On February 18, Holocaust survivor and social activist Suzanne Weiss spoke at Concordia University about her life, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamophobia, and the climate crisis.
“Back in 1942, Adolf Hitler marked me down for death. I was only one year old. Why did Hitler want to kill me?’’ Weiss started her speech by recalling the first time her life was at risk. Born into a Jewish family in Paris in Nazi-occupied France, she answered the question herself: “Because he was a racist, a white supremacist.”
It took her several decades to find out how she was saved: “There was a civilian resistance which obstructed the Nazi rule and provided refuge for thousands of Jews, including me,” she told the attendees, adding, “It was also a multitude of individuals who helped [in various ways]. A multitude of small individual acts of courage and kindness forged a chain of solidarity across the country, which helped defeat the Nazis.” Her parents did not survive – Weiss’ mother was deported to Auschwitz, while her father died of war wounds, leaving her an orphan.
After the liberation of France, at age nine she was adopted by a Jewish American family in New York. Her stepfather had a narrow view of women, believing their destiny was to “find a mate, marry, and take care of [their] husband and household and their children.” She rejected this stereotype, and at age 17, she left home and took refuge with a girlfriend. Weiss recalled, “It was illegal for a girl of my age to leave home without permission. My parents had me arrested and charged my girlfriend’s mother for influencing me to be a lesbian!”
Weiss has recently published a memoir, Holocaust to Resistance, My Journey. Abigail B. Bakan, a professor of social justice education at the University of Toronto, has called it “a page-turning narrative about her remarkable life of survival, resistance and solidarity,” asking “everyone who wants to change the world” to read the book.
At the age of 17, Weiss became a social activist. She has engaged with the Black Power movement, the women’s liberation movement, the Labor Union Movement, and the Cuban Revolution. She also became an advocate for peace during the Vietnam War and a justice supporter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Weiss said “The mass movements of those years profoundly changed society. All the different movements were allied and had a collective impact. Today, we call it intersectionalism.”
The event was organized by the Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), a grassroots organization grounded in Jewish tradition that opposes all forms of racism and advocates for justice and peace in Israel-Palestine. IJV has active branches at Concordia and McGill.
Weiss believes that Israeli Jewish people and Palestinians are both victims: “The victims of one great historic injustice, the Jews, themselves became the agents of an inflicting injustice on an indigenous innocent population, the Palestinians.” She added that Palestinians have found allies among Indigenous peoples of Canada, whose land was stolen through a similar process of colonialism. In Weiss’ words, “Palestinians and natives of Turtle Island, they have been both colonized and subjected to ethnic cleansing.”
Drawing a parallel with the apartheid regime in South Africa, Weiss reminded attendees how the racist system in South Africa collapsed: “a global boycott contributed to the non-violent outcome, an agreement seeking racial justice and reconciliation.” Similarly, she said, we need to achieve peace and justice in Palestine through nonviolent methods of persuasion, boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS.
She expressed her deep concern about a new rise of antisemitism, a hatred of Jewish people, but she emphasized, “Antisemitism is not caused by Palestinians. Hatred of Jews is a form of racism, deeply rooted in European society and closely linked to white supremacy. We need to reject racism.”
Weiss noted the importance of defining antisemitism properly. On January 28, 2020, a motion to have Montreal adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was withdrawn when Montreal mayor Valérie Plante proposed to further study the matter. Weiss summarized this as, “The city of Montreal was asked to officially state that antisemitism means undue criticism of Israel. The city council said no! Well done!” In contrast to the IHRA definition, IJV defines antisemitism as hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jewish people because they are Jewish people, stating that the vital battle against antisemitism is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as antisemitic.
Weiss emphasized the catastrophic risk of racism in view of the climate crisis, saying, “The victims of the climate crisis are mostly people of colour in the Global South. The racists have an answer: build walls, keep them out. If racism and climate barbarism triumph, they will infect and poison every aspect of our lives and destroy our world.” The phrase “climate barbarism” was coined by Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein, to refer to the combination of white supremacist violence and vicious anti-immigrant actions.
When asked about her view on Islamophobia, Weiss replied, “The Muslims helped us in France […] They gave us garments and all kinds of help. […] The move against the Muslims now in this society is part of white supremacy.” She stated that Muslims are being targeted just like Jewish people, people of colour and immigrants, arguing, it is important to unite against white supremacy rather than turning against each other.
IJV Canada will be co-hosting an event with SPHR McGill on February 25, where anti-occupation activist Zohar Chamberlain Regev will speak on her work with Freedom Flotilla Coalition and the 2020 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. IJV will also co-organize a movie and pizza night on February 26 at McGill, screening Junction 48, an award-winning movie about young Palestinians in the city of Lod.