Reviewed by Stephen Norwood (University of Oklahoma)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus
Antisemitism: The Canadian Contribution
This survey of antisemitism in Canada from the seventeenth century to the present, the first to be published, covers a broad range of topics but lacks depth and relies largely on secondary sources. The first English and French settlers, coming from Christian nations that had expelled their Jewish populations in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively, brought with them centuries-old, deeply embedded theologically rooted anti-Jewish stereotypes and beliefs. These became intertwined in the late nineteenth century with the emerging “scientific” racial antisemitism imported from Europe. In Canada, particularly virulent strains of antisemitism were associated with Quebec’s French Catholics and separatist movement; Alberta’s Social Credit Party, many of whose members believed Jews were using the banks and the Zionist and Communist movements to achieve world control; and Canada’s Ukrainian community. New intense forms of antisemitism have emerged more recently among Canada’s Muslims and on university campuses within Far Left, anti-Israel coalitions.
Ira Robinson considers the late nineteenth century a turning point, with Canadian antisemitism intensifying markedly. He maintains that when the Dominion of Canada was established in 1867, non-Jewish Canadians did not perceive any “Jewish problem” (p. 35), with Jews comprising only 0.03 percent of the population in the nation’s first census taken four years later. He asserts that Canadian Jews, having achieved legal and political equality, occupied a “fairly enviable position,” although “privately held antisemitic prejudices were still apparently widely held” (p. 32). Robinson suggests that, in Quebec at least, many Canadian Jews lived in fear during the mid-nineteenth century. He notes that Montreal Jews did not join Jewish communities around the world in publicly protesting the Mortara Affair, fearing Catholics whom they encountered daily. Robinson attributes the sharp deterioration in Canadian Jews’ status by 1900 to the rise of racial antisemitism and changes in Canadian Jewish demographics caused by the arrival of significant numbers of Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish immigrants, who formed enclaves in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Canadian Jews were often beaten and injured in the streets by assailants calling them “Christ-Killer,” as were Jews in major American cities.
Robinson could have reinforced his stimulating discussion of Catholic antisemitism in Quebec by examining Catholic periodicals. Catholicism in Quebec was “archconservative [and] authoritarian” (p. 47), shaped by traditional church teachings that Jews were