1999-08-13: Combatting Hate in Canada
By Donald H. Harrison
One in a series
Toronto (special) -- When about 3,000 Canadian Muslims held a convention in Toronto recently, they gave Bernie Farber a standing ovation as a "defender of the faith."
And when Orthodox rabbis wanted to reach out to their Reform colleagues so they could take united action in a high profile case involving the planned burial of a Jew for Jesus, Farber was the man they asked to bring the meeting about.
In an interview with HERITAGE last week, Farber delineated some of the major political differences between the organized Jewish communities of Canada and the United States.
One that came immediately to mind was the issue of separation of church and state. In the United States, it is widely although not unanimously believed in the Jewish community that no government funds should be used to support religious institutions.
That belief is rooted in the U.S. constitutional provision that prohibits Congress from making any law respecting the establishment of a state religion. In contrast, state support for religion is as old as the Canadian constitution itself, so for Farber the fight is simple: If other religious groups in Ontario receive state support for their schools, then so too should the Jews.
"In Canada, we don't have separation," Farber said. "In fact, almost every province, with the exception of the largest province in Canada--Ontario--funds independent religious schools, Christian, Jewish or otherwise. Ontario is a bizarre place: it funds no religious schools with the exception of the Catholics'.
"Catholics get full funding here as a result of a bizarre political anomaly that occurred to help bring Upper and Lower Canada together into confederation back in 1867."
The 1867 agreement "guaranteed education rights to the minorities in Lower Canada, which was Quebec, and the minority there were Protestants, and to the minority here in Upper Canada who were the Catholics," Farber said. "That was guaranteed as part of the deal to forge federation and that deal has been upheld by the Supreme Court to this very day
"But the court has said nothing stops provincial governments from extending funding if they so desire to other religious groups. Other provinces have; Ontario has not, and we have been on a major campaign to change that."
On another church-state issue, the Canadian Jewish Congress is more in accord with co-religionists in the United States. It opposes formal prayer in the public schools. "We just recently fought a battle in one of the last bastions in Saskatchewan and finally got rid of the Lord's Prayer in schools there," Farber said.
In its role as the chief lobbyist for the Jewish community, the Canadian Jewish Congress in general, and Farber in particular, have been active in helping the nation to forge its laws forbidding "hate speech."
Whereas in the United States, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech, no matter how unpopular the speaker's ideas, Canada has taken a different approach.
"A law was developed which made it a criminally indictable offense to knowingly and willfully promote hatred against any identifiable group -- identified by race, creed, color, nationality, etcetera," Farber said. "There have been a number of prosecutions launched under this law and the law did go to the Supreme Court of Canada, and it was found to be constitutional."
One of the most famous cases concerned Jim Keegstra, a public school teacher in the province of Alberta, who taught his students Holocaust denial and to hate Jews.
"It was ugly and he did this for years," Farber said. "He was charged and his fine was $5,000, which was then reduced by an appeals court to $3,000." A permissible defense in a hate crime case is if the action or teaching is based upon a "legitimately held religious belief." Keegstra tried to use that defense, saying he was a practicing member of the 'Christian Identity Church' and that he had a legitimately held religious belief that "Jews are the sons of Satan," according to Farber.
"The courts held that this is not a legitimately held religious belief; that no Christian church of any legitimate stripe has such a belief, that it doesn't exist."
Farber said that homosexuals are not yet included in the groups of people who are protected against "hate speech," although they are protected against hate crimes involving violence. "In other words," said Farber, "if there is a hate crime against someone in the gay community, there will be an added prison sentence for the perpetrator," but there is no protection for gays against hate propaganda.
Hate speech against homosexuals often is justified by religious fundamentalists on the grounds of the biblical prohibition against homosexuality contained in Leviticus.
Elected representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress meet in a national plenary session every three years. Farber said it was noteworthy that Orthodox representatives joined members of the more liberal branches of Judaism at a recent plenum in voting to extend anti-hate protection to homosexuals.
"An Orthodox rabbi was able to live with it, so they did not veto it," Farber said. "The position he took was that by saying that gays and lesbians deserve protection, you are not saying that you adopt or in any way support their life style. Rather in a free and democratic society, everybody deserves to be protected equally. And what has become clear in Canada, as in the United States, is that the most attacked group right now is the gay community."
Representatives of all the Jewish movements, both religious and political, operate under the aegis of the Canadian Jewish Congress, except one: the B'nai B'rith, which decided it should follow an independent course, Farber said.
Having such a broad representation in the Canadian Jewish Congress led to unusually prompt and united action recently when one of Canada's best known 'Jews for Jesus', a Baptist minister named Malvern Jacobs, died and his family wanted to have him buried in a Jewish cemetery.
"We got wind of it literally the day of the funeral which was being conducted by a rabbi here who is not exactly a member of any of the rabbinical councils. He sort of gave his okay for the funeral to go ahead, claiming he didn't know who this guy was, which was nonsense," Farber recalled.
"Once I found out about it, we immediately got a beit din (rabbinical court) together, including not just the Orthodox but the Reform, which for this city was a miracle itself -- the sliver lining for this kind of cloud," Farber said.
"The head of the va'ad harabonim , the Orthodox group, said 'I want my co freres in the Conservative and Reform movements on board on this issue.' This was something that only the Congress could have done -- there was no other organization that could pull these groups together-- but it was done."
The beit din ruled that Jacobs should be denied a Jewish burial" and the gates of the cemetery were closed," Farber said. "Public relations wise, it was not our best day, but you know that is the Jewish law. So we dealt with it, and we dealt with it quite well."
Although under halacha anyone who is born a Jew remains a Jew, people who embrace another faith tradition "lose the rights of Judaism: you lose burial rights, marriage rights, right to be bar mitzvahed -- those rights are ascribed to a Jew who has not accepted another faith tradition," Farber said.
On other issues that might divide the Jewish community, the Canadian Jewish Congress maintains a strict neutrality. For example, while the religious conversion issue and lack of recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel was discussed at a recent plenary session, no action was taken. Similarly, abortion is an issue on which the Canadian Jewish Congress remains silent. In contrast, there was a unanimous vote to oppose the death penalty in Canada.
The honor accorded to Farber by the Muslim community came after a noisy public debate over circumcision which dominated the airwaves in Ontario for weeks.
"A number of advocates against circumcision have tried to make the case equating it with female genital mutilation, which as far as I am concerned it is not," Farber said. "But it was a raging debate here in Ontario-- talk shows, newspapers, and it brought together the Muslim and Jewish communities in a way that I had never seen before. We were together going on television programs, talk shows and so forth."
When Farber was given a standing ovation at the meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, "it was a very moving experience, absolutely incredibly so," he said. "In a Canadian context, we can come together."
"The Ukrainian community felt from the beginning that the vast majority of those who would be named would be Ukrainians," Farber added. "It turns out that of the 15 that were named by the Canadian government, two are Ukrainian; the rest are Germans, Lithuanians and Latvians. None of these other Eastern European groups have had any problems with these new laws, just the Ukrainians."
Farber said that "there have been some tense moments between the Polish Canadian community and the Jewish community because they have taken swipes at the Jewish community, but we have been able to straighten that out -- we have had dialogue.
"There also have been tense times between Arab Canadians and Jewish Canadians and we have been able to iron out most of these difficulties.
"For the most part, we are perceived in Canada as a major leader within
the ethnic community of