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Rabbi David Seed: Free speech still needs prudent words

By  Rabbi David Seed
  • February 25, 2022

We find ourselves in difficult times as Canadians, and in her Feb. 9 column, “Divide and conquer? Never in Canada,” Sr. Helena Burns is attempting to bring us together — particularly now, when there are people who are seeking to divide us.  In our Jewish tradition, we learn that humanity was created through one being so that no one could ever say that someone is better than another.

My concern is the way in which Sr. Burns expresses some of her points and the way in which it echoes within my ears and those of many in the Jewish community. I raise this because words are very significant. Scripturally they are the building blocks of creation. In Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be….” and “there was.”  It is through words that the world came into reality as seen in the Hebrew “davar,” which means both word and thing. 

Though we are familiar with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” it rings hollow to us as Jews. We know that words do have the power to hurt and harm others.

I believe there is no intention to harm others in Sr. Burns’ words. But I would like her and the readers of The Catholic Register to understand how many in the Jewish community perceive certain words, phrases and examples she used in this opinion piece. The use of the terms World Economic Forum, Agenda 2030, Great Reset and Davos are often codewords for Jewish power. George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist, is a supporter of the World Economic Forum and speaks extensively at Davos. He is often the centre of talk about dark plots and conspiracies.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has put its finger on the problem here. “As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, one can find anti-Semitic sentiments in the Great Reset, with some believers going so far as to accuse Jews of orchestrating the plot or invoking George Soros and the Rothschild family,” it wrote in a December 2020 blog post. 

I would call attention to the terms governing bodies, financial sector, media and Hollywood in Sr. Burns’ opinion piece. For example, she questions “who owns Hollywood?”  This is not a new question. “The assertion that Jews ‘control’ Hollywood, the media, banking and finance, among other things, is an anti-Semitic canard which dates back more than 70 years to an anti-Jewish campaign waged in the 1920s by the Dearborn Independent, a long-defunct publication backed by the late industrialist Henry Ford Sr.,” said the ADL. in 1999.   “Jewish” has been left off as a direct reference and many are not aware of these associations, but for “those in the know,” the implications are there. 

Unfortunately, these descriptions have made their way into popular discourse and are being used ever more frequently by well-meaning individuals.

The use of Hitler’s name in this piece feels like a trivialization of the Holocaust.

Sr. Burns portrays the Fuhrer not as the exemplar of true evil but as a prophet of the downfall of modern society, which she believes will take place through Hollywood and financiers if we are not careful. She writes, “Hitler told us in advance what he was going to do in his book Mein Kampf, and no one believed him, either.” Hitler and Nazism have become tropes for those who speak against vaccines and mandates. We see this increasing during the pandemic, with the comparison of vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany that have even made their way into the elementary school classroom.

Let me reiterate that we have no issue with anyone presenting their opinion, a blessing of our great Canadian democracy.  We only urge caution at the words and phrases chosen and what they imply, always being sensitive to their history and nuance. Ultimately, as people of faith we will do our best to make our world one of blessing and peace for all.

(Rabbi David Seed is a past chair of the Christian Jewish Dialogue of Toronto and a past president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis.)

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