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The B.C. hate speech trial that nobody’s heard about


With Parliament’s anti-Islamophobia motion in the news recently and the country divided over the issue of freedom of speech as it applies to criticizing identifiable groups, it’s strikingly odd that a real live hate speech trial – the first in B.C. in about a decade – concluded this month with a controversial sentencing, yet barely a whisper from the media.

CBC did report on the March 13 sentencing of Radical Press publisher Arthur Topham, who was convicted in Quesnel in 2015 on one of two counts of communicating statements that wilfully promoted hatred against Jewish people. Times of Israel also reported on the sentence, running a story under the headline, “No jail time for Canadian man convicted of online anti-Semitism.” And the Canadian Jewish News also ran a report: “Topham’s sentence a ‘slap on the wrist:’ B’nai Brith.”

Other than a brief story in the Prince George Citizen, Canadian print media were silent. Even the alternative media, usually all over this sort of thing, ran nothing.

Ryan Bellerose, advocacy coordinator for B’nai Brith Canada’s League of Human Rights in Western Canada, found the silent treatment disturbing in light of recent anti-Semitic incidents, according to the Canadian Jewish News article. “No one is even talking about [the sentence],” Bellerose is quoted as saying. “That’s an especially bad message to send in today’s climate.”

In sentencing the 70-year-old Topham, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Bruce Butler rejected the Crown’s request for four months of house arrest, instead giving Topham a six-month conditional sentence, a ban on posting publicly online and a curfew. Topham, who thanked the court “for bringing my concerns to the record,” had already agreed to shut down the website he started in 1998.

Butler explained his rationale for the relatively lenient sentence.

“He does not call for violence. His views were political satire,” the judge said of Topham at the hearing. “It is not his intent to indirectly incite violence.”

Though the jury was not explicit, it appears Topham’s single conviction was tied to his 2011 booklet called Israel Must Perish. The judge accepted it as political satire because it was a copy-and-paste version of a thin 1941 book called Germany Must Perish, written by American Jewish businessman Theodore Kaufman, with Topham simply replacing “Germany” with “Israel” and “Germans” with “Zionists.”

When it was published in the U.S., Kaufman’s book received some positive ink from the likes of Time magazine but became notorious in Germany, advocating as it did the mass-sterilization of Germans due to their supposed war-loving nature – in other words, for the total elimination of the German people in a “humane” fashion, which Kaufman estimated would take two generations to achieve. Germany Must Perish stoked fears among Germans that post-war genocide was planned for them and fuelled animosity toward Jews in that country. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diary: “Had he written this book for us, he could not have made it any better.”

Israeli-born author and musician Gilad Atzmon, who spoke at Topham’s trial as an expert for the defence on Jewish identity politics, said Kaufman’s book was concealed for seven decades, kept “deep under the carpet,” because it didn’t fit the approved Second World War narrative. “It was, in fact, Arthur Topham and his crude satire that brought Kaufman’s hateful text to our attention,” Atzmon wrote in a 2015 article.

The scant coverage of Topham’s sentencing and crime had one very troubling aspect: none of the reports mentioned Kaufman’s book.

CBC simply reported, “One piece that Topham called ‘satire’ advocated the forced sterilization of all Jews.” Canadian Jewish News: “On the racist, anti-Semitic website he founded and on which he posted vitriol before removing the site just last week, Topham wrote that Jews should be forcibly sterilized.” Times of Israel wrote, “According to B’nai Brith Canada, his site called for Jews to be forcibly sterilized …”

It’s understandable that B’nai Brith, given its mandate, would find Topham’s parody indefensible on any grounds and would not want to give one inch to his supposed motivations by even acknowledging them in substance. But for CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, the omission is frightening. It denies the public knowledge of the convicted man’s only intelligible defence and renders meaningless the judge’s arguments.

Pollster Angus Reid reported last week that three in 10 Canadians considered Parliament’s anti-Islamophobia motion “a threat to Canadians’ freedom of speech,” so it’s clear that Canadians have strong feelings on the subject. It’s probably safe to say that most Canadians would condemn Topham’s Israel Must Perish stunt as juvenile, disrespectful and potentially harmful at best, vile at worst – more like the work of a hare-brained exhibitionist or an agent provocateur (which Kaufman resembled) than a serious dissident. But after learning the salient facts, how many would have supported criminal prosecution for hate speech? It would be interesting to know the numbers.

Meanwhile, with the public wary of information sources that are either coercive or cowed into silence, the three-in-10 fear of blasphemy laws in the new Canada seems like a reasonable breakdown.