Antisemitism in Canada: A Disgraceful History

This is the first chapter of Part Three of Antisemitism Real and Imagined. Page numbers in the printed text are indicated in square brackets. In note 3, I have corrected, in square brackets, a factual error that appears in that note; I have also added a new note 23 in order to correct another factual error. (The new text in both cases appears in italics.) An earlier version of this chapter was published in The Canadian Charger (3 September 2009),

Antisemitism Real and Imagined (2010), Part 3, Chapter 1


A large majority of Canadians take pride in the degree to which our country has become multicultural, hospitable to immigration from all parts of the globe, and anti-racist in principle and practice. Stand-up comedian Russell Peters looks forward happily to a future in which, after a couple of generations of energetic intercommunal sex, Canadians will average out in skin tone to a gorgeous brown colour—somewhat like his own, in fact. (What a prospect: grandchildren as good-looking as Russell Peters! Can we hope they’ll be as smart and funny as well?)

Let’s pause for a moment, though, to ask how well our desired self-image matches social reality. Have we actually managed to free ourselves from racism? Chinese-Canadians, Haitian-Canadians, Somali-Canadians, Jamaican-Canadians, Salvadoran-Canadians, Algerian-Canadians, Pakistani-Canadians: all these, together with people of many other ethnicities, could tell grim stories, if we chose to listen to them, of encounters with racism in our housing and employment markets, in our workplaces and places of leisure, and in institutionally-sanctioned behaviour by servants of the state, ranging from refugee-board personnel and the police to our federal government itself. Not just stories from the distant past, but from here and now as well.

There are of course countervailing stories, both new and old, of acts of spontaneous decency and generosity.1 But a country where First Nations people are disproportionately represented in the prison system, where police can effectively murder native men by dumping them, in the dead of winter, on roadsides outside prairie cities, and where politicians can with impunity order murderous violence against First Nations people non-violently protesting against the theft of their land2—such a country has unresolved issues with racism.

[148] In Europe, antisemitism is commonly described as the oldest and most enduring form of racism. In Canada, however, this shameful precedence arguably belongs to racism against First Nations people, which is an urgent problem not just because it finds expression in structural as well as overt violence, but also because racist attitudes are effectively legitimizing an ongoing appropriation of First Nations lands and resources. Another problem of growing intensity is Islamophobia, which finds expression in Canada not just in public sneers and acts of racially-motivated violence, but also, more substantively, in acts of state—the corruption or defiance of the law on the part of CSIS, the RCMP, and our federal government.3

It would be hard to argue that Jewish Canadians currently face problems of comparable intensity. And yet there are two good reasons for giving close attention at this moment to the issue of antisemitism in Canada.

The first is that this loathsome prejudice has a particularly disgraceful history in this country, which must be understood if we are to appreciate the intensity of Jewish-Canadian anxieties over any possible resurgence of antisemitism. The second is that key members of our federal government, together with the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, have been telling us, quite forcefully, that such a resurgence, far from being a matter of merely abstract concern, is actually well underway.

In this chapter I will offer a brief historical outline of antisemitism in Canada; in the next two chapters I will analyze in detail the parliamentary inquiry’s context and presuppositions, as well as what at this early stage is known of its work.

* * * *

The work of social historians over the past three decades into subjects including the World War I imprisonment of Ukrainian Canadians as “enemy aliens,” the Mackenzie King government’s rejection of Jewish refugees from Nazism during the 1930s, and the World War II dispossession and imprisonment of Japanese Canadians, has effectively shattered the old myth of Canada as a uniquely tolerant, peaceful, and just society. As Alan Davies remarked nearly twenty years ago, the “proud complacency” implied by the phrase “Canada the Good” has been destroyed, and “our national self-righteousness has been left in tatters. The vile odour of old hatreds still lingers in the air, and antisemitism is not the least of their acrid fumes.”4

The early record, it must be said, is mixed. Among the first Jews to settle in Lower Canada following the British conquest was Aaron Hart, a merchant who established himself in Trois-Rivières in 1761. One of his sons, Ezekiel, elected to the legislative assembly in Québec City in 1807 and 1808, was twice denied his seat on the spurious grounds that the oath of office of someone who disbelieved in the New Testament could not be valid. But in 1832, guided by the Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, the assembly passed a law conferring on [149] Jews the same political and civic rights as other citizens—an initiative that was not followed in Britain and in the other colonies of the British empire until more than a quarter-century later.5

The Catholic Church initially welcomed the children of Jews into the province’s francophone schools, but reversed this policy in the late nineteenth century, obliging Jews to make use of the Protestant anglophone schools. A substantial immigration of Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe led to Montréal becoming for several generations an important centre of Yiddish literary culture.6 At the same time, however, formulations of a nascent Québec nationalism often included a strong element of antisemitism—some of it no doubt an import from France, where for more than a generation after 1894 the Dreyfus Affair polarized political opinion between progressive democrats and a reactionary alliance of clerical-military nationalists—“anti-Dreyfusards,” who were almost inevitably antisemites as well, and whose direct ideological heirs were the fascists of Action Française and of the collaborationist Vichy regime.7

This early pattern in Québec is loosely paralleled in English Canada. In 1890s Toronto, for instance, there is evidence of a significant level of fraternization between gentiles and the city’s small, prosperous, and well-assimilated Jewish community. But historian Stephen Speisman notes an abrupt shift between 1907 and 1911, corresponding to an influx of less privileged Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe: signs began to be posted, for example, excluding Jews from public swimming facilities.8

During the 1920s Canadian newspapers, both French and English, stigmatized Jews as dangerous aliens insinuating themselves into positions of influence, while at the same time—inconsistently, one might think—denouncing them as “the brains of the Communist movement.”9 “Gentiles Only” signs were posted in public places—in the Toronto Island parks, for example. And antisemitic propaganda led, predictably, to antisemitic outrages.

