- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 16 Jun 2005, p. 466-477
- Comper, Tony, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- The rise in anti-Semitism. A crisis that must be solved by non-Jews. The founding of FAST - Fighting Anti-Semitism Together. Crying "enough." The speaker's hope to persuade the still not persuaded. Some answers to questions received about FAST. How FAST may be able to marginalize the hard-core crowd. A recent good example of boldness in the face of vicious anti-Semitism. Some questions to be asked. A discussion of anti-Semitism. A review of the infamy of 2004. The nature of anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.
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- 16 Jun 2005
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- Full Text
- Tony ComperHead Table Guests
President and CEO, BMO Financial Group
WHY WE MUST SPEAK OUT
Chairman: Bart J. Mindszenthy
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Margaret M. Samuel, Chief Investment Officer and Portfolio Manager, Quadrexx Asset Management Inc. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rahma Siad-Togane, Grade 12 Student, Westview Centennial Secondary School; Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Senior Rabbi, Beth Tzedec Congregation; Rose Wolfe, Chancellor Emerita, University of Toronto; Joseph Rotman, OC, Founder, Clairvest Group Inc. and Chairman and CEO, Roy-L Capital Corporation; Elizabeth Comper, Co-Founder, FAST, (Fighting Anti-Semitism Together); The Hon. Ernie Eves, Founder and Honorary Chair, Justin Eves Foundation and Former Premier of Ontario; David L. Lindsay, President, Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Philip Orsino, Chairman of the Board, President and CEO, Masonite International Corporation; The Hon. Madam Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, Judge, Supreme Court of Canada; and Robert Corteau, President and Managing Director, SAP Canada Inc.
Introduction by Bart Mindszenthy
Ladies and gentlemen, members and guests, dear friends of the Empire Club, just listen for a moment. Listen deep.
Listen to the sounds and actions of confusion and outrage and anger expressed daily and in so many ways across every part of our fragile planet.
From Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and yet other faiths to doubting agnostics and atheists in denial.
From people who live in our homeland, to people who live in neighbouring and in far-off lands.
Find and listen and judge fairly but surely the people whose values and politics exist in the range of the extreme right or the extreme left. People who are driven by a history of hate inherited and practised with misguided fervour. People led by passions induced from personal failures, or perhaps personal excesses to people searching for a fanatical cause to embrace in order to prove a level of self-worth. Or, sometimes, it's just a dose of ignorance and bravado.
And then there are those who simply want to find common ground and comfort. Find peace of mind and peace among us all.
The fact is that we come from so many pasts, and in so many shades and colours and flavours and sizes. And we all come with baggage. The baggage passed on through our parent's genes and teachings, our own cultures, what we discovered through our emergence into adulthood and the sum of our experiences then, since and now.
'Anti' something is what we too often inadvertently have implanted in the back of our minds and probably have hidden somewhere deep in the dark side of our hearts.
But now is a good time to clean our mental closets that contain biases we should banish, and sweep away the aging and hateful irrational barriers that still distort and prejudice our relationships. Barriers to fellowship and friendship always predicated with that 'anti'-something mindset. Anti-Semitism and anti a lot of other isms.
And I believe that we can do that. And we can do that with anyone and for everyone whom we want to assign to our column of acceptance and embracement in the big ledger we all have and constantly carry, listing the personal, private values of our lives.
And while I believe that, so clearly do Elizabeth and Tony Comper and their many friends and supporters.
Now I would like to call on a head table guest to more fully introduce our guest speaker today. Philip Orsino is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Masonite International Corporation and a Director of the Bank of Montreal. Mr. Orsino, please become part of Empire Club history.
Introduction by Philip Orsino
I will begin my introduction of Tony Comper by publicly thanking him and his wife Elizabeth for inviting me to become part of an organization they founded called FAST, which spells out into Fighting Anti-Semitism Together.
I am one of the non-Jewish business leaders they recruited to the cause, and who (I note) are out in force to hear what Tony will have to say today.
Knowing Tony as I do, as a BMO director and friend and peer, and having seen the depth of his feelings on fighting anti-Semitism as a non-Jew, I think we may well be treated to something, well, unexpected.
One promise I can make: he will have given what he does say an enormous amount of thought. That's the way he is.
Most people in this room know Tony Comper as President and Chief Executive Officer of BMO Financial Group.
Some also know he's a BMO careerist, beginning back in the sixties with summer teller jobs at the local branch in hometown Leaside, and winding through the leadership of many of the front-line and back-office businesses in the enterprise.
