Allan Levine is a historian and writer whose latest book is Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience, from which this essay is adapted.
One evening early in February, 1970, the machers – community “big shots,” predominantly men in those days – accompanied by their wives, were out in full force at a black-tie gala at Montreal’s Hotel Bonaventure. This was definitely an event for the city’s “uptown” rather than “downtown” Jews – the latter most likely a description of the parents and grandparents of those in attendance. Most of the partygoers were the sons and daughters of Russian and Eastern European immigrants who had resided on and around mythical St. Lawrence Boulevard, or “The Main,” as it has been fondly feted by A.M. Klein, Mordecai Richler and many other members of Montreal’s Jewish literati. The gala’s guest of honour was prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who received the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith’s Canadian Family of Man Award.
Mr. Trudeau anointed multiculturalism as a major policy of his government. In theory at least, it significantly altered Canadian values to the betterment of the lives of Jews and other ethnic groups. He also appointed Jews to his cabinet, the judiciary and the civil service in record numbers. But, not all that surprisingly, the Family of Man Award loomed larger for the community than for Mr. Trudeau and his officials. As confidential discussions about the award ceremony show, it was perceived by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office as a politically opportune time for the prime minister to address the Jewish community in a formal setting – merely one more speaking engagement and event in a very long list that was discussed and co-ordinated by the PMO.
Nonetheless, on this night Mr. Trudeau was lauded for his “contribution and record of achievement in expanding the scope of human freedom,” among other notable accomplishments. Accepting the award, he remarked that “the Canadian brotherhood within which the Jews form a community … is truly remarkable for its origins and for the quality of its contribution to the Canadian way of life. … So outstanding is the Jewish contribution that it is difficult to imagine our society without it.” Jews, he added, “are destined to remain a minority amongst the peoples of the world. They are in fact the quintessence of a minority.”
It was pretty heady stuff. Doubtless a majority of the guests returned to their fashionable homes in Westmount and Hampstead feeling that Jews had finally been given the respect they deserved by a sitting prime minister. They knew they had made it, but they took some satisfaction in knowing that Mr. Trudeau did, too.
Jews represent only about 1.2 per cent of Canada’s population, but there is likely no field of endeavour, no profession or pursuit in which a Jewish presence is not evident. This exceptional achievement did not happen overnight.
More than a century ago, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe arrived in Canada in large numbers, seeking the “fabled city,” to borrow that phrase from Klein’s 1942 poem Autobiographical. They wanted a home and country in which they could not only survive and prosper, but also leave a positive legacy for their children, grandchildren and the generations that followed.
They did indeed find the fabled city they were searching for in Canada, yet their integration into the larger society was not always welcome, and the struggles they faced caused much inner turmoil and hardship. “There are only two characteristics which most Jews have in common,” a Jewish lawyer explains in Gwethalyn Graham’s award-winning 1944 novel Earth and High Heaven, one of the first works of fiction published in Canada to address anti-Semitism. “One of them is a determination to survive, if possible, and the other is a basic sense of insecurity.”
Jews – or “Hebrews,” as they were more commonly called in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th by English Canadians – might have been beneficial for trade and business, but they were also a (supposed) “race” of people to be wary of. Today, when so much of being Jewish in Canada and elsewhere is wrapped up with being a supportive Zionist, can you be a “good Jew” and still be critical of Israel? Some Jews don’t think so. What of the children of intermarriages? Jewish law stipulates a matrilineal descent, that a person is only Jewish if their mother is Jewish – a rule firmly adhered to by the Orthodox and conservative branches of Judaism, yet not by Reform Judaism, at least in the United States, which since 1983 has also accepted patrilineal descent. Finally, what if an individual disavows being Jewish? Do they still count as a Jew in the larger historical perspective?
From the standpoint of the non-Jewish world, the old law tends to hold true: A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. But the reality is more complicated. For apart from strong religious differences, Jews have also been divided internally – often bitterly so – by ideology, politics and class. There were Zionists who fought for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; socialists who battled for the rights of workers; and liberals who advocated Jewish assimilation into Western society. Each segment – and some, such as the socialists and Zionists, were divided further still – had their own associations, mutual aid societies, schools, synagogues and political clubs. So a Jewish identity is anything but as straightforward as non-Jews perceived it. As Kurt Lewin, a noted Jewish German-American psychologist put it in 1948, “There are, I think, few chores more bewildering than that of determining positively the character of the Jewish group.”
The one powerful bond that all Jews share, regardless of their religious or ideological convictions, is that they have been disdained and hated as the outsider, the unwanted. Anti-Semites rarely distinguish between the varieties of Jews; they detest them all equally. In modern times, the worst anti-Semitic viciousness has occurred in Europe, but such hatred has not been absent in Canada or the United States – as we witnessed last weekend with the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered by a killer who “wanted all Jews to die.”
By no means is U.S President Donald Trump to blame for the massacre. But with his constant insults, bullying, virulent anti-immigration pronouncements, flagrant attacks on the media and refusal to unequivocally denounce white nationalists, he does bear much responsibility for debasing the tone of U.S. politics and fostering a climate of fear – a climate that can definitely arouse a disturbed, anti-Semitic killer.