In 1933, Canadian Jews were traumatized by two events, again in Toronto: Jewish bathers at the Balmy Beach waterfront park were attacked by youths brandishing swastikas; and a baseball game at Christie Pits between a largely Jewish and an Anglo-Saxon team devolved, after the intervention of gangs carrying swastikas and shouting Nazi slogans, into street-fighting that went on for some six hours.

Radical antisemitism in Québec found expression in Adrien Arcand’s Parti National Social Chrétien, a clerico-fascist Nazi knock-off that in 1937 established an Ontario wing, the National Social Christian Party. In one of his poems of this period, the great Montréal poet Abraham Moses Klein mocked Arcand as a bumbler who, in trying to formulate a party manifesto, couldn’t get beyond the first sentence: “À bas les maudits Juifs!”10

But while parties like Arcand’s National-Social-Christians or the equally antisemitic Nationalist Party of Canada, founded in Winnipeg by William [150] Whitaker and A. F. Hart Parker, could appropriately be described as fringe formations, their central doctrine had become mainstream. Most Canadians no doubt disapproved of the arson attack, during a Sabbath service, that destroyed a Montréal-area synagogue in the summer of 1937. And yet signs reading “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” appear to have been widely tolerated, as were politer versions of the same message like the notice posted at the entrance to St. Andrews Golf Club in Toronto: “After Sunday, June 20 [1937], this course will be restricted to Gentiles only. Please do not question this policy.”11

The dominant ideologies in English- and French-speaking Canada—Anglo-Saxon and Québécois nativism, permeated in both cases by antisemitism—made it easy for the top federal bureaucrat responsible for immigration in Mackenzie King’s government, the infamous Frederick Blair, to enforce a policy of excluding Jewish immigrants. The most notorious consequence of this was the refusal of landing rights in May 1939 to the MV St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Hamburg. Refused also by Cuba and the US, the St. Louis was obliged to sail back across the Atlantic; and a large proportion of its passengers, who had agonizingly been within sight of a safe haven, were returned to countries in western Europe which were overrun by the German Wehrmacht a year later, in the blitzkrieg attack of May 1940; more than 250 of them died in the Holocaust.12

Between 1933 and 1939, Canada accepted only some 4,000 of the 800,000 Jewish refugees who escaped from countries controlled by the Nazis. Australia, by way of comparison, accepted 15,000, Britain 70,000, and the U.S. 200,000. In proportion to population sizes, Canada accepted only about one-fifth as many Jewish refugees as these other countries.

The antisemitism of the majority of Canadians did not go unchallenged. Clerico-fascistic reaction, antisemitism, and the political conservatism that tolerated both,13 were vigorously opposed in Québec by groups like the writers who founded the liberal-catholic journal La Relève in 1934 (Robert Charbonneau and Claude Hurtubise, together with Jean Le Moyne, Robert Élie, and the poet Hector de Saint-Denys-Garneau), and later Cité Libre in 1950 (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier, and others);14 and in English Canada by activists and writers on the left, among them the socialists, progressives and “social gospel” Christians who in 1932 launched the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a dilute form of whose democratic socialism survives in today’s New Democratic Party. Liberal Senator Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, intervened persistently on behalf of Jewish refugees; and after 1940 especially, some of the Canadian churches made forceful efforts to alert Canadians to the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews of Europe.15

However, an appalling level of antisemitism remained widespread. By late 1942, information about Nazi exterminationist policies was generally available. Nonetheless, a mid-1943 Gallup poll that asked Canadians to list the most [151] undesirable potential immigrants to this country found Jews in third place, after only Japanese and Germans. In 1946—by which time detailed accounts of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps had been public for well over a year—the same poll was repeated. This time, Jews were advanced to second place: only the Japanese were regarded as more undesirable immigrants.16

* * * *

During the post-war period, the institutional structures buttressing Canadian antisemitism were gradually disassembled. Immigration restrictions were relaxed (though not until 1948!); this, following the King government’s shameful denial of access to refugees from Nazism, led to the interesting result that Canada’s Jewish community contains a higher proportion of Holocaust survivors and their descendants than is the case in the U.S.

Ontario had begun dismantling other institutional supports of antisemitism with the Racial Discrimination Act of 1944, which banned the posting of signs excluding a particular religious or social group. During the 1950s, the practice of writing “restrictive covenants” into property deeds in order to prevent Jews or other “undesirables” from purchasing houses or cottages in particular areas or neighbourhoods was successfully challenged in the courts.17

However, other no less intolerable practices remained in place until at least the early 1960s. McGill University limited Jewish admissions to 10%; the University of Toronto required higher entrance grades from Jews than from other applicants; and Mount Sinai Hospital, in operation by the late 1950s, was denied status as a University of Toronto teaching hospital until 1962.18

In other respects as well, antisemitism remained endemic. For example, Jews were not admitted as members of Toronto’s Granite Club, or of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Another club on the Toronto islands, the Queen City Yacht Club, or QCYC, was formed in part by people excluded from, or disgusted with, the RCYC. The children of RCYC members, some of whom I knew, called it the JewCYC. And until the 1970s, the children of gentiles were discouraged by some of their high-school teachers from entering University College (UC) at the University of Toronto—Jew College, Jew C, or Jew U, as some people called it.