And a few will recall that way back in the early nineties, Tony took the unprecedented step of appointing a task force on the advancement of women and taking the lead in its implementation. What drove this initiative? The observation that while he and other capable men were rising up through the ranks, equally capable women were rarely getting anywhere.
It offended his business sense--what a waste of talent--but at least as much and probably more it offended his sense of justice--the same, undiminished sense of justice that led to the founding of FAST and brought us together this afternoon.
It is a quality that helped get him invited onto the board of Catalyst, the international organization devoted to helping women succeed in business, and led in no small part to the Award of Merit bestowed by B'nai Brith in 2003.
One thing Tony talked about on that occasion, interestingly enough, was how impressed he had been as a young man in the 1960s by the leading role taken by the U.S. wing of B'nai Brith in the sometimes dangerous battle for voting rights of African-Americans.
He saw one group of people with nothing to gain standing up and speaking out side-by-side with another. As he said back then and as he's about to demonstrate, it was also an experience that would help to shape his life.
Won't you please help me welcome Tony Comper.
Thank you very much, Phil, and a special thanks to the Empire Club for giving me this singular opportunity to promote (and recruit for) a new, pointedly non-Jewish offensive against anti-Semitism. Good afternoon and thank you for coming.
I am here today because, in 2004, in what we are proud and prone to describe as "the most cosmopolitan nation on earth," reported incidents of anti-Semitism rose--or descended--to an all-time record of 857 for the year. And because it is time for Canadians of good will to stand up and cry: Enough!
I am here because I also perceive what Justice Minister Irwin Cotler perceived when he was still teaching at McGill University that there is a virulent new kind of anti-Jewishness now infecting the planet, one "without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War."
I am here because thoughtful and well-informed people are now forewarning of a "second Holocaust," this time nuclear, set (of course) in the Middle East, and in the not-so-distant future.
I am here because I am energized by a single sentence in a recent book titled, forebodingly, "Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism"--"If anti-Semitism is to vanish from the earth, it will be from the transformation of non-Jewish rather than Jewish peoples."
I am here because my wife Elizabeth and I believe that in the end, this is a crisis that must be resolved by non-Jews.
That is why we founded FAST, short for Fighting Anti-Semitism Together, as one way of crying: Enough! And why we recruited an all-star cast of non-Jewish Canadian business leaders like Phil Orsino to the cause, and why I'll be saying what I'll be saying in the next 15 minutes or so in great hopes of persuading the still not persuaded.
Before I truly launch in, however, I would like to recognize and thank those business leaders who so readily signed on with FAST, and who put their names and their companies' names to the ad introducing FAST in mid-May.
Some of them, I'm delighted to see, have been able to join us for lunch today, while others have demonstrated their resolve and solidarity by purchasing corporate tables. The ad, they can tell you as well as I, has touched an amazing number of people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and generated an outpouring of heartfelt support.
I also want to answer something that all of us are getting asked about FAST, which is why we have chosen to focus on one specific manifestation of intolerance when tragically there are so many others crying and vying for our attention.
While my remarks today are purely my own--Elizabeth would tackle the issue in her own distinctive voice, as would all other FAST supporters--I know I speak for the whole group when I say that we deplore intolerance in any and all of its manifestations, but also realize that the more well-defined and focused the target, the better the chances of having an impact.
We encourage all those who feel strongly to start up a version of FAST on their own, which, if asked, we will help along in whatever ways we can.
Meanwhile, I will get on with the story of how FAST came to be, and lay out, as best I can, the reasons why non-Jews must join the battle against what has been described, sadly but accurately, as the oldest and longest of hatreds.
FAST in its earliest efforts addresses itself to the young, in the form of a vow that if we can help it, not one more generation of Jewish children will grow up in fear of the people around them.
Elizabeth and I have been profoundly influenced by stories we've heard over the years from contemporary and older Jewish friends and colleagues, and the childhood fears they knew in the face and wake of the Holocaust even here in pre-cosmopolitan Toronto, where being Jewish was reason enough to get beaten up on the way to and back from school, along with torrents of verbal abuse that would make a psychopath cringe.
The other reason for an accent on the young is that if indeed we are to make anti-Semitism "vanish from the earth," this seems like the place to start, reaching out with truth and reason to young, still-interpreting minds.
Thanks to the generosity of the supporters FAST has attracted thus far, our first educational project is a curriculum-based learning program called "Choose Your Voice," which FAST is developing in close partnership with the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario Region, for use initially in Ontario schools. The DVD and learning guides address anti-Semitism in the broader context of bigotry, of which it almost surely provides history's most ancient example. Watch for the launch of "Choose Your Voice" this fall.
