Howard Rotberg still shudders when he remembers hearing the words.
“He is a f***ing Jew!”
His attacker wasn’t a Nazi brownshirt in Germany circa 1938. Rotberg, an author and lawyer, experienced the anti-Semitic verbal attack at a Canadian college town bookstore in 2004.
Rotberg was launching his self-published novel, The Second Catastrophe, at the local Chapters-Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, with over 70% of the nation’s book sales. Incredibly, his novel — about a Jewish professor whose angry words during a lecture land him in trouble — practically came to life before his eyes that night. Years later, Rotberg is still feeling the aftershocks.
Rotberg had no sooner begun his lecture when, as author and columnist Phyllis Chesler later recounted:
Suddenly, two Muslims interrupted his speech. The first disrupter, who identified himself as a Palestinian, accused Rotberg of saying or perhaps thinking that “all Muslims are terrorists.” The disrupter admitted that he had not read the book. A second man, who identified himself as an Iraqi Kurd, began “ranting about how Americans and Israelis are the real terrorists and that democracy is really fascist.” They did not allow Rotberg to speak. According to Rotberg, they used “Gestapo tactics to completely disrupt [my] lecture.” One called Rotberg, the son of a Holocaust survivor, “a f***ing Jew.”
To Rotberg’s amazement, not a single member of the Chapters store staff, which included one young woman in a hijab named Raneem Al-Halimi, intervened — “that is,” writes Chesler, “until Rotberg responded that he would ‘not be called a f***ing Jew.'”
“The store manager came over to me and told me not to swear. I told him that I was the one being sworn at; he said that it didn’t matter. He gathered up the books on the table and escorted me to his office at the back.
“I want you to call the police.” I said.
“What for?” he replied.
“Because these totalitarians just stopped my right to lecture, and are swearing at me, and who knows what they will do next?” I said.
“I don’t have the number,” he claimed.
I couldn’t believe this. “Try 911,” I suggested.
The police were finally called, but they merely cautioned Rotberg’s hecklers and told them to stay away from the store. The responding officer also refused to escort the author to his car.
Understandably shaken, Rotberg issued a press release, canceling his upcoming Chapters lectures, citing security concerns.
In contrast to Chapters’ sluggish response to the incident itself, it was that press release that prompted an almost instantaneous response from the bookstore chain. Sorya Ingrid Gaulin, director of public relations and regional marketing, telephoned Rotberg and, incredibly, berated him for not clearing the wording of his press release with her before he’d sent it out, as if he were a junior staffer and not an independent author.
Then she lowered the boom: “I heard you said some things at the lecture just as objectionable as what was said to you. We are going to issue our own press release, and you may not be happy with what it says.”
“What are you alleging that I said?” I was shocked, to say the least.
“What do you mean, exactly?” I asked.
“I heard that you said that all Muslims are terrorists!”
I was sinking deeper into my state of shock. All I could say was: “I definitely did not say that. If you put out a press release with such nonsense, I will sue to protect my reputation.” I hung up.
She issued her press release all right [to the Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read daily]. Suddenly, I was in an Orwellian world where the victim of racism was now the racist. The press release apologized for any “inappropriate behavior and … racist comments both from the guest author and some of the attendees at this particular event.”
Being called a “racist” was too much for Rotberg.
In his defense, Rotberg collected sworn affidavits from audience members, confirming his version of events.
He also made a discovery that eerily echoes recent revelations about Canada’s out-of-control Human Rights Commissions and their bizarre “investigatory” tactics. Rotberg explains:
On a public forum page of the Canadian Coalition for Democracies (one of the few Canadian organizations willing to make a public statement in my support), they received a posting from a person identifying herself as Jewish, saying she was at the lecture, and that I had made her ashamed to be a Jew, and what I really said was that “all Arabs and Muslims must die.”
With the help of Al Gordon from the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, and some pro bono legal work from Weir Foulds law firm in Toronto, we got the computer IP address from which the email was sent, and then got a court order disclosing the name and address of the people who sent the email.
According to Rotberg’s statement of claim, the forum messages were traced to a computer owned by the mother of one of the defendants — whom Rotberg alleges is a friend of that hijab-wearing Chapters employee!