Jewish-Canadian writers played a considerable role in the delegitimizing of antisemitism in this country. By the late 1960s no-one with any interest in English-Canadian culture could ignore the fact that A. M. Klein was generally acknowledged as the finest English-language poet Canada had produced, and Irving Layton as his most eloquent and forceful successor; or that Mordecai Richler, Adele Wiseman and Leonard Cohen stood high in any list of the country’s most talented novelists. (Cohen was also of course a popular poet and singer-songwriter whose early books and albums laid the foundation of his huge present-day international reputation.) Other Jewish-Canadian writers, [152] among them the poets Eli Mandel and Miriam Waddington and the novelist Matt Cohen, added to a growing recognition, in a period obsessed with questions of national identity, that Canada’s Jewish community had made a contribution out of all proportion to its size to our cultural maturation and self-definition.

Few Canadians who came to adulthood during the 1960s can have altogether avoided contact with a residual and still vicious anti-Semitism—though since that decade, the antisemitism that was once mainstream in Canada has retreated to the margins of society. Those who now give public voice to this despicable prejudice—most often, people associated with fringe racist and neo-Nazi organizations—expose themselves both to public contempt and to the possibility of criminal prosecution under Canada’s hate-crime laws. But marginal though their opinions may now be, the cowardly acts of antisemites—ranging from slurs, vandalism, desecration of cemeteries and synagogues, to physical assaults—retain their power to hurt.19

* * * *

Looking back over more than forty years, I am astonished to recall how casually my contemporaries bandied about terms of racist—including antisemitic—abuse.20

My own parents were not free from racist attitudes: as a small boy in the 1950s, I was discouraged from playing with Luigi and Savino, the sons of our Sicilian next-door neighbours. (While the prejudice in this case may been as much a matter of social class as of ethnicity, there is no doubt that attitudes to southern Europeans in 1950s Toronto were strongly tinged with racism.)

However, racially abusive language was forbidden in our home. For my mother, any sneering at the people who had given us Mendelssohn, Heine, and Heifetz was out of the question; my father, more simply, taught us that to speak slightingly of people disadvantaged in fact or merely by common opinion was dishonourable.

But on one occasion, in 1962, I remember antisemitism coming close to home. In that year Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was part of the Grade 9 English curriculum. In my class it was badly taught, with no attempt to undo the play’s antisemitic stereotyping. (The Merchant is on balance antisemitic, even though A. M. Klein took the title of a wartime book of poems, Hath Not A Jew, from the opening words of one of its most famous speeches.) A classmate, emboldened perhaps by Antonio’s vicious abuse of Shylock or by Graziano’s vile jeering in the trial scene, developed a brief habit of calling me a dirty red-headed Jew.21 The words were less shocking than the fact that they were spoken more than once in the presence of responsible adults, who benignly ignored them. Though neither Jewish nor particularly red-haired, I was scruffy; when I encountered my young friend away from adult company, he became a bloody-nosed Anglo-Saxon.

[153] It struck me at the time that, as Presbyterians, my family had gone some small distance toward being Jewish: most of the Bible readings in Calvin Presbyterian Church each Sunday seemed to be from the Old Testament. And indeed our church, led by the Reverend Donald Herron, was engaged in inter-faith ecumenical dialogues with Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s Holy Blossom Temple. As an elder of the church, though a very casual Christian, my father took part in these discussions. He professed himself intrigued by the tendency, as he claimed, for the Jews to have Presbyterian names like McGregor,22 and the Presbyterians Jewish names like Keefer.

Some fifteen years later, my father was delighted to hear of an encounter I had in an antiquarian bookstore in England. When I wrote a cheque to pay for my purchases, the bookseller brusquely informed me that I had misspelled my name.

His name was Kieffer—the spelling my family had used until the late 18th century. His family, originally from Strasbourg, had emigrated to England in 1850. My ancestors left Strasbourg in the 1730s for New Jersey—from which they were driven to Upper Canada after my quadruple-great grandfather died in the late 1770s defending Long Island from George Washington’s army: the victorious rebels told his widow she would have to pack up and leave her farm near Paulinskill as soon as her elder son turned sixteen.

“And so you know,” the rude Mr. Kieffer said, “that we’re Jewish?”

Were some Strasbourg Kieffers (the bookseller’s family among them) Jews, and other Strasbourg Kieffers gentiles? It seems unlikely.

Several years previously, one of my brothers, in Strasbourg on business, took time out to search through baptismal registers for evidence of the family’s pre-emigration history. He found nothing.

