I grew up inside a synagogue. I went to services every week on Saturday, and on every holiday. It was where my parents announced my name when I was born. It was where I had my bat mitzvah. It’s where I said the kaddish — or mourning prayer — after the death of loved ones.
It wasn’t just a physical place either. It was a space of community in every sense of the word — a place where people celebrated and grieved and prayed and remembered and laughed and ate bagels and sang and loved. It was very similar to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were recently murdered — including a U of T alum — and six were injured.
In the immediate aftermath, I felt a sudden fear consume me. What if this had been my hometown synagogue, the one where I teach Hebrew School on Sundays, or any of the ones where my family and friends attend? The horrifying truth is that none of these spaces are immune to the spread of violence and antisemitism that reached its horrifying peak on Saturday.
This attack, in all of its terror and violence, is the natural conclusion of the seeds of violence, hatred, antisemitism, and racism that have been nurtured over the past few years. It’s been nurtured by the US president, whose history of antisemitism and stoking of white supremacy has allowed this tragedy to occur. But don’t think for a second that this is merely an American phenomenon. Antisemitism, white supremacism, and racism are alive and well right here in Toronto — and right here on campus.
The votes of 3.4 per cent of voters in the recent Toronto municipal election resulted in a third-place finish for Faith Goldy — 25,667 Torontonians wanted an unabashed racist and white supremacist in charge. This was a candidate who appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast, defended protesters in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and uttered the Fourteen Words — an antisemitic, white supremacist slogan.
During the Ontario elections, over two million voters decided to cast votes for Doug Ford, ignoring his long history of bigoted and misogynistic comments and use of antisemitic Jewish stereotypes.
On campus, it is impossible to forget the posters circulating around campus last year with the white nationalist slogan “It’s Okay to Be White.” It is impossible to forget when swastikas were found drawn on various parts of campus.
And it is impossible to forget the controversies with the infamous group, Students in Support of Free Speech. The group held a rally in support of the Proud Boys, whose founder has propagated antisemitism, and claimed ignorance when a noted Canadian white supremacist attended that rally.
Meanwhile, the organizers of the Munk Debates decided to include Steve Bannon as a speaker. Bannon, among many other things, is one of the founders of Breitbart News, which has faced criticism for promoting racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic materials during his tenure.
When I say that we need to take a stand against white supremacy, racism, and antisemitism and organize anti-fascist movements, I sometimes find myself greeted with questions. Why does it matter what someone says at a rally or posts online? What about free speech?
Here’s why it matters: because every time we excuse it, every time we ignore it, every time we pretend it doesn’t matter, it grows a little bigger. It festers and sprouts until it reaches the inevitable conclusion: Pittsburgh.
It matters because, for me and for everyone else belonging to a marginalized group, this is not politics. This is not an abstract debate or a theoretical inquiry. This is life. This is the safety of my family. This is my continued existence as a Jew.
The attacked synagogue’s name, Tree of Life, is a reference to a quote from the Book of Proverbs in the Torah: “It is a tree of life to all those grasp to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” I still believe that we can build a tree of life, of healing, and of love. Let us water that tree instead.
And let us not forget the eleven victims. Zichron l’bracha. May their memory be a blessing.
Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.