nazi house of commons parliament

Why the history of the Holocaust — and anti-Semitism in Canada — need to be taught

Between a Nazi being invited to the House of Commons to revelations about a Quebec neo-Nazi, a lack of education about historical atrocities abroad and the simultaneous shameful treatment of Jews at home is showing.

The news last week of Quebec neo-Nazi Gabriel Sohier Chaput being sentenced to 15 months in jail and three years of probation got me thinking of how important education is in countering hate and prejudice. Failure to understand how bias can seep in not only allows people to minimize hate crimes and hate speech, but also leaves the door open to the Sohier Chaputs of the world to influence even more impressionable young minds.  

I was pleased to see that, while the prosecution and defence had recommended a three-month sentence followed by probation, Quebec court Judge Manlio Del Negro expressed concern that too light of a sentence for someone who wrote more than 800 articles for online neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, promoting hatred against Jews, would trivialize the crime. 

After the verdict was announced, Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Quebec Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told reporters, “Online hate has real consequences, including violence, which need to be addressed.” B’nai Brith national director Marvin Rotrand echoed that, saying, “The internet can spread harm. It can affect millions of people and it can foment violence very, very easily.”

This is a message that needs to be repeated again and again. Inciting people online to do harm against religious or ethnic groups is not harmless keyboard “debating” or “freedom of speech.” What you say online matters, and can have grave consequences. 

Online hate begets real violence 

Gabriel Sohier Chaput Holocaust Canada
Gabriel Sohier Chaput

The Quebec City mosque killer was heavily influenced by the alt-right anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sites he frequented. His hate and fear of “others” didn’t just happen overnight and out of nowhere. It festered over time while reading online article after online article that first manufactured and later fed his hate. 

Twenty-two-year-old Ontarian Nathaniel Veltman — who rammed his pick-up truck straight into the Afzaal family in 2021, killing four members and leaving a nine-year-old boy all alone in this world — didn’t know his victims at all. All he knew is that they were Muslim and that’s who he went out that day intent on killing.

During Veltman’s ongoing trial, it’s been revealed that he wrote a manifesto about white nationalism, blaming Muslims for crimes he thought they were perpetrating against his community, and told police he was against Islam because he did not believe in multiculturalism and did not think cultures could coexist, and against mass immigration. 

Young men don’t just wake up one day believing — in Canada of all places, a country built on centuries of successful immigration — that “cultures can’t coexist.” This “reasoning” slowly gets into their heads, targeted article after targeted article, online comment after online comment, dangerous political statement after dangerous political statement. They are radicalized both by the presence of wrong messages and by the absence of historical knowledge to counter it.

From anti-Asian slurs to anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim messages and political rhetoric targeting migrants and newcomers, we’ve witnessed an increase in hate crimes across Canada. 

Education is the key 

It sounds trite and oh so basic, but education is the key. Education will always be the key. Not only does it expand our world view, but it makes us far more immune to arguments that only serve to perpetuate more prejudice. Media illiteracy and a lack of multiperspectivity in the teaching of history makes people incredibly vulnerable to divisive messaging and hate speech.

We’re certainly not immune in this city. It was only months ago that Montreal’s historic Bagg Street Shul was defaced with Nazi symbols. While 2022 saw a slight decrease in anti-Semitic incidents, B’nai Brith still recorded 722 episodes — 640 involving online hate, 41 harassment, 34 vandalism and 7 violence in Quebec. 

We live in a city where more than 9,000 Holocaust survivors came to restart broken lives ravaged by Nazism — people who had family die in death camps. Montreal has the third largest group of Jewish survivors after Israel and New York, yet these living, breathing examples of what hate can compel people to do are still not enough. As that generation dies out, so will their stories. We risk forgetting. 

Our history of anti-Semitism should be taught 

So many Canadians continue to be unaware of the magnitude of the Shoah and the horrors committed in concentration camps. So many Canadians and Quebecers don’t know the extent of anti-Semitism in this country and in this province and how it shaped us and any possible lingering attitudes. B’nai Brith’s request to the Quebec government to make Holocaust education compulsory in elementary schools — as Ontario recently did — is, I believe, a necessary move. 