Perhaps he had been looking in the wrong place.23

* * * *

The full story, of course, must include some further elements. As Yves Engler has noted, Canadians played a decisive role in United Nations committees charged with planning the future of Palestine once Britain relinquished its mandate in 1948. Lester B. Pearson, then under-secretary of state for External Affairs, chaired the U.N. First Committee on Palestine, which in May 1947 established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), whose majority report proposing the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state was written by Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand.24 According to David Horowitz, first governor of the Bank of Israel and first director-general of Israel’s ministry of finance, Pearson was a “dynamic force and pathfinder”:

His influence, as one of the foremost figures at the U.N., was tremendous. It may be said that Canada more than any other [154] country played a decisive part in all stages of the UNO discussions of Palestine. The activities at Lake Success of Lester Pearson and his fellow delegates were a fitting climax to Justice Rand’s beneficent work on UNSCOP.25

The Canadian government’s position did not stem from any sudden reversal of antisemitic attitudes. On the contrary, Canadian antisemitism aligned itself with Zionist goals, for as Irving Abella and Harold Troper have shown, there was a very distinct awareness both in governing circles and among the general public that Jewish displaced persons who could be re-directed to Palestine would not be queuing up to get into Canada.26 Geopolitical reasons appear to have been equally important: officials in Canada’s Department of External Affairs shared Washington’s interest in establishing “an independent, progressive Jewish state in the Eastern Mediterranean with close economic and cultural ties with the West generally and in particular with the United States.”27

To these factors one might add a deep-seated racism that led educated Canadians, whatever degree of scorn they might feel for Jews, to regard Arabs with a deeper and more settled contempt.

Jews might be ineradicably other, but for gentiles whose significant traffic with them was often primarily through the mediations of fiction, that otherness was in some sense domesticated or familiar. Consider, by way of examples, the forms of mitigated otherness that occur in well-known texts that many educated Anglo-Canadians of the postwar period would have read.28

Fagin, in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is a grotesque stereotype of cringing Semitic criminality. But he is more to be pitied than feared, and occupies a recognizable place within London’s underworld economy. Svengali, an equally grotesque Jewish villain who figures in George du Maurier’s 1890s best-seller Trilby, has the minor virtue of being a brilliant interpreter of European classical music.29 And even Bleistein, in T. S. Eliot’s blatantly antisemitic poem “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar,” is intimately engaged in the social realities the poet is satirizing. Jews might be caricatured and despised, but they were part of the social imaginary—and available also to be idealized, like the saintly Mr. Riah in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend,30 or, more powerfully, the convincingly noble protagonist of George Eliot’s philosemitic novel Daniel Deronda.31

Prejudiced Littlewits of the postwar period might entertain themselves with the quizzical clerihew: “How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews”—but they could hardly avoid knowing that there existed a strong rejoinder in the same whimsical verse form: “Not odd / Of God: / The Goyim / Annoy’im.”32 And Canadian gentiles of the time who would recoil at the thought of any of their offspring marrying a Jew might feel a grudging respect for the fact that most Jewish families would have been equally horrified by the prospect.

Arabs and Middle Eastern Muslims, however, were regarded as more [155] radically other.33 Canadians might know them, from one of the most popular fictions of John Buchan—the imperialist ideologue, novelist, intelligence officer, popular historian and MP who ended his career as Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s Governor-General from 1935 to 1940—as ululating half-savages, exotic and bizarre, and as the endlessly gullible objects of imperial geopolitical manipulations.34 Or, if they had read T. E. Lawrence’s best-selling Revolt in the Desert, or the full-length book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, from which it was abridged,35 they would know of Arabs, from Lawrence of Arabia’s descriptions of Bedouin warriors like the Howeitat war chief Auda abu Tayi, as more fully barbaric and more completely manipulable—but as noble savages, with many of the qualities of Homeric heroes. In a passage he later admitted was pure invention, Lawrence reported that Prince Faisal, the physically slight military leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, had collapsed in battle-frenzy, foaming at the mouth, and had to be carried from the battlefield. Auda, more fully Homeric, delights in epic self-dramatization, and although he is murderously efficient in his berserker heroism, his Howeitat tribe has been depleted by his insatiable thirst for brigandage and war.

Why would Canadian leaders whose understanding of the Middle East had to any degree been conditioned by fictions of this kind want to concede democratic rights to such people—whether to the teeming urban populations through whom Buchan’s orientalist passes, or the Palestinian and Syrian peasants whom Lawrence occasionally describes, and the Bedouins whom he represents as resolutely simple-minded?36

Did it perhaps occur to Canadian diplomats to think that the settlement history of North America tells us what happens when Europeans (even partially ‘othered’ Europeans) set their hearts on land that happens already to be occupied by noble, or ignoble, savages—such as those indigenous people whom Duncan Campbell Scott, poet and Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, had unsympathetically called “a weird and waning race […] ready to break out at any moment in savage dances; in wild and desperate orgies”?37

Yves Engler observes that Canadian support for a partition plan opposed by all Arab states and organizations was not based on any concern for democracy: the UNSCOP plan gave more than half of Palestine to the proposed Jewish state despite the fact that, as Ilan Pappe remarks, Jews made up only one-third of the total population and owned just six percent of Palestine, and even within the areas assigned to them by UNSCOP Jews “owned only eleven percent of the land, and were the minority in every district.”38

Engler quotes Elizabeth McCallum, the Department of External Affairs’ only Middle East expert, and a dissenter from government policy, who claimed that Ottawa supported partition “because we didn’t give two hoots for democracy.”39 He remarks as well that “The Canadian-backed U.N. partition contributed to the forced displacement of 700,000-900,000 Palestinians”—[156] because it “put the fate of more than a million Palestinians” who lived in the territories assigned to the proposed Jewish state “into the hands of a Zionist movement” that, since the 1930s, had “openly discussed transferring the Arab population.”40

* * * *

In recent decades, Canada has established an international reputation as being reliably, even exaggeratedly supportive of Israel.41

In 1982, for example, Canada joined Israel, the United States, and Costa Rica in voting against a U.N. General Assembly motion calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In 1987, Canada was the only country at the Québec Francophonie Summit to oppose a resolution calling for Palestinian self-determination.

The Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement of 1997 accepts Israel’s economic boundaries as incorporating Gaza and the West Bank (in contrast to the European Union’s trade agreement, which makes a point of excluding the territories illegally occupied by Israel). Moreover, Canada has contributed directly to the infrastructure of the occupation: for example, it was reported in 1998 that the Canadian Highways Infrastructure Corporation headed a consortium building a $3 billion highway designated for the sole use of Jewish settlers, and forbidden to the Palestinians whose land it traverses.

In January 2008, Canada was the only member of the UN Human Rights Committee that opposed a resolution calling for urgent international action to end Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza (which Canada had been the first country to join in 2006). Shortly afterward, Canada signed an agreement with Israel to cooperate in “border management and security.” Linda McQuaig very pertinently asked: “Does this mean Israel will become involved with intelligence gathering about Canadian Muslims or other Canadians supporting Palestinian rights? Does it mean Canada will help Israel in its military operations in the West Bank or Gaza?”42

During Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, Canada was the only member of the U.N. Human Rights Committee that voted in support of Israel’s actions.

* * * *

The present situation of Canadian Jews seems, in one respect at least, strangely paradoxical. Franklin Bialystok has observed that during the 1970s a generation of Canadian Jews who were born during and after the Second World War, and who grew up without “the traditional neighbourhoods, secular organizations, or Yiddish” that had given their parents and grandparents links to a community and a communal past, felt rootless:

[157] For some, re-establishing the connection lay in a return to religious observance. For others, it meant becoming involved in Jewish causes. In the post-1967 period, these causes included support for Israel, opposition to anti-Jewish policies in the Soviet bloc, and combatting antisemitism. In combination, they created the perception, whether real or imagined, that Jews were vulnerable. It was not a long stretch to reach back three decades in order to understand that vulnerability might lead to extinction.43

That sense of vulnerability may also have arisen out of direct personal experience, in childhood, of antisemitic bullying, together with the feelings of betrayal prompted by recognition that the adult authorities responsible for preventing such behaviour may have quietly encouraged it.

But is it not somewhat surprising, one-third of a century later, after decades during which the casual brutality of antisemitic jeering has been receding from common experience, and during which Canadian government attitudes towards Israel have been everything the most ardent Zionist could hope for, that much the same sense of vulnerability appears to persist—particularly among those who are most passionately supportive of Israeli government policies?

It is my impression that those Canadian Jews whose fundamental commitment is to universal ethical principles of human rights and solidarity with the oppressed—a commitment which makes them forceful critics of Israeli policies, and often as well of those founding principles of Israel which define it as a state in which non-Jews are at best second-class citizens—fear other things than antisemitism.

They fear, as I do, the increasing concentration of media ownership in Canada and elsewhere, and a corresponding rise in public mendacity; they fear, as I do, the continuing decline of democratic institutions and democratic governance here and elsewhere (most especially in the United States and Israel). They fear the consequences, in terms of ongoing resource wars and growing domestic authoritarianism, of hydrocarbon energy depletion; they fear that the state of Israel may play a large part in provoking such wars. They fear, as well, the immediate possibility of deepening economic crisis, and ensuing social turmoil; and they fear the consequences of runaway global warming, which could result in major ecosystem and social collapses. But although some quantitative data suggest that residual levels of antisemitism may be higher in Canada than in France or Britain,44 these Jews are not, to the best of my knowledge, kept awake at night by fears of an impending repetition of the Holocaust.

Why should pro-Israel or Zionist Jews feel more anxious in this regard? Might it be because the Zionist ideology of an in-gathering of Jews to an ‘ancestral homeland’45 risks losing its persuasiveness unless the diasporic condition appears to be one in which Jews are perpetually vulnerable to [158] irrational fits of loathing and persecution on the part of gentiles? Or could it be because assertions of extreme vulnerability make it possible to re-define Israeli aggressions as defensive actions, necessary for the preservation of a people facing constant threats to their continued existence?

* * * *

What might we conclude from even such an elliptical account of Canadian antisemitism as the foregoing?

It may give some insight into the sensitivities of Canadian Jews to any suggestion of a renewal of antisemitism, while also reminding us of Canada’s early and continuing contributions to what remains an intractably oppressive situation in the Middle East—whose steady worsening over the past four decades has contributed, many observers believe, to the perpetuation of antisemitic attitudes.

It might also suggest that a parliamentary inquiry into antisemitism could have contributed significantly, in the 1950s or 1960s,46 to bringing Canadians to a shame-faced recognition of the degree to which in the first half of the twentieth century our public discourse and practices had become contaminated by a contemptible, incendiary, and, in the last analysis, exterminationist prejudice.

Forty years later, in 2009-2010, it is far from clear that such a parliamentary inquiry can have any honest function in a country whose government appears, in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, to have abandoned any pretence of neutrality and any pretence of commitment to the principles of international law that ought to be our guide.




