Elizabeth Comper was watching the news one night and was horrified by a spate of anti-Semitic incidents in her own hometown of Toronto: swastikas drawn on doors and cars, defiled gravestones, ugly graffiti.
So the 59-year-old former elementary school teacher cornered her husband in the bathroom the next morning and insisted he do something.
Tony Comper listened. As president and CEO of the Bank of Montreal, Comper, 60, is one of the most influential financial leaders in North America. He had the connections and persuasive powers to make a difference.
“I was watching as they interviewed Jewish children and I thought: Oh my gosh, how must they feel about it. And then I really thought it was important, how they felt, their fears; it was our problem, too, it wasn’t just a Jewish problem,” Elizabeth Comper, a Protestant, said during an interview at the bank’s executive conference room in downtown Toronto.
That morning chat led to the recent launch of Fighting Anti-Semitism Together. The coalition is the first in Canada comprised of non-Jewish members of the business community to fight anti-Semitism.
The executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, Frank Dimant, said the project is giving “a sense of comfort” to the country’s nearly 350,000 Jews.
Rising reports of anti-Semitism
The number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to B’nai Brith’s hot line reached a record 857 last year in Canada, where numerous white supremacist, skinhead and neo-Nazi groups are active. That was a jump of 47 percent from 2003 and a 295 percent spike since 1994.
By comparison, the Anti-Defamation League reported in April that anti-Semitic acts in the United States increased 17 percent in 2004. Most Jewish groups say such incidents are widely underreported because Jews fear repercussions.
“My wife, Elizabeth, and I believe that in the end, this is a crisis that must be resolved by non-Jews,” Comper, a Roman Catholic, said in a speech before the Empire Club of Canada, the country’s oldest and most prestigious speakers forum.
“Non-Jews must join the battle against what has been described sadly, but accurately, as the oldest and the longest of hatreds,” he said.
The speech provoked some tears and one of the longest standing ovations ever, said the organization’s president, Bart Mindszenthy. “Even longer than the ovations for the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan.”
Businesses use financial muscle, influence
Elizabeth Comper's first idea was to offer a reward leading to an arrest in the incidents she had seen reported on TV. But as she and her husband talked with Jewish friends, they decided they could do more. They started calling other business leaders.
“We asked them two things,” Comper said. “One of which was: Would you be prepared to lend your personal name and your company’s name in visible support — stand up and be counted? And two, would you give us $10,000 to help fund the development material?”
They signed up 21 business leaders, including John Hunkin, CEO of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and Timothy J. Hearn, chairman and president of Imperial Oil Ltd.
The government also has reacted to the rise in anti-Semitic acts. In March, it deported Ernst Zundel, a white supremacist who is author of a book titled “The Hitler We Loved and Why” and denies the Holocaust occurred. He was sent back to his native Germany, where he faces charges of inciting hatred.
Effort in the schools
The first project undertaken by FAST is a four-part DVD series — “Choose Your Voice” — to be released in September in Ontario schools.
The video shows three Holocaust survivors, a former white supremacist, a woman who witnessed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and a black hockey player who suffered racism talking about their experiences.
The business group hopes such educational materials will discourage anti-Semitic incidents like one earlier this year involving students at a private school that shocked the Toronto community.
Three 10th-graders at an all-boys school created Internet chat rooms named the “Gas Chamber” and “the Reichstag” on a student site, where they posted old images of Jews being tortured and sent to gas chambers.
When students at a nearby all-girls school complained, the boys responded with e-mails calling one of the girls a Jew “who should be thrown in an oven with the rest of them” and a “hooknosed parasite.”
Teaching witnesses to speak out
The three boys — one of whom is Jewish — were expelled and four others were suspended for knowing about the chat rooms and not telling.
The Compers hope to touch youngsters like them with their DVD.
In the video, a Jewish man recalls how as a youngster, he was beaten by a bunch of thugs.
Elizabeth Comper described the man's recollection: “And he’s laying there and he looks up and he sees a lady looking (down) the window at him and he says in the video: ‘I forgave the perpetrators years ago. I have never, ever been able to forgive that lady that left me, a 5-year-old laying on the grass, just left me there.”’
“So we’re trying to teach kids, too, that to witness it and to be silent is not proper.”