MONTREAL (Jun. 1)
A non-Jewish former elementary school teacher has sparked a major educational initiative to fight anti-Semitism in Canada, drawing the support of influential corporate leaders. Elizabeth Comper of Toronto was dismayed by growing vandalism and violence against Canadian Jews last year. According to B’nai Brith Canada, 2004 was the worst year for anti-Semitic activity in Canada in over half a century.
In Montreal, a Jewish elementary school library was firebombed. In Toronto, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and synagogue walls were defaced with Nazi graffiti.
Comper decided to take action. Her first recruit was her husband, Tony Comper, CEO of the BMO Financial Group, which comprises one of Canada’s largest banks and an array of financial services organizations.
The Compers founded Fighting Anti-Semitism Together, or FAST. The movement quickly attracted a group of Canadian business executives who are donating time and money to educate young people on the pathology of anti-Semitism.
So far, 21 key business leaders have joined the program. None of them is Jewish — which is precisely the point.
“We wanted to send a message to the Jewish children of Canada,” Elizabeth Comper said. “The message is that non-Jewish people and non-Jewish leaders absolutely do care about them. We’re saying that it’s important to take a stand. It’s important to speak out. We’re saying, ‘Don’t be a silent witness.’ “
Canadian Jewish leaders have welcomed the initiative. Ed Morgan, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, cited the value of having non-Jews speak out against anti-Semitism.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re thrilled. It is unique for a group of business community leaders who are not Jewish to specifically target a Jewish community cause,” he said.
As to whether there was a need for another group to fight anti-Semitism, Morgan said, “FAST is meant to be supportive of existing organizations, to inject new capital and to provide a role model for others. It’s a project-specific initiative that is entirely appropriate.”
Though it’s just getting under way, FAST already has raised more than $160,000. The founders recently ran a full-page ad in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper calling on other non-Jewish leaders to stand up and be counted against the oldest hatred in human history.
“We resolved that we would not allow another generation of Jewish children to grow up feeling fearful and unsafe just because they are Jewish, and wondering if anybody out there really cares,” one line of the ad reads.
Participating CEOs each donate $10,000 on behalf of their companies, and are asked to write op-ed pieces and seek opportunities to give speeches against anti-Semitism.
The money is being used to create four lessons on DVD that will help educate students aged 10-14. The DVDs, now being produced by the Canadian Jewish Congress, will teach about stereotyping, intolerance and the dangers of racism.
The focus will be on the history of anti-Semitism in Canada.
“The aim will be to show kids that in dealing with hatred, the choices they make bear consequences,” said Wendy Lampert, the CJC’s national director of communications.
The DVDs will be ready for the opening of school in September. FAST has been in touch with major school boards in Ontario, all of which have expressed interest.
A French-language version is planned for Quebec, and the goal is to take the program into all 10 Canadian provinces. The DVDs also will be made available for general distribution.
One of FAST’s original signatories is John Hunkin, CEO of the CIBC group of companies, one of North America’s largest financial services institutions.
“We just can’t tolerate any amount of anti-Semitic hatred, and I think that has to be known,” Hunkin said. “If there’s inertia, it just leads to total complacency, and anti-Semitism could pick up momentum.”
As far as Elizabeth Comper is aware, “Nothing like this has ever been done before. The point is, the fight against anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish issue. It is an issue for every Canadian.”
Her hope is that within three years, “We’ll create a critical mass among non-Jewish people and we’ll make anti-Semitism simply unacceptable. I know that we can never entirely wipe it out, but I’m darn well going to try to wipe out as much as I can.”