1  Here’s one from seventy years ago. My mother-in-law’s family immigrated from what is now Ukraine in 1936. Natalie was fourteen. To the end of her life her eyes would fill with tears when she remembered how, in 1939, at a time when immigrants from eastern Europe were vigorously discriminated against, one of her teachers at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, Miss May Sinclair, intervened to prevent her from entering sweatshop work to help support her family. Recognizing the girl’s talent, Miss Sinclair paid from her own modest salary the fees that enabled Natalie to master the art of dress-design and begin a longed-for career.

2  Native land at Ipperwash, Ontario was expropriated by the federal government during World War Two for military use. A half-century later, exasperated by the government’s refusal to return the land, native people peacefully reoccupied it. Ontario Premier Mike Harris is on record as having ordered the Ontario Provincial Police to attack the occupiers. Although an unarmed native man, Dudley George, was killed by police gunfire in the ensuing fusillade, Harris has not had to face any legal consequences.

3  I am thinking of such recent events as RCMP complicity in the abduction and torture of Maher Arar, CSIS participation in the Guantanamo interrogations of Omar Khadr, the Harper government’s defiance of court rulings that oblige it to seek Khadr’s release from American custody, and the government’s direct violation of Articles 10 and 12 of the Third Geneva Convention in ordering the transfer of prisoners captured by the Canadian Forces into the hands of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions. Senior Canadian authorities have been aware, since 2007, that most of these prisoners were then tortured—a fact that makes these transfers doubly a war crime.

[April 2011: This note contains a significant error: Afghanistan ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1956, and acceded to the 1977 Additional Protocols I and II in 2009. It remains the case that copious evidence from authoritative sources of systematic torture by Afghan authorities was available to Canadian military and civil authorities, which nonetheless issued statements defending Afghan agencies and individuals involved in torture and asserting the importance of the 'information' they shared with the Canadian military, and in addition left unchanged a system under which the Canadian military delayed giving information about transferred prisoners to the International Red Cross for periods of from three weeks to a month—thus showing active complicity with the Afghan torturers into whose prisons these people effectively 'disappeared'. For details, see my article “Prime Minister Harper and Canadian War Crimes in Afghanistan,” Centre for Research on Globalization (24 April 2011),, also available at this website.]

4  Alan Davies, ed., Antisemitism in Canada: History and Interpretation (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), “Introduction,” p. 6. Other important studies of Canadian antisemitism include Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948 (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982); Pierre Anctil, Le Rendez-vous manqué: les Juifs de Montréal face au Québec de l’entre-deux guerres (Montréal: Institut Québécois de recherché sur la culture, 1988); and Irving Abella, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990).

5  For a brief comment on this well-known fact in relation to recent charges by Mordecai Richler, Irwin Cotler and others of a continuing deep antisemitism within Québec nationalism, see Normand Lester, Le livre noir du Canada anglais, vol.1 (Montréal: Les Intouchables, 2001), pp. 18-21.

6  See Pierre Anctil, “Writing as Immigrants: Yiddish Belles-lettres in Canada,” in Hartmut Lutz, ed., What Is Your Place? Indigeneity and Immigration in Canada (Augsburg: Wisner, 2007); and “A. M. Klein: The Poet and His Relations with French Quebec,” in Richard Menkis and Norman Ravvin, eds., The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader (Calgary: Red Deer Press, 2004). For a convenient overview of this community’s relations with the francophone majority, see Ignaki Olazabal, “Ethnicité et société nationale au Québec. Les relations entre Juifs ashkénazes et Québécois francophones à Montréal,” Cahiers de l’URMIS 4 (1998): 21-36,

7  In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, an army captain of Jewish descent attached to the French General Staff, was convicted of treason for selling military secrets to Germany, and sentenced to solitary confinement in the penal colony of Devil’s Island. Although evidence that Dreyfus had been framed surfaced by 1896, he was not exonerated until 1906, and as Hannah Arendt remarked, the political implications of the Dreyfus Affair continued to resonate even after the Second World War. See Arendt, Antisemitism: Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968).

8  Stephen Speisman, “Antisemitism in Ontario: The Twentieth Century,” in Davies, ed., Antisemitism in Canada, pp. 114, 116.

9  Speisman, p. 117. The revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada was founded in British Columbia in 1904, and the syndicalist One Big Union in Calgary in 1919; the Communist Party of Canada was founded in Guelph, Ontario in 1921. The inconsistency noted by Speisman was identified by Jean-Paul Sartre as a standard component of antisemitism: “We are told in almost the same breath that behind the Jew lurks international capitalism and the imperialism of the trusts and the munitions makers, and that he is the front man for piratical Bolshevism with a knife between its teeth. There is no embarrassment or hesitation about imputing responsibility for communism to Jewish bankers, whom it would horrify, or responsibility for capitalist imperialism to the wretched Jews who crowd the rue des Rosiers. But everything is made clear if we renounce any expectation from the Jew of a course of conduct that is reasonable and in conformity with his interests, if, instead, we discern in him a metaphysical principle that drives him to do evil under all circumstances, even though he thereby destroy himself. This principle, one may suspect, is magical.” Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. George J. Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), pp. 38-39.

10  The Klein poem is “Hormisdas Arcand,” from The Rocking Chair (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948). Sartre proposed an explanation for the parallel inability or refusal of French antisemites to formulate coherent political platforms: “Anti-Semitic associations do not wish to invent anything; they refuse to assume responsibility; they would be horrified at setting themselves up as a certain fraction of French opinion, for then they would have to draw up a program and seek legal means of action. They prefer to represent themselves as expressing in all purity, in all passivity, the sentiments of the real country in its indivisible state.” Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p. 32.