Rotberg’s case goes to trial in Kitchener, Ontario, on August 27 and 28. He’s set up a new blog to keep his supporters up to date on every development.
Rotberg believes that his suit is a much-needed challenge to the current neo-McCarthyesque climate, in which “racist” has replaced “commie” as the charge, judgment, and death sentence of choice. Like “commie,” the word “racist” is so overused that its meaning is becoming lost; look at one judge’s recent assertion that “devil’s food cake” is “racist.” And, like “commie,” the word has become a source of amusement. (The blockbuster, Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q features an upbeat song entitled “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”) With each passing day, Peter Brimelow’s definition — “A racist is a conservative winning an argument with a liberal” — seems more apt than ever.
And yet, the word still has the power to make even the powerful tremble. Witness the “first black president” himself, Bill Clinton, feeling obliged to insist to ABC News that he’s not a racist.
Rather than tremble in the face of accusations of “racism,” Rotberg is fighting back. He told Pajamas Media:
Chapters refused to put in writing just what I am alleged to have said to justify their actions of calling me a “racist,” even though the court ordered them to disclose this by November 23, and only did so after being in breach of the court order.
Rotberg says that Chapters is relying upon a written statement by Muslim employee Raneem Al-Halimi, taken long after the actual event. She accuses Rotberg of saying “all Middle Eastern people are terrorists,” which he denies, as do his witnesses’ affidavits. Al-Halimi’s statement, says Rotberg, is almost completely subjective. It “has little to do with the facts, but with what she thinks I must think of her.”
Rotberg had hoped to receive some support from the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith. He was unaware, until recently, of both groups’ habit — in the name of “interfaith relations” — of siding with Muslims against their fellow Jews, such as the Canadian publisher of the “Mohammed” cartoons, Ezra Levant. Levant’s scathing denunciations of those he calls “Jews for a living” paint an unflattering portrait of those he says act as “errand boys for anti-Semites,” who’ve gone so far as to actually support the formation of the tiny, cartoonish “Canadian Nazi Party” in 1966, in order to give themselves an acceptably easy-to-defeat enemy to fight.
“It is hard enough to exercise freedom of speech when your ‘unpopular’ opinions expose you to physical intimidation,” Rotberg told Pajamas Media. “But when you can’t get any backing or support, it becomes a ‘martyr’s’ game.”
Like Levant, Rotberg is getting out of the publishing business. He now devotes his energies to helping develop affordable housing for the poor.
“I feel that only now, after four years, with the trial upcoming, and the country waking up to the ‘lawfare’ against Levant and [Mark] Steyn, are people waking up to what happened to me, and what it means.”
Ironically, because Chapters-Indigo’s multi-millionaire owner is Heather Reisman, a high-profile Jewish woman who supports a charity for Israeli soldiers, her flagship Toronto store attracts weekly pickets by hostile leftists, a display one blogger calls “slo-mo Kristallnact.”
Like her fellow liberal establishment Jews in B’nai Brith and the CJC, Reisman seems to be struggling to find her ideological feet in an era where the new enemy of the Jews doesn’t look like the old one. At various times, Reisman has banned, then unbanned, then re-banned, Mein Kampf, certain gun magazines, and both Atlantic Monthly and Levant’s Western Standard when they published the “Mohammed” cartoons.
When Mark Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone debuted in 2006, Chapters-Indigo fumbled badly. Fans emailed Steyn about their fruitless attempts to buy his book through the chain. He reacted with a withering column:
A frustrated Mr. Robert Werner received the following written reply from Laura Blight, Indigo’s “Coordinator, Selling Services & Solutions, Store Performance Department”: “Wow, this title is certainly generating interest!” In everyone except Ms. Blight and her colleagues, it seems.
A chastened but still easily confused Reisman personally hosted Mark Steyn at a standing-room-only event — complete with uniformed police presence — in Toronto earlier this year, celebrating the paperback launch of America Alone. During her opening remarks, Riesman sheepishly referenced her company’s clueless handling of the book when it first came out.
“What about the Western Standard?” someone in the audience blurted out.
“Yeah, and how about the Atlantic Monthly?” called someone else.
No one shouted, “What about Howard Rotberg?”
Maybe they will next time.