Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Keep anti-Semitism out of the debate

Criticism of city hall is based on events, not ethno-religious affiliation

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There are few things more disgusting than a racist act, but a racist act timed to coincide with a religious holiday is particularly unsettling.

Some time between Friday night and Saturday morning, anti-Semitic posters were placed on several locations in downtown Winnipeg. This is chilling because tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, as well as Aseret Yemai Tshuva, the solemn 10-day period of reflection and repentance that leads up to Yom Kippur, the holiest date on the Jewish calendar.

Racism is hardly unknown to Winnipeg, as anyone in the city's Cree and Anishinabe communities can attest on a daily basis. Racism toward all aboriginal groups is such a chronic and systemic problem in this city, I personally consider it to be our second-biggest embarrassment.

What would the biggest embarrassment be? Economic disparity -- the unconscionable chasm between affluence and poverty in this city, which all too often breaks down along ethnic lines. It's been said many times before, but the gap between rich and poor in this town is reflected by not just income and education, but health and exposure to crime and violence.

This in turn feeds the subtle racism that infect many debates about our city, including downtown development, the rental-housing crisis and the fact our police service is forced to play a social-service role.

When it comes to overt racism, Winnipeg may be no worse than any other North American city in that the perpetrators of such acts hide behind online pseudonyms or otherwise lurk in the shadows.

I've written this before, but I am proud to say I did not encounter my first anti-Semitic slur until I was in my 20s. Growing up in Garden City, a West Kildonan neighbourhood where the vast majority of kids were of Eastern European origin in the 1970s and 1980s, anti-Semitism was something I only read about or saw on TV.

Not all other Jews in Winnipeg were lucky enough to have such little contact with anti-Semitism. North End schoolchildren in my father's generation walked circuitous routes to school to avoid neighbourhood bullies. When they graduated from high school, they were among the first generation of Jewish students not to encounter ethnic quotas in university professional programs.

Yet by and large, being Jewish affords the status of being an invisible minority in a city that remains predominantly white. But Winnipeg will not be predominantly anything for much longer.

To the chagrin of the tiny number of racists who cling to old notions of northern-European primacy, Winnipeg's growing ethnocultural diversity is making overt racism toward pretty much all groups a thing of the past. If the divide between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities can be bridged, then we could even become one of the least racist cities on the planet.

That utopia is not quite here, but I believe we're going to eventually get there, as entire generations are growing up without knowing overt racism. This is why it's unsettling to hear of an anti-Semitic poster campaign the weekend of Rosh Hashana.

Winnipeggers should not despair, as this constitutes the action of a tiny minority of depraved, opportunistic people who would seek to twist newspaper headlines toward their own benefit.

For obvious reasons, I am not going to repeat the content of the posters, except to mention the city's mayor was among the targets and that recent stories about city hall have been twisted into the form of libellous propaganda that was common during the Nazi period.

And thus begins the extreme discomfort that is the actual impetus for this column today: I am a Jewish newspaper reporter who often writes critical news stories about a Jewish mayor. And in recent weeks, some of those stories included the mayor's friendship with the city's chief administrative officer, who's also Jewish.

To a virulent anti-Semite, any connection between two Jews who have any form of public profile makes for fantastic source material. My recent work must be like catnip to a scumbag hatemonger with access to a photocopier and a roll of tape.

So while I'm angered to see the old stereotypical libels re-emerge, I cannot claim to say I am surprised. I even told an editor and colleagues at other media outlets to expect this sort of garbage last week, after I started receiving emails from anti-Semites along the same conspiratorial lines.

As a result, I'm going to state on the record something no reporter or columnist should have to state in a society that is supposedly free of racism. I am going to note that any criticism of city hall stems from processes and events at city hall -- not from the ethno-religious affiliation of any of the players involved.

In recent weeks, I've heard suggestions from otherwise educated, intelligent people that "all Jews stick together" and "well, you know how you people are."

I most certainly do: We are forever suspected of maintaining the tight community ties that members of all ethnic groups maintain, as if such connections are somehow unique to Jews.

There are other Jewish stereotypes I would prefer to inherit, like the ones about a propensity toward scholarship and an inherent passion for social justice.

As an unobservant secular Jew from a long line of generally unobservant, mostly secular Jews, I don't feel like I play a big role in Winnipeg's somewhat observant, more-or-less religious Jewish community.

Funny how quickly that illusory perception evaporates after a single act of hatred.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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