11  James W. St. G. Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada: Historical Case Studies (Waterloo: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997), p. 186.

12  See Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller, Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), pp. 174-75.

13  On occasion the relationship may have extended to covert support: it has been charged that Arcand received covert funding for his antisemitic newspapers from R. B. Bennett, Conservative Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935; see Lester, Le livre noir du Canada anglais, vol. 1, pp. 255-60.

14  During the period of the Nazi occupation of France, La Relève’s associated publishing house, Éditions de l’Arbre, published pamphlets for the French Resistance that were smuggled into occupied and Vichy France. An interest in the “personalist” philosophy of Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier, shared by writers in the La Relève and Cité Libre groups, provides a link to progressive Catholics in English Canada, notably the novelist Morley Callaghan.

15  See Alan Davies and Marilyn Nefsky, How Silent Were the Churches? (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).

16  Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law, p. 190; Gerald Tulchinsky, Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 402-03.

17  See Walker, “Noble and Wolf vs. Alley,” in “Race,” Rights and the Law.

18  Tulchinsky, Canada’s Jews, p. 415.

19  Valuable studies of residual antisemitism in Canada include Stanley R. Barrett, Is God a Racist? The Right Wing in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987); Warren Kinsella, Web of Hate: Inside Canada’s Far Right Networks (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1994); L. W. Sumner, The Hateful and the Obscene: Studies in the Limits of Free Expression (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); Richard Warman, “Hate on the Internet, i. The Canadian Scene,” in 2005 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents (Toronto: League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, 2006), pp. 8-19; and Mary Gusella et al., Hate on the Net / La haine sur Internet, CITC: Canadian Issues / Thèmes Canadiens (Spring 2006), See also Barbara Perry, Reading Hate: Hate Crime Research and Scholarship in Canada (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2006),

20  Terms of racial and ethnic abuse aimed at francophone Canadians, as well as Canadians of Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Luso-Hispanic, Greek, and First Nations descent were part of the everyday discourse of Toronto’s not-so-innocent schoolchildren, who also knew racist epithets for blacks and South Asians, even though substantial immigration from South Asia and the Caribbean was still in the future. In addition, ‘comic’ books set in World War Two and the Korean War taught us to side with stubble-bearded American heroes like Sergeant Rock against the evil machinations of square-headed Germans, Japanese with wire-rimmed glasses and bad teeth, and human waves of ‘Red’ Chinese.

21  Why “red-headed”? There may have been a note in our edition of the play alluding to an early stage tradition of playing Shylock in a red wig.

22  I doubt there were any actual McGregors in Rabbi Plaut’s congregation. My father’s comment was, I would guess, a joke based on the fact that McGregor’s Happy Foot Health Socks were (and still are) manufactured and marketed by a Toronto garment firm owned by one of the city’s prominent Jewish families. His opposite numbers in the inter-faith dialogues may well have included a member of that family.

23  May 2011: this anecdote requires correction. My brother informs me that I misunderstood the nature of his research in Strasbourg: he was indeed disappointed in a search for documentary traces of our ancestors, but he did not look in the baptismal registers. Several days of my own research in Strasbourg in the spring of 2011 did include work with baptismal registers in the municipal archives. The oldest surviving register is from a parish in the centre of the city which includes the street (the Rue des Tonneliers or Kiefergass) where the guild of barrel-makers had their guild-hall; the earliest entries in this register are from the 1540s. In the 1540s and 1550s the name Kiefer (meaning “barrel-maker” in the Strasbourg dialect of German, an analogue to the name Cooper in English) appears quite frequently in this register, both as a craft identification (with entries like “Hans, ein Kiefer von Kolmar”) and as a family name. This spelling is preserved by some families (notably that of the painter Anselm Kiefer); the double-f spelling may have emerged in later centuries to differentiate the name from the Hochdeutsch word “Kiefer” (meaning pine tree). In late-medieval Strasbourg Jews were barred from membership in craft guilds: apparently, then, Jews could not be Kiefers. But was there a point at which this antisemitic rule was relaxed? Or could some Jews have become Kiefers by concealing their religious identity, in the manner of the marranos in Spain? Such Kiefers or Kieffers or Keefers, if not exactly Jews, might be described (to borrow a Woody Allen joke) as Jew-ish.

24  Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Vancouver and Black Point, NS: RED/Fernwood Publishing, 2009), pp. 54-55. This and the following paragraph are indebted to Engler’s analysis.

25  Tareq Y. Ismael, Canadian-Arab Relations: Policy and Perspectives (Jerusalem: Jerusalem International Publishing House, 1984), p. 62; quoted by Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, p. 55.

26  See Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 (1982; rpt. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2000), p. 278; quoted by Engler, The Black Book, pp. 56-57.

27  David Taras and David H. Goldberg, The Domestic Battleground: Canada and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), pp. 31, 137; quoted by Engler, The Black Book, p. 57.

28  The next several paragraphs do not rest upon any assumption that the literary texts I mention directly influenced such figures as Lester Pearson and Ivan Rand; they do presuppose that Benedict Anderson is correct in describing nations as “imagined communities” (see Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [1983; revised edition London: Verso, 1991), and that to imagine the inherent limits of such a community involves imagining its internal and external others. Members of a Canadian governing class engaging in issues of international politics do so within the framework of a social imaginary, a narrative construct to which widely disseminated fictions contribute through their “power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism [1993; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1994], p. xiii).