We realize that this initiative--and for that matter, any others that FAST may undertake--is unlikely to touch the hearts and minds of the real hard-core crowd, the ones who most likely learned their hatred at the parental knee.
But it could serve to further marginalize them, which sometimes is the best you can do when dealing with bullies and bigots.
First, by stripping them of their potential power base, the people who really don't know any better; and who, for whatever reasons, haven't sought out the truth for themselves.
Second, by going one step further and helping to encourage active opposition to the Jew-haters and racists and assorted other bigots and bullies the moment they start telling their despicable lies or making their ugly, pathetic "jokes." We believe if the truth can make us free, it should also make us bold.
For a really good recent example of boldness in the face of vicious anti-Semitism, we can also look to the young--no further, in fact, than those four Grade 10 girls at Branksome Hall who stood up and were counted against a new anti-Jewish Web site set up this spring, incredibly, by boys at another local private school.
The girls could have rationalized their discovery away, pretended it never happened or left it for unidentified others to deal with--human history, as we know, is waist-deep in willful ignoring--but instead they went directly to the authorities, notably their principal.
What she did was also exemplary, as were the actions taken by the principal of the boys' school after she brought this awful matter to his attention.
His response was swift, unequivocal and just: three were expelled and four more were suspended--the latter (as I understand it) for knowing what was going on but standing by and doing nothing.
Also on the positive side, both schools smartly turned the crisis into a major learning opportunity (for which it was sadly so perfectly suited), a pulling-out-all-the-stops effort which might include using "Choose Your Voice" in at least one of the schools next year.
Those of you who followed this story as it unfolded could not help but be further disturbed, I'm sure, to learn that one of the expelled boys was himself Jewish.
What are we to make of this? Nothing. Nothing beyond the simple sad fact of the utter relentlessness of anti-Semitism, and its uncanny (to me) ability to infect what, by all the odds, would be the most unlikely of souls.
How can it be that even now, in the 21st century, and in the face of repudiation by Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II and most of the world's other Christian leaders, there are still those who think "the Jews" should be punished for all eternity for the crucifixion?
How can it be that even now there are still people who believe in a Jewish plot to seize control of the world as spelled out in "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a 19th-century Russian forgery so blatant even a happy persecutor like Stalin stopped believing it?
How can it be that even now, despite evidence that gives new meaning to the word overwhelming, there are still people who refuse to acknowledge even the reality of the Holocaust, much less any lesson it might have to teach? (And oh, by the way, did you hear the one about how the Jews started the war?)
How can it be that in a country like ours, at an enlightened time like this, there are still people so irrational about Jews and Judaism, and so unswerving in their hatred, they would not shed a tear and might even cheer if another Holocaust came along?
These questions are not rhetorical, certainly not for me. I remain genuinely mystified that history's "oldest" and/or "longest" hatred is still so robustly with us. It is a feeling apparently shared by the editor of the previously mentioned book, "Those Who Forget the Past."
"After nearly two decades of reading the literature of anti-Semitism--both the thing itself and the analysis of the thing itself--I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for its persistence," Ron Rosenbaum writes in his introduction.
Then, after running through and mulling over the standard theories, including payback for the crucifixion, he makes what he himself describes as something that "might sound at first like a radical suggestion-[that] it doesn't matter anymore…
At this point anti-Semitism has become embedded in history," he says, "or in sub-history, the subterranean history and mythology of hatred [and] it will always be there, a template for whatever hurts need to find an easy answer, a simple-minded balm: the Jews are responsible.
The explanation for renewed anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism: its ineradicable pre-existing history and its efficiency. It has become its own origin."
Carrying on with this line of thinking, it follows that the modern anti-Semite can happily hate Jews for no special reason at all, and then make the leap to words and deeds at just about any pretext.
Looking back on what made 2004 such a year of infamy, one can't help but note that the first big spike came in March, following the initial release of Mel Gibson's controversial crucifixion movie.
On the other hand, anti-Semitic incidents had already been on the rise in Canada and elsewhere for four straight years, dating back to the first great spike of the 21st century, the one that shot up, incredibly, in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
In this big lie, worthy of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself, the World Trade Center atrocity was a "Jewish-perpetrated plot," engineered by "the Elders of Zion" as evidenced in part by the "fact" that "no Jews (or Israelis) died" in the collapse of the twin towers because they had been forewarned (all 4,000 of them) to stay home that morning.
Despite the patent falseness and naked absurdity of such a proposition, this Big Lie spread like the Reichstag Fire, instantly and all across the Internet. As Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf," the greater the lie the greater the chance of it being believed; and this one has not been an exception.
