RUTH Ashrafi and her husband were standing in line at a local grocery store recently when someone behind them said, "They should have sizzled you all."
She looked in disbelief at her husband, who was wearing a kippah, the traditional Jewish head covering. He looked back the same way.
"I turned around, and there were two nice Canadian teenage boys behind us," she said. "I couldn’t believe what had come out of them."
Teens say "dumb things," she said, but the comment showed "what at least one of them considered appropriate to say to a Jew."
The incident reminded Ashrafi, who is regional director for B’nai Brith in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut, why it is important that Canada now has a permanent special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and fighting antisemitism.
"Antisemitism is increasing in this country," she said, noting there were 2,610 antisemitic incidents in Canada in 2020, up from 2,207 in 2019, and 101 in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut, down slightly from 104 the year before.
"That’s why I welcome the announcement of the permanent role," she said. "Antisemitism is a serious issue in this country."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the permanent position — held by Irwin Cotler, an international human rights lawyer and former federal justice minister — virtually at an international forum on Holocaust remembrance and antisemitism in Malmo, Sweden, on Oct. 13. Cotler was appointed to the role last November.
"Education and awareness will always be key to combating Holocaust distortion, antisemitism and all other forms of racism," Trudeau said, adding the Liberal government will work on a national plan to combat antisemitic hate.
"Antisemitism isn’t a problem for the Jewish community to solve alone. It’s everyone’s challenge to take on, especially governments."
Elaine Goldstine, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, also welcomed the news about the new permanent position.
"We see this as being a very positive development in the fight against the scourge of antisemitism which has been on the rise worldwide," she said. "Preserving Holocaust remembrance is also a key aspect of the role, during a time when disinformation is being spread about its scope and magnitude, or being outright denied."
Goldstine noted the Canadian Jewish community has been advocating for a permanent role for the envoy, along with resources to carry out the mandate of combating antisemitism, for some time.
"Statistics Canada data consistently confirms that the Jewish community is the most frequently targeted religious minority when it comes to hate crimes," she said.
Belle Jarniewski — executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, which contains the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre — said the permanent role shows Ottawa sees antisemitism as an "ongoing issue and a real problem."
Cotler is an excellent choice for the role, Jarniewski added, noting he is recognized internationally for his efforts to combat antisemitism, genocide and racism in all its forms.
"He has a strong voice on the issue and is listened to," she said.
Jarniewski said the rise of the extreme right in Canada and around the world, aided by social media, is fuelling antisemitism.
She hopes the special envoy will be able to help persuade the federal government to create effective laws to combat online hate against Jews and other minorities.
Jarniewski said she regularly gets "hate mail" whenever she speaks out about antisemitism.
"Nobody threatens me with physical violence, but I’m glad they don’t know where I live," she said.
The permanent envoy position "is needed to address things like that," Jarniewski said, adding more education about racism is needed in Canada. "There’s a lot of really ugly stuff out there."
The National Council of Canadian Muslims has called on the government to create a similar permanent government position to combat Islamophobia.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.