29  Du Maurier’s Trilby (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1894), appears to have been one significant conduit through which attitudes and tropes of late nineteenth-century continental antisemitism entered the English-speaking world. The book was widely available during the immediate postwar period: between 1941 and 1948 it was published by six different publishers in eight editions and reprints, with four separate editions appearing in 1947.

30  This portrayal was Dickens’ deliberate attempt to reverse the antisemitic stereotyping of Oliver Twist. A half-century after Our Mutual Friend was published in 1864-65, T. S. Eliot would write, in “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar” (from Poems [1920]), “On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot” (The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot [London: Faber and Faber, 1969], p. 41). But in Our Mutual Friend Mr. Riah, who also provides a quiet refuge for the distressed heroine Lizzie Hexam, quits his morally intolerable work as the front man in a money-lending business that is actually run by a crooked English gentleman, ‘Fascination’ Fledgeby: underneath the good Jew, in this novel, is the rat-like Englishman.

31  Daniel Deronda was very frequently reprinted during the quarter-century following its first publication in 1876, and is currently available in mass-market paperbacks from five major publishers. Between the early 1920s and the early 1960s, however, it was much less frequently reprinted: although some undated cheap reprints continued to appear, the only dated imprint of the book of which I am aware during this period was published in 1932.

32  The first of these is attributed to William Norman Ewer, a prominent left-wing English journalist from the 1920s until the 1950s; the second to the American humourist Leo Rosten.

33  The classic study of the radical othering of Muslims and Arabs in the western European social imaginary—in scholarship, historiography, fiction and political discourse—is Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).

34  See John Buchan, Greenmantle (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1916). During the 1940s at least twenty-three editions and reprints of this novel were published by five different publishers. A central motif of this racist and antisemitic First World War spy thriller is Buchan’s claim that Englishmen and Scots have a distinctive racial capacity to insinuate themselves through imaginative projection into the cultures and belief systems of other peoples. Buchan’s protagonist, Dick Hannay, successively impersonates a South African Boer, a German intelligence agent, and an American civil engineer; and Sandy Arbuthnot, an orientalist and proto-T. E. Lawrence, vanishes into the bazaars of the Middle East, emerging as the leader of a mystical Muslim secret society who becomes Greenmantle, the longed-for prophet of a movement of apocalyptic purification within Islam.

35  T. E. Lawrence, Revolt in the Desert (London: Jonathan Cape, and New York: George H. Doran, 1927); and Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Private edition, 1926; New York: George H. Doran, 1935). Revolt appeared in editions and multiple reprints from five publishers in 1927; by the end of the 1940s, Seven Pillars (a large-format and more expensive book) had appeared in fourteen distinct public editions and reprints from five publishers.

36  Lawrence tells of performing for the Howeitat, at one of their communal feasts, a parody of Auda’s mode of epic narration. His audience took some time to get the joke: Lawrence wants us to believe that they had never previously imagined the possibility of parodic discourse. Fictive elements abound in Lawrence’s memoir: he took credit, for example, for the capture of Aqaba, a feat planned and carried out by Auda and other Arab leaders (with Lawrence in attendance as an observer).

37  Quoted by Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas (1992; rpt. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 321. The first phrase occurs in Scott’s sonnet “The Onondaga Madonna.”

38  Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: One World Publications, 2006), p. 34; quoted by Engler, The Black Book, pp. 55-56.

39  McCallum is quoted by Eliezer Tauber, Personal Policy Making: Canada’s Role in the Adoption of the Palestine Partition Resolution (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), p. 94; quoted in turn by Engler, The Black Book, p. 56.

40  Engler, The Black Book, p. 57. For evidence of clearly enunciated Zionist intentions, he cites Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, pp. 8, 29-38.

41  The following examples are drawn from Engler, The Black Book, pp. 59-63.

42  Linda McQuaig, “Media cheerleaders miss story: The US has succeeded in getting Canada to take the lead in an unpopular counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan,” Toronto Star (8 April 2008); available online at; quoted by Engler, The Black Book, p. 60.

43  Franklin Bialystok, “‘Were things that bad?’ The Holocaust Enters Community Memory,” in Menkis and Ravvin, eds., The Canadian Jewish Studies Reader, p. 287.

44  The figures published by the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada in its annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents are analyzed in the next chapter.

45  As Shlomo Sand observes in The Invention of the Jewish People, trans. Yael Lotan (London and New York: Verso, 2009), this is a concept fraught with ironies. Scholarly historians recognize the story that the Romans forced a large-scale exile of the Jews in the first and second centuries of the Common Era to be a myth—from which it follows, given that there is no evidence of other large-scale displacements of population, that present-day Palestinians are in large part the descendants of Biblical-era Jews. During the early centuries of the Common Era Judaism was a proselytizing religion, achieving mass conversions in parts of the Arabian peninsula, among the Berbers of North Africa, and among the Khazars of the northern Caucasus. Since North African Jews appear to have been included in the Muslim armies that conquered Spain in the early eighth century, and there is evidence that the early Jewish communities of eastern Europe were formed by Khazars after the destruction of their kingdom in the tenth century, the biological connection of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews to the ‘homeland’ is more tenuous than is commonly believed.

46  Such an Inquiry could have supplemented work like the Report to the Minister of Justice of the Special Committee on Hate Propaganda in Canada (Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, 1966).