Still, Canadians should not be too smug. The multicultural tolerance that Canadians are so proud of dates only from the late sixties and early seventies. From about 1750 to 1960 (and later), Jews faced all forms and varieties of prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, during the period from the early 1880s to the early 1960s, anti-Semitism was ingrained in the fabric of Canadian society, imposed and practised openly, usually without hesitation, qualifications or shame. Shopping at a Jewish-owned store or using the services of a Jewish tailor was tolerable for most gentile Canadians. But it was not acceptable to have Jewish work colleagues, Jewish neighbours or, worst of all, Jewish members at private sports and social clubs. That was just the way it was. Professional restrictions and quotas at universities were the norm.
In early December, 1950, Rabbi Abraham Feinberg of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform synagogue, delivered a sermon in which he suggested that compelling Jewish students attending Ontario public schools to sing Christmas carols and participate in Yuletide festivities violated their minority rights. His remarks were directed against a noticeable expansion of religious instruction that had been implemented by the minority government of Progressive Conservative premier George Drew in early 1944. While the legislation did permit students to opt out with their parents’ permission, it was a reaffirmation that Ontario was a Christian province in a Christian country.
Curiously, the first criticism directed at Mr. Feinberg for these remarks came from three Orthodox rabbis, who reminded him that Canada was a “Christian country” whose school officials could include in the curriculum any Christian customs they saw fit. It is safe to assume that the three rabbis had zero patience and little respect for a practitioner of Reform Judaism. Next came a public rebuke from the Christian clergy as well as the media.
The most cutting denunciation was courtesy of The Globe and Mail. In a Dec. 5, 1950 editorial titled “A Deplorable Proposal,” the newspaper’s editors were astounded that someone, in particular a rabbi, would demand to “eliminate Christmas from public schools,” ignoring the fact that was not what Mr. Feinberg had actually said. From their perspective, the rabbi’s suggestion was clearly sacrilegious. “The Jewish people in Canada are on the whole an admirable element of the community,” they wrote. “But they are a minority of one to 100. The majority has an absolute right to hold its own beliefs and express them in a manner acceptable to itself. … Nobody should ask [the majority] to give up their right to be Christians in the full expression of that word, just to avoid hurting the minority’s feelings.”
Mr. Feinberg, needless to say, had not anticipated such a backlash or public shaming of his sermon and felt compelled to apologize. Yet he could not win. A few Yiddish newspaper editors castigated him for being too humble. The lesson of this mini-controversy for the larger Jewish community was clear: Jews as a minority were welcome to live among the Christian majority, but they should never forget their place in the hierarchy.
As a youngster, Bernie Farber – who worked for the Canadian Jewish Congress for almost three decades, rising up the ranks to serve as its chief executive officer from 2005 to 2011 – was frequently reminded of his minority status. He was born in 1951 and raised in Ottawa. His father, Max, was a Holocaust survivor, and his mother, Gertrude, came to Canada as a child in the years before the Second World War. He attended a local high school in a nice downtown neighbourhood. He was, however, one of only a handful of Jewish students in the school and the only one in his Grade 10 class. Being called a “fucking Jew” was the norm, he recalls. In one English class, the teacher, who Mr. Farber says “was not a bad guy,” announced that the students would be studying Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a play with anti-Semitic themes. The teacher started assigning parts to the students, and when he got to Mr. Farber he said, “Bernie, since you’re the Jew, you’ll play Shylock.” Mr. Farber remembers being devastated. That night, he told his father what had happened. His father, who before the war had performed in Yiddish theatre, offered to assist him so he would be the best Shylock ever. Bernie agreed and diligently rehearsed. When it came time to perform the play, he was brilliant. “That was very good, Bernie,” the teacher told him, “but next time put on the Yiddish accent like your father.” More than 50 years later, Mr. Farber still shakes his head at the memory of that comment.
Mr. Farber’s story is only one of thousands of such examples. Whether Canadians want to admit it or not, at the heart of the Jewish history of Canada, or at least hovering over it, is a frequently unrelenting anti-Semitism that has affected the lives of generations of Canadian Jews. Still, it does not define them.
B’nai Birth in Canada and the Anti-Defamation League in the United States report that anti-Semitic incidents increased in both countries in 2017. Much of this increase was reckless vandalism, racist graffiti and harassment, but it is still disconcerting. Worse are the vile online attacks on Twitter and Instagram and websites such as Gab.com, favoured by the killer in the Pittsburgh shooting. Free speech is one thing – spreading hate quite another.
Prejudice will always exist, particularly in countries with diverse populations such as Canada and the United States, where some members of the majority group feel threatened by progress and change. At the same time, the genuinely sympathetic messages of support for the victims and their families in Pittsburgh from non-Jews far and wide and their strong denunciation of anti-Semitism are signs that attitudes truly have changed for the better.
Excerpted from Seeking the Fabled City by Allan Levine. Copyright © 2018 Allan Levine. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.