There’s an old joke among Jews that in a room with 10 of us, you’ll find 11 opinions.
But growing up Jewish in Toronto, I learned early on that there were some things that you talked about among other Jews, and some things that weren’t supposed to come up. Being queer was one of them. Being critical of the Israeli occupation was another. From camp to campus, synagogue to Shabbat dinner, I was taught that all I should want from life was a free trip to Israel to hook up with a hot female soldier. That’s what we heard from our community media, and until very recently, I didn’t know anything different.
While American Jews enjoy a robust community media culture from all over the political spectrum, there is no parallel in Canada. Here, we have one newspaper that claims to represent all of the activities, interests, and ideas of our heterogeneous community. For Jewish Canadians who do not see themselves and their narratives represented, the media is just one more unsafe space where a constrained definition of Jewishness is the only acceptable norm.
There may be 11 opinions, but you’ll never hear them. Unless you listen to Treyf.
To Sam Bick and David Zinman, the hosts of the self-described “debatably Jewish podcast” out of Montreal, the community’s conservative media climate needed a radical rethinking. (“Treyf” is the Yiddish word for food that isn’t kosher.)
“In our desire to build alternative media spaces, there’s an inherent media criticism in what we’re doing,” Bick told me in an interview. “There’s the act of engaging with stories and people and ideas that never make it into the mainstream.”
Treyf is unapologetically leftist, loudly Jewish, and completely unashamed to demand more diverse and critical community conversations. Online, audio-based, user-supported, young, and progressive, Treyf is totally different from the media that the Canadian Jewish community is used to.
The biggest player in the world of Jewish media in Canada is the Canadian Jewish News. The CJN is the only such English-language newspaper with a national audience, and the only national one still publishing on a regular weekly schedule.
I met the editor-in-chief, Yoni Goldstein, at the CJN’s tiny office in Concord, north of Toronto. I assumed I’d at least be in someone’s way, but the place was more a sigh than a buzz; if there was anyone else around besides the two of us, they were keeping quiet.
Goldstein joined the team in 2013, after the paper’s near-demise due to financial troubles. Fifty staff members were terminated in the downsizing, from April to June of 2013. “The staff was reduced significantly, the same way that most newsrooms have been,” he said.
The CJN is one of just a handful of Canadian Jewish newspapers that still put out print editions. (The others are local, including Vancouver’s Jewish Independent and Winnipeg’s biweekly Jewish Post and News.)
“When I started this job, Jewish Tribune was still publishing. Outlook was still publishing. They’re both gone now,” Goldstein said.
The loss of Outlook was perhaps the heaviest blow to hit Canadians yet. That isn’t to understate the significance of the Jewish Tribune, but as the mouthpiece of B’nai Brith Canada, it had a decidedly right-wing, heavily Zionist orientation that readers could (and do) find elsewhere. Not so with the Vancouver-based Outlook. The magazine was and remains unique.
“As far as certain issues go, Outlook had a position that was different from the mainstream publications of the Jewish community,” Carl Rosenberg told me over the phone. “Outlook was the only magazine of its kind in Canada.”
Rosenberg is the former editor-in-chief of Outlook; he was kind enough to send me a digital copy of its final issue, published in June 2016. Inside, I saw Jewish Canadians decrying austerity, demanding solidarity, calling for a more progressive public discourse, lamenting the decline of public broadcasting, articulating the diversity of gender identity — positions I had frequently heard among other Jews but had rarely, if ever, seen written in Jewish media. I couldn’t help but imagine someone’s bubbie writing with polemic flourish about the need for gender inclusivity.
But realizing that I was reading the last issue was like a punch to my gut. I would never hear from that imaginary bubbie again.
The world of Canadian Jewish media is extraordinarily limited. Finding a genuinely progressive opinion in the pages of our community media is near-impossible, despite the prevalence of those voices in day-to-day Jewish lives. Both the editor-in-chief and board president of the CJN, for example, define themselves as “strong advocates for Zionism” and expressly prohibit participation from groups and individuals they believe are not.
On the other hand, the paper is a frequent platform for organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Hillel, and the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee (CJPAC). Though their leadership is privately appointed and funded, these organizations effectively present themselves as the official representatives and agents of Canadian Jews, depicting the Jewish community as uniform in its views concerning Israel.
“With all due respect, [the CJN has] published some worthwhile things on Jewish cultural issues in Canada, but their range on Israel is very limited,” said Rosenberg.
