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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 phallic shaped.

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.

Canadian Israel Jewish Affairs said they were ďastonishedĒ and recommended those unaware of the tragedies of the Shoah, to visit Holocaust museums/centres in their city.

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

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, Mary 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.

Sheer ignorance.

So is it any surprise that Alex Johnstone drew a blank when the word ďAuschwitzĒ came up?

This wasnít, and isnít, just an Alex Johnstone problem. Itís a wider ignorance problem.

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?

The Ontario 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.


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