Auschwitz, Alex Johnstone and the Jews
Dave Gordon - Thursday, 24 September, 2015
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Two Jews in a room, three chicken soup recipes. Thereís always more opinions
than Jews, the old joke goes.
Itís pretty much the same when Jewish organizations respond to a public
controversy, as recent events show.
In the two weeks since the brouhaha over Alex
Johnstoneís remarks about Auschwitz erupted, it not
only displayed her ignorance on the Holocaust -- it was also a case study on
how differently Jewish organizations react to high profile gaffes.
For those not already familiar, the NDP candidate in the Hamilton-area has
recently taken heat for a Facebook comment from 2008, where she crudely joked
that a photo of an electric fence at Auschwitz was
Later, she admitted to the Hamilton Spectator newspaper that she wasnít
aware of what Auschwitz was.
In an effort to reconcile, reports say Johnstone, 32, reached out to various
Jewish community organizations, including in Hamilton.
She issued a joint press statement with Bínai
Brith, where she apologized.
As one might expect, other Jewish groups had their own ideas on how to deal
with, and respond to, the issue.
Israel Jewish Affairs said they were ďastonishedĒ and recommended those
unaware of the tragedies of the Shoah, to visit Holocaust museums/centres in
Canadian Jewish News editor Yoni Goldstein in his op-ed suggested Ms
Johnstone receive lessons from Holocaust Survivor, Max Eisen.
(Iím not sure the CJN is even on her reading list, but Iím sure Jewish
organizations sheís spoken to already suggested she meet a survivor.)
Meanwhile, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre Canada
invited her to get educated on their annual Compassion to Action mission to Israel,
Poland and Vienna,
departing Oct. 11.
CEO Avi Benlolo on his Facebook wall complained that Johnstone hadnít
responded to his messages.
Itís a bit mind boggling, though, to think that a federal candidate would
disappear halfway across the globe, in the last week of the writ.
And though Yad Vashemís satellite in Canada
was oddly quiet on the matter, Goldsteinís op-ed lede surely summed up what
many of us were thinking: ďHow can you not
know about Auschwitz? I mean, really.Ē
Itís a no brainer, right?
For one, the bookkeeper
of Auschwitz was recently sentenced, a big news item.
And Johnstone was a school board vice chair; after all, itís assumed in this
educational role she ought to have been familiar with Auschwitz.
Still, Iím willing to believe she was clueless.
And Iím also going to go as far to say that there are more out there who are
ignorant of the Shoah.
In fact, there are Ė even in the political realm.
In 2006, former interim Liberal
leader Bill Graham (who was born before World War Two) compared the
Conservatives with Nazi
Joseph Goebbels, and even in recent weeks a Conservative candidate compared
NDP leader Tom
Mulcair to Goebbels.
A recent NDP Candidate from Oshawa,
Fowler, in a tweet agreed that Stephen Harper is just like Hitler.
In 2008, a Liberal candidate compared Stephen
Harper to Hitler. The list goes on.
So is it any surprise that Alex Johnstone drew a blank when the word ďAuschwitzĒ
This wasnít, and isnít, just an Alex Johnstone problem. Itís a wider
The right thing for Jewish organizations was to express their
disappointment, and reach out to her.
But they could have, in hindsight, done one better.
How about a call to action to increase Holocaust education, especially in
our public schools?
high school curricula makes
passing reference to the Holocaust,
and educators are finding
it difficult to teach.
In 2014, an op-ed in the Canadian
Jewish News by Naomi Azrieli Ė publisher of Holocaust biographies -
expounded on how Holocaust education is woefully lacking.
Imagine, to our great collective shame, fifteen years from now Ėapproaching
a hundred years since the beginning of the Shoah Ė we see more ignorance.
And imagine we could have done something about it.