As the only national English-language Jewish newspaper, the CJN has a substantial audience that includes more than just Jewish readers.
“We know that we’re widely read in government,” said Goldstein. “In Ottawa, in Queen’s Park, in Montreal and Quebec City.”
As a result, most elected decision-makers in Canadian politics exclusively encounter a narrow range of voices when it comes to assessing what qualifies as Jewish community interests.
To the hosts of Treyf, the limited position of the CJN is less an issue with the paper itself and more a statement about the kinds of problems and perspectives that are given a platform in the Canadian Jewish community. When one outlet alone becomes the only insight that Canadian policymakers have into the needs of the Jewish community, that can leave a lot out if it doesn’t fit their intended audience.
“A significant portion of the Jewish community lives [on] or around the poverty line,” said Bick, who grew up in Montreal. There, the poverty rate among Jews is between 20 and 23 per cent. The overall Jewish poverty rate in Canada is about 15 per cent. “Those interests are not being represented, necessarily, in the editorials of the CJN.”
According to their media kit, the readership of the CJN overwhelmingly consists of affluent, educated baby boomers — 83 per cent of readers are over age 50, 80 per cent are homeowners, and the average household income is over $100,000.
The paper has at times highlighted the issue of Jewish poverty — but they won’t hear from groups engaged in anti-poverty activism if those groups are also critical of Israel (and many are). The issues only get addressed through charity initiatives by the same organizations that spend lavishly on pro-Israel advertising campaigns.
It’s on this point that Zinman has a hard time keeping calm. “In my mind, it’s completely out of touch with who Jewish people are in the country,” they said.
“CIJA and the federations have done such a good job at presenting themselves as the sole voice for the community,” said Bick. “No one knows who to go to, or even understands that there’s different opinions, really, in the Jewish community.”
Without some criticism of the existing status quo, the interests of leftist Jewish Canadians are cut out entirely from the public perception of what “Jewish interests” means to Canadian policymakers or the mainstream media.
As Zinman argues, the sheer question of numbers makes a big impact on how we engage with our media in such a comparatively small pool. Jewish Voice for Peace, an American Jewish anti-Zionist organization, boasts more online supporters than there are Jews in the entire city of Toronto. The relative scale of Canadian society is a long-standing problem for overall media output, and that makes it challenging to establish something new, particularly when it goes against the grain.
“Jews on the left in Canada tend to be increasingly unaffiliated from Jewish institutional structures,” said Zinman. “You can go to leftist organizations and find lots of Jewish people, but you can go to Jewish institutions and find a lot fewer leftists.”
Without a more vibrant and representative media climate, many Jewish people end up feeling alienated by the conservative bootstraps-and-Zionism narrative of Jewish identity that permeates institutional organizations.
The Canadian Jewish community is nowhere near united when it comes to Israel. Many Jewish groups are far to the left of the perspectives that get included in mainstream conversations, but they are too often shut out of the discussion.
Independent Jewish Voices, for example, recently called out CIJA for its unwillingness to condemn Islamophobia. But when we spoke, Goldstein told me that statements from members of Independent Jewish Voices are generally not welcome in the Canadian Jewish News.
The restrictions imposed by such a stunted media environment, compounded by the platform that some groups are given over others, perpetuates a very narrow idea of Jewish interests. Amplifying marginalized voices and telling diverse stories — that goes beyond media criticism and into a space of media creation.
Clarification and corrections (posted on 3/27/2017 at 2:42, 2:42, and 4:12 p.m., respectively): This article originally stated that “there are more Jewish people in Jewish Voice for Peace…than in the entire city of Toronto.” We’ve clarified that the sentence refers to the group’s “online supporters,” not all of whom are necessarily Jewish. This article also originally stated that the CJN’s Goldstein said statements from members of Independent Jewish Voices are “prohibited” from the paper. In fact, while he indicated that they’re generally unwelcome due to incompatible values, there is no blanket prohibition. Further, this article stated that the CJN is one of “just three” Canadian Jewish newspapers that still publish in print. But while the CJN remains the only national English-language paper, there are in fact more than two local publications.
Listen to CANADALAND episode 177, “Being Jewish in Public,” in which host Jesse Brown speaks to the CJN‘s Goldstein and Treyf‘s Bick and Zinman about the state of Jewish media in Canada.