Commentary By: Avi Benlolo in Toronto
Today is International Day of Democracy. Yet, the western world seems to have lost hope of the very fundamentals we are supposed to hold dear to our hearts – freedom, equality, respect and peace building. Democracies are far from perfect and disparities within exist and must be addressed to alleviate hardship and continued inequality. However, Gross Domestic Product, mortality and literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world among leading nation states which practice democracy. Third-world developing nations struggle with persistent war, poverty, disparity, environmental degradation and inequity. It’s no wonder that democracies like Canada enjoy an inflow of migrants who hope to live in a nation which respects the UN Declaration for Human Rights, unlike the majority of the UN General Assembly.
Still, democracies have become far too forgiving or compromising. While we preach gender equality, we look the other way as non-democracies practice gender apartheid and withhold women's rights, for example. We say we want to promote "women and girls' leadership and participation in political, social and peace-building processes" which would be essential to building democracies worldwide, but we timidly look the other way. We provide military equipment as Canada has to Saudi Arabia and promote trade with nations that discriminate against others, and in many cases are spreading the seeds of hate and intolerance worldwide.
For all of its good deeds in assisting the developing world with billions of dollars of investment aid in order to further democracy, the west is targeted relentlessly by terrorists who use the very freedom of movement and assembly to harm innocent people. Today, on International Day of Democracy, European cities have been placed on high alert as a result of a number of incidents, including a bomb in the London subway which injured 22 people; a hammer attack in Lyon that critically injured two women by a man running down the street yelling "Allahu Akhbar"; a knifeman stopped by police in Birmingham and a highway closed in Malmo after explosives were found in a car.
Yet our democracy is failing to curb the attack on the west, on our institutions and our citizens. We have seen a slow and steady degradation of our way of life since 9/11 with increasing spate of terrorism and relentless usage of rights like 'free speech' to sow hate and discord. In many ways, Jewish communities across Europe have been like the so-called canaries in the coal mine – having been the initial recipients of most terror attacks. Now it has spread to society at large.
In Canada, while we speak about equity, anti-racism, tolerance and peace building, our hate crime laws fail to be enforced giving way to more hate crime. We learned this week that in Quebec, the Crown Attorney dropped charges against two imams who were captured on video preaching hatred and violence against Jews at a Montreal mosque. In Toronto, a Muslim community calls for the elimination of Jews each year at its annual "Al Quds" protest at Queen’s Park while violence promoting antisemitic pamphlet circulates the province, with little reaction from authorities. Graffiti stating "Hitler was Right" is spray painted on bridges without condemnation from our premier or leading public figures.
If we are going to celebrate democracy and its fundamentals, we must learn to protect and defend our values and ideals. If democracies celebrate tolerance, they cannot and should not tolerate those who are intolerant of others. They must stand up to hate, enforce hate crime and hate speech laws and place our very values and ideals – like women's rights, justice and equality – first and foremost. Otherwise, I fear that if we are not passionate about our exceptional democratic system, hope for humanity might be lost.
Avi Benlolo is a Canadian human rights activist, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.