Holocaust Remembrance Day has sombre tone as war rages on: Canada’s antisemitism envoy

Canada’s antisemitism envoy said Saturday’s annual day to mark the atrocities committed against Jewish people during the Second World War is more important and more poignant this year amid what she described as a rampant surge in anti-Jewish sentiment sparked by the latest war in the Middle East.

“This year’s commemoration has a particularly sombre tone, almost a foreboding, due to the alarming rise in antisemitism around the world and even more sadly, here, in our own precious Canada,” Deborah Lyons said at a ceremony at the National Holocaust Monument on Friday.

She attributed the mood to a rise in antisemitism that has come as the Israel-Hamas war nears its fourth month, leaving Jews in an “extended state of mourning” and facing grief and fear.

They have had to see people deny, justify and even celebrate hostage takings and an October massacre in Israel, Lyons said in reference to the Oct. 7 attack that killed at least 1,200 people and launched the latest war.

“We as Canadians cannot, and we will not, let the truth of the Holocaust be distorted nor be denied,” she said.

“It is our individual and collective responsibility to do so.”

More than six million Jews were systematically killed by Nazis and their allies between 1933 and 1945.

In more recent months, police and members of the Jewish community have been sounding alarms about a rise in antisemitism since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants. During the attacks, more than 1,200 people in Israel, including hundreds of civilians, were killed and about 240 people were taken hostage.

Health authorities in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip say more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed throughout the war, and many others have lived through regular bombardment by Israeli airstrikes and had access to water, electricity and other supplies cut off.

As Lyons spoke, dignitaries and members of national Jewish associations filled the audience, soaked by freezing rain during the one-hour outdoor ceremony. Most carried black umbrellas.

“We’re not going to let a few raindrops bother us on this solemn day,” said Lyons, a former ambassador to Israel who was named special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism in October.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre attended but didn’t make speeches, each reciting a prayer instead.

Both issued statements on Saturday acknowledging the spike in antisemitic violence in Canada.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon echoed some of Lyons’ sentiments on Saturday, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp that’s come to be recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Simon said the recent and rapid rise of antisemitism in communities across Canada and around the world is “concerning.”

“No one should be targeted, harassed or abused because of who they are or what they believe,” she said in a statement.

“When we see hate rising in Canada – in all its forms and iterations – we cannot be silent.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2024.

– With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa

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