I sat down with Reverend Zenji Nio, the only man in North America to officially be knighted as a Samurai, to discuss this Thursday’s Holocaust memorial event he is organizing on behalf of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Yom HaShoah. It is set to be a first of its kind event as it gathers in 20 leaders from different faiths for a public prayer service and memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.
Interfaith events don’t appeal to everyone. As Zenji Nio says they tend to mostly produce “Kumbaya platitudes” that help perpetuate an “ostrich mentality.” Instead, he believes in using the Samurai mentality to combat anti-Semitism.
The story of the Samurai and the Jews starts in 1940 with Zenji Nio’s role model, Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. When Jewish refugees came to him with obviously fraudulent papers from Curacao and other Dutch islands, seeing what was happening to Jews in Nazi occupied territories, he granted them visas to travel to Japan as that was the only way for them to get to safety in America.
This is the legacy that Zenji Nio wishes to continue. A Samurai is someone who fights with honour for a righteous cause, and does not stand idly by in the face of evil.
Nio first realized his calling during the Olympics. The man nicknamed “the Olympic Samurai” for his work teaching Samurai Buddhism to over 50 medalists, recalled being stunned by the level of anti-Semitism he saw at one of the world’s most supposedly uniting events. The massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich games is the most famous incident, but there are many non-fatal instances of anti-Semitism at the Olympics.
Take for example the most recent Summer Games in 2016 when the Lebanese delegation protested the presence of Israeli athletes on their bus and refused to let them on the Olympic bus. Two things of note on this event. Was there any international condemnation? No, most outlets neglected to cover it. What happened? The Jews were forced to take a separate bus.
This is when Nio realized that antisemitism isn’t like any other type of racism. To the white supremacy crowd Jews are nefarious infiltrators conspiring against whiteness. To the white privilege crowd Jews are co-conspirators in upholding white privilege, such as the recent emergence of the phrase “white Jews” used to indicate what the Left deems as a bad Jew.
Anti-Semitism doesn’t have a single source, it can come from all sides of the political spectrum, religious and secular doctrines and in all cultures. This has been in display this week with the synagogue shooting in San Diego by a white supremacist coming on the heels of a Nazi-style cartoon appearing in the New York Times.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in our society, and Zenji Nio says it keeps him up at night. Because to him anti-Semitic events represent a manifestation of the cracks in our social fabric, and no matter who wins our current culture war, if they are a radical faction persecution will start with the Jews and then expand outwards.
This is why he stresses the need to acknowledge the distinct anti-Semitic nature of the Holocaust, and bring together leaders of different communities in a public event. The goal of this Thursday’s memorial is to set a new precedent. If 20 different faith leaders can get together in Toronto to mourn the victims of the Holocaust than they can do it in New York, Chicago, London, Madrid, etc.
The wider purpose here would be to inspire the populous to take the issue seriously. If they can see their religious leaders work together on this issue it will hopefully inspire them to educate themselves on the matter. The faith leaders at this event are sort of the who’s who in Canada. Cheri Dinovo, the first minister to perform a same sex wedding in North America, Raheel Raza, the first woman to lead Islamic prayer services in Canada and Oxford, Elder Dianne Longboat, a First Nations leader who had 3 in laws killed by Nazis, Imam Tahwidi, who flew in from Australia, and Avi Benlolo, the CEO of FSWC Canada.
During this first of its kind Yom HaShoah event, don’t expect the standard nebulous spirituality that is common to interfaith gatherings though. Zenji Nio believes the purpose of interfaith should be to ask hard questions, because if our leaders can’t be expected to deal with difficult issues, then who can? He is of the opinion that anti-Semitism should be fought by the way of the Samurai, confronted in a straight forward and honourable way.
To him, one of the main causes of the Holocaust was the inaction of the population when things were getting bad, the old adage that evil only thrives when good men do nothing. So that is his commitment in the fight against hatred, never again will faith leaders sit cowardly on the sidelines while Jews are discriminated against, simply happy that it isn’t them at the moment.
There is some “extreme hate” in today’s climate, and for Reverend Zenji Nio the solution is a combination of compassion, Bushido (Samurai code of chivalry) and honor. And the sooner we get there, the better. Anti-Semitism is quickly becoming a popular political opinion, and people Jewish and non-Jewish are increasingly afraid to express themselves in public, and this needs to change if we as a society are ever to confront something serious.