If you haven't heard this story before, you can be forgiven. In the circles most of us move in, anti-Semitism wears a more sophisticated face. We don't tend to hear a lot of the more pathologically crazy talk any more than we tend to rub shoulders with the fire-bombers and tombstone-topplers and cowards with spray-cans at three in the morning.
Anti-Semites you and I are likely to encounter get their licks in at Jews by ever so eruditely trashing Israel. Or if they're especially deep thinkers, trashing Israeli policy and behaviour.
Now it is obviously not true that everyone who criticizes the policies of the State of Israel is de facto an anti-Semite.
Indeed, as the renowned Alan Dershowitz points out in his book, "The Case for Israel," "the harshest substantive critics" of the Israeli government are Israelis themselves, "inside and outside the government--and sometimes even in the Cabinet." (He also includes himself on more than one occasion.)
Nor has any honest critic ever been labeled an anti-Semite, not in his experience or mine or anybody else's that I know.
As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has written, "Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic and saying so is vile." But, he goes on, "Singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction--out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East--is anti-Semitic and not saying so would be dishonest."
And that's the point I'm getting to--the point where anti-Semitism becomes a non-Jewish problem. I don't have any formula answers for keeping this sub-type of bigot at bay, but how's this:
When today's "sophisticated" anti-Semite says, "But really, aren't the Israelis doing to the Arabs (or maybe Palestinians) the same thing Hitler did to the Jews?" you could answer: "No. And if you had paid even the slightest bit of attention in your 20th-century history classes, you would realize how uninformed and cruel what you just said makes you sound."
Or you betray an ignorance so exceptional it could almost be deliberate.
It's also okay to sharply turn heel and quickly walk away; that message is pretty clear, too. But as I guess we signaled pretty loudly with the creation of FAST, the time is past for smiling politely and letting the bigot "have his opinion."
Let me also be clear that if I ever got word of people like this poisoning the atmosphere in my organization, I would not be restrained in my reaction--just as I would not be restrained in my reaction to any other expressions of bigotry and hatred.
We must not confuse these often-practiced rants with idle talk. These are not just words, but encouragement to those who would take things further. What gets said and what gets believed matters more urgently now than ever.
Although hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian truce are higher than they've been in many years, the stage for a war of attrition in the Middle East is just as set and scary as it ever was.
Maybe scarier. There's a scenario floating around these days, authored by a former Iranian defence minister. It promotes the idea of a nuclear war in which the Arab world would take 15 million casualties as an acceptable tradeoff for five million Israelis, i.e. them all.
Farfetched? Perhaps and let's hope so. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, whether you look back 60 years, 600 or 6,000, things that once seemed far-fetched--Kristallnacht, for example, or Auschwitz--have suddenly, brutally turned very real.
Few people have been more aware of this than Professor and Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, the internationally celebrated philosopher and Holocaust scholar who taught and wrote at--and graced--University of Toronto from 1948 through 1984.
In fact he watched the horror develop right in front of him, as a child, university student, seminarian and, briefly, one of the very last rabbis ordained in pre-war Berlin. He was arrested on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, and spent three months in a concentration camp.
He fled to England in the summer of 1939 only to be arrested--irony of ironies--as an "enemy alien" when, weeks later, England and Germany went to war.
This got him shipped off to Canada, where he attended, then joined the faculty at U of T as well as (early on) serving as rabbi for a congregation in Hamilton. In the meantime an older brother died in the Holocaust.
Among the many memorable things Dr. Fackenheim spoke of and/or published in his 87 active and productive years is his coining, in 1970, of the now-oft-referred-to expression, "the 614th Commandment." As he explains in an essay titled "Faith in God and Man after Auschwitz"--"…In Jewish tradition there are 613 commandments, sufficient for all situations future as well as past. But the tradition could not anticipate Hitler: the Holocaust was unpredictable, even for [oral Torah]."
This must not be seen, he goes on to say, as just another "case-among-others of racism-in-general" but as something unique, even for Jews and their almost seamless history of persecution. The sin was not "Jewish behaviour" this time; the sin was Jewishness itself.
So what is this extra commandment that Dr. Fackenheim believes Jews should also live by? "Let me restate the 614th Commandment," he writes in one of his last essays, "that Jews are forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victories."
I am here today because I believe that this should not be a lonely battle--as it has so often been, for so many, for so long. And because I believe that this 614th Commandment is something we all should be living by.
Thank you for your kind attention. I hope some of you will join us in the cause.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by David L. Lindsay, President, Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.