Learning about those horrors makes young people more empathetic, warns them of the dangers of compliance to mass prejudice, and makes them far more immune to messages of hate. It also makes us far less likely to make blunders like the one just committed by House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota who is currently apologizing (and will most likely soon resign) for honouring a man who fought for a Nazi unit in the Second World War. Now, more than ever, it’s vital to fight back with education because not knowing our history makes us far more prone to harmful assumptions. 

Our educational system, however, should go beyond teaching about the Holocaust. Students should be learning of anti-Semitism far closer to home. It’s comforting to think hate only happened “back then” or “over there.” We paint a far nicer picture of our own past. But the best way to combat hate is to recognize it as something that can easily take root right in our own backyard. 

Montreal’s anti-Semitic past

Montreal Jewish General Hospital Holocaust Canada
Montreal Jewish General Hospital

Montreal and Quebec weren’t immune to the widespread anti-Semitism experienced by the Jewish community in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. The Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite and French Canadians were mostly united in regarding Jews with suspicion. 

It’s well known that Canada didn’t admit many Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and most Canadians know about the contemptible “None Is Too Many” utterings of government officials, but how many know that McGill University’s faculties of Medicine and Law instituted admission quotas in the 1930s that capped the number of Jewish students at 10% of the faculty’s student population? How many Montrealers know that the university raised the admission grade average to Jewish students up to 75% while keeping it at 60% for everyone else? We weren’t alone, of course. Other Canadian universities implemented similar anti-Jewish policies. 

I’ve come across more than a few off-hand online comments about how the English-speaking Jewish community has “special privileges” and its “own hospitals.” Do people even know why that is, though? 

In 1934, the very first medical strike to take place in Canada unfolded at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Hospital. The reason all interns at the hospital walked off the job for four days was to protest the hiring of a Jewish senior intern, Dr. Samuel Rabinovitch. Despite being top of his class at the Université de Montréal, the other French-Canadian interns didn’t want a Jewish doctor working by their side. The strike spread to four other hospitals, including Sainte-Justine and Hôtel-Dieu. Fearing it would compromise the patients’ care, Dr. Rabinovitch eventually resigned, and the interns returned to work. The incident is referred to as the “Days of Shame.”

Dr. Rabinovitch died at the age of 101, having practised medicine well into his 90’s. In 2004, at the 70th anniversary of the strike, he told The Canadian Jewish News that he bore no ill will toward anybody and that it was just a “few instigators that stirred up all the trouble.”

“I suppose in the end that is the frightening thing about hatred…” he was quoted as saying. “It is just that simple.”

It’s both a depressing admission, and a warning.

The Montreal Jewish Hospital is born 

The Jewish community of Montreal founded the Montreal Jewish Hospital in part as a response to anti-Semitism and made an official commitment to offer health care and employment to all individuals, regardless of their religious, ethnic, cultural or linguistic background.

When the hospital was inaugurated, then-mayor Camillien Houde expressed his gratitude for the addition of a desperately needed hospital. “For your initiative in financing and erecting this magnificent hospital,” he said, “all of Montreal should be grateful to you.” 

Are we teaching any of this in school these days? Yes, it’s imperative that we teach about the Holocaust but ignoring history closer to home absolves us of our own lacklustre past. It’s not about assigning blame. Most people look bad when judged by today’s ever evolving (one hopes) moral standards. It’s about showing how hate can spread like wildfire in your own backyard. 

Learning about our past failings makes us as a society more prone to seeing the warning signs of hate. I dedicate an entire chapter to Canada’s anti-immigration legislation and government xenophobia in my book We, the Others because I wanted to show how unoriginal the arguments of xenophobes have always been and continue to be. Today’s xenophobic pundits have invented nothing and borrowed everything from a past that’s shown us what kind of damage racist rhetoric can inflict.

When we forget, we let our guard down. And those who would want to take advantage of that momentary lapse move in and spread their hate. 

Don’t let them. Teach your past so you don’t repeat it. ■

Holocaust Education Week takes place in the first week of November. The Montreal Holocaust Museum has a variety of educational programs, activities and resources about teaching the Holocaust that meet the criteria of Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur. You can find them here.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.