issuing reports on Kathrada that same year.

Since then, MEMRI has issued 60 reports on him, including one that quotes him preaching that non-Muslims are “enemies,” and not to associate with them.

“I want our children to understand this well: the non-Muslims are the enemies of Allah, therefore they are your enemies,” he said in one of the videos.

In another video, he said that “people of faith hate the Yahud because of their disbelief in Allah.” He defined Yahud as “Zionists, Zionist Jews, whatever you like.” Yahud is the Arabic term for Jews.

“If you do not hate the opponents of Allah you have no faith,” he continued. “Having said that, once again, we have not ever called toward violence toward others.”

The government’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre took note of Kathrada in a 2020 report obtained by Global News.

Under the heading “Online proliferation of incitement,” it cited his sermon about the beheading by French extremists of school teacher Samuel Paty, whom he called a “filthy excuse for a human being.”

Slobinsky said religious leaders had an obligation to unite people, rather than to sow division, and that words have consequences.

“Words carry meaning and words can scare people, can affect their sense of safety, their sense of belonging and the sense of mental well-being,” he said.

“The speech that Younus Kathrada uses is highly inflammatory and derogatory towards Jews. Nobody should be, listening to what he says.”

Sent a series of questions, Kathrada did not respond directly, but later wrote on Facebook that he was being harassed by “lazy misfits” who “twist people’s words.”

“Corporate media is anti-Islam, anti-Muslim and straight up dishonest. I urge them to hold their breath for a response,” he wrote.

Immediately after the Hamas attack, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Studies opened its doors for community members, so they had a place to grieve.

“They sat here and they all just cried together, because they were concerned and worried about their loved ones in Israel,” said Anna Shternshis, the centre’s director.

“But also, and this is a heartbreaking part, because they couldn’t find empathy in our university community, from colleagues, from friends, from strangers.”

Although Israelis were the victims of the Hamas attack, with 1,200 dead and more than 250 taken hostage, that seemed quickly forgotten, particularly on campuses.

As students began to protest in support of Palestinians, Shternshis said Jews found their suffering largely ignored and began to ask: “Are these protests condemning us?”

Jewish students said in interviews they felt targeted, and spoke about threats and intimidation, as well as a lack of support from administration.

“I personally have felt safer in a bomb shelter than in the streets of Montreal,” said Ora Bar, a Concordia University student who grew up in Israel.

Last November, Bar was part of a group that set up a display in support of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas. A pro-Palestinian group put up its own table nearby.

Videos taken at the time show a student shouting at the Jewish group, then grabbing their Israeli flag. A brawl erupted. Three were injured and a 22-year-old student was arrested.

Across town, a University of Montreal sessional lecturer was suspended after he was allegedly videotaped at a protest calling a Jewish student a whore and telling her to “go back to Poland.”

“We’ve been threatened on campus by students, by fellow students. These students have been emboldened by professors,” said Eitan Kovac, who witnessed the incident.

“They have this feeling we’re agents of the state of Israel somehow. How is that the case?”

A Palestinian student leader said his group had asked members not to engage with Jewish students at Concordia. “We don’t want the escalation. We don’t want tensions on campuses,” he said.

At a recent demonstration in Montreal, protesters decried both antisemitism and Islamophobia, which has also increased in major cities, although not to the same level, except in Edmonton.

They said stopping the war in Gaza would resolve the problems on campuses. “What is happening now, it could lead to much more tension,” one said. “So it needs to end.”

On Feb. 12, pro-Palestinian protesters amassed outside Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital, which was founded by the Jewish community a century ago.

Demonstrators climbed up scaffolding outside the building and onto a ledge, waving a Palestinian flag, while others loudly chanted slogans beneath a “HOSPITAL, Quiet” sign.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said even when anger is directed at Israel, it is often rooted in antisemitism.

“Israel has for many years now become the proxy for the Jewish people,” said Fogel. “And for many who hold hostile views, presenting them or characterizing them as hostility towards Israel is easier, and more politically correct, than simply giving expression to hatred towards Jews.”

“But really, from our experience they’re one and the same,” he said.

“There is a reason the Jews are being targeted on the streets of Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal. There’s a reason that schools and synagogues are being firebombed,” Fogel added.

“And it’s because the antipathy is for the Jewish people, and the Jewish state is only an extension of the Jewish people, not something, independent and separate.”

What concerns Fogel is not only the hatred that has found voice since Oct. 7, but where it is coming from, notably progressives who had partnered with the Jewish community on issues such as LGBTQ2 rights.

“It’s really hard to wrap our heads around, the kind of alliances that are beginning to take shape,” he said. “So in addition to being anxious about the hate being directed to us, we are profoundly puzzled by these alignments.”

The past few months have hit particularly close to home for those who lived through the Holocaust. In a statement issued by the Toronto Holocaust Museum, 19 survivors spoke of a “seismic shift” since Oct. 7.

“Our children who were raised to believe that they were far from the horrors of 1930s Germany are recognizing that the cycle of Jew hatred is not over,” they wrote.

To Fogel, what distinguishes the current wave of antisemitism from the past is the role of government and police.

“Back then, it was driven by government and by officialdom within Germany,” he said. “Here we see that the political sector, law enforcement, civil society by and large, has been unequivocal in its support for the Jewish community and its condemnation of what the Jewish community has been experiencing.”

The Mount Sinai hospital protest was condemned by the mayor, premier and prime minister. Toronto Police opened an investigation, and increased patrols along the city’s hospital row.

The response has been lacking in many respects, “but the will and the determination to protect the community, to stand with the community, I think, has been articulated and expressed by all levels of government,” Fogel said.

“And certainly by law enforcement, who have in many respects done a remarkable job in signaling that they don’t just have the Jewish community’s back, that they will be standing side by side and in front of the Jewish community as they have to contend with these particular threats and challenges.”

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