There is an ancient Jewish folktale which tells of a man visiting Hell and being amazed to find its inhabitants all seated at long tables with fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware and delicious food in front of them. Yet no one was eating. They were all wailing. On closer examination the visitor saw that none of them could bend their elbows. So while they could touch their food no one could bring the food to their mouths.
The visitor then went to Heaven where the scene was identical, long tables, fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware and delicious food. And here too people could not bend their elbows.
But here no one was wailing -- because each person was serving his neighbour.
Being sensitive to one's neighbour, can there be any better definition of human rights?
More than most, Jews have had a vested interest in embracing human rights. Antisemitism, as Jewish historian Robert Wistrich once wrote is undoubtedly the "longest hatred." Indeed, in the modern era, hardly a generation has gone by without the dark cloud of Jew-hatred erupting into a calamitous storm. The Holocaust became the ultimate expression of antisemitism.
With the deep and visceral understanding of humanity's potential for evil, for many Jews and other minorities, human rights became a watch word, a fence of protection.
Despite widespread belief that Canada, especially Ontario, was distinctly different from its southern neighbour, it was not uncommon for restaurants to refuse service to people of colour. In Windsor, in the early 1950s, the United Auto Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations once filed a complaint against a local café for refusing to serve a black member of the Canadian armed forces a cup of coffee.
And following the war, within living memory, the colour of your skin, or the God you chose to worship, could prevent you from buying and holding land. Restrictive land covenants were used by landowners in Ontario to prohibit Jews, racial minorities and others of "questionable" nationality from doing so.
In cottage country, and even on Toronto's beaches up to the mid 1950s, it was common to see signs that read "No Dogs or Jews Allowed".
So it was in Ontario, the most diverse of all of Canada's provinces that work began in establishing a mindset of equality.
Ontario Jews worked together with black leaders and labour groups to advocate for a human rights apparatus in the province. Canadian Labour Congress human rights co-ordinator Kalmen Kaplansky, Alan Borovoy, a young law student and budding civil rights lawyer, then head of the Jewish Labour Committee; Canadian Jewish Congress community relations director Ben Kayfetz; and renowned civil rights litigator Sidney Midanik all worked with black leaders like Bromley Armstrong and Dan Hill to press their case.
Their advocacy led to the establishment in 1961 of the Ontario Human Rights Commission -- the first such body in North America.
Thanks to work by the Ontario Human Rights Commission discrimination, so commonplace in the past, is far less so today.
Yet hate is not easily squelched. Robust, hatred seems to find ways to pick itself out of the dustbin, brush itself off, and find other methods to spread its poison.
Only last week a madrassah (Islamic School) in Toronto was found to be teaching antisemitic lessons to its young students.
A few months earlier a mixed race couple in Newmarket Ontario were the victims of a racial attack.
In a recent study, the Toronto Star reported that, "Employers in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal 'significantly discriminate' against applicants with Chinese and Indian names compared to those with English names."
The good news is that Canada has strong anti-hate laws which make it a criminally indictable offence to promote hatred. And most human rights codes across the country have strong tools to deal with outright discrimination.
But we cannot be complacent. Louis Lenkinski a former Chair of Canadian Jewish Congress and a past secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour, once explained to me that you cannot have justice for Jews if there is not justice for everyone.
Today with the advent of the internet, Wi-Fi and communications technology only dreamed about years ago, information dissemination is instantaneous. No longer must we solely count on newspapers and television. Today any one of us can be a purveyor of information, a columnist with an opinion and literally thousands do so as bloggers. Regretfully though, the responsibility of measuring criticism with sensitivity is sometimes sadly lacking.
Some bloggers do not hesitate to use their blogs not only to voice an opinion but to defame, libel and disparage. Human rights codes and commissions must play a careful balancing act between our cherished right of free speech, and the right of those most vulnerable to be free from the hateful harm caused by those who would use their blogs as bully-pulpits.
Humanity is never linear. It takes all kinds to make a community. Thus we all have responsibility to ensure collective dignity. Human rights codes and anti-hate laws are simply tools to help maintain that needed dignity.
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