Canadian Jews and Muslims could build a Better Future

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If history is such a good teacher, then why are Canadian Jews not acting in solidarity with Canadian Muslims when the latter are being targeted by discriminatory laws that threaten to erode their civil and religious rights?

And why did only Canadian Jewish organizations support last year’s infamous anti-terrorist legislation, Bill C-36, while delegations representing Christians, Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs and other Canadian minorities voiced urgent concerns that the new law would greatly compromise their civil liberties in this country?

Now there is again a disappointing silence from Canadian Jewish human rights groups about the proposed new Public Safety Act, Bill C-55. Is it because C-55 will potentially target only Canadian Muslims and Arabs?

If passed (as planned) by the end of June, this new legislation would give law enforcement agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP sweeping new powers to access and scrutinize all domestic and international airline passenger lists.

Any airline passenger with a Muslim or Arabic-sounding name will risk being a potential target. Canadian Muslims could eventually end up discarding their traditional Islamic names in order to avoid police intimidation at travel checkpoints. The right to choose and identify oneself through a religiously-inspired name is an essential religious freedom, but under Bill C-55 legislation, Canadian Muslims will no longer fully enjoy that right.

Canadian Jews should have been the first to realize the harmful potential of such legislation. During the early 20th century, European Jews who were persecuted under Hitler’s Aryan purity laws tried to hide their children’s ethnic and religious identities by giving them non-Jewish names. The changing of family names to non-referential words was also done by Jews trying to disappear into the mainstream population.

Now, fears that Bill C-55 will force Canadian Muslims into similarly painful dilemmas are very real. Parents would have to think twice before giving Muslim names to their children, while older youth and adults could well face strong societal pressures to legally change their own names as well, in order to escape systematic targeting by authorities.

History teaches that when Jews and Muslims were allowed to be used as targets of state-sanctioned oppression, as happened in Spain during the Inquisition, both communities paid dearly. And when European Jews in particular were the victims, no one received them en masse as refugees except the Arab and the Muslim world.

During the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, both Jews and Muslims were slaughtered, evicted from their homes, or forcibly baptized so as to be counted “Christian.” But the Muslims of Central Asia, Turkey, North Africa and Egypt did their utmost to welcome fleeing Jews who resisted pressures to convert.

And when the Crusades were launched, Christian armies besieged the Jewish population in Europe, slaughtering them as helpless prey: ultimately they massacred 70,000 Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099 in one of the worst bloodbaths of recorded history.

During later times, no country in Europe could be considered safe for Jews. Most notorious, however, were France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Nearly two millennia of intolerable conditions for Jews culminated in the Nazi Holocaust.

Then why today in Europe is there such strong Jewish support for the anti-immigrant (read anti-Muslim) policies of extreme right wing parties?

The irony is that anti-Judaism is now spreading in Europe along with anti-Islam. European, American and Canadian Jewish communities, who are all better-established than their Muslim counterparts, should be voicing their outrage at the hatred being shown to both groups.

In particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be used as a reason for Jewish and Canadian Muslim communities to drift further apart. It would be a grave mistake if the Canadian Jewish community, along with those in Europe and the U.S., encouraged their members to support laws that could compromise the civil and religious rights of Muslims living in their midst. This would further suppress their legitimate views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is my sincere hope, therefore, that Canadian Jews will rise in support of the universal human rights of all Canadians, including Muslims — despite the international difficulties posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They did just that for other minorities in the past. History has taught both communities painful lessons before, but it can also lead to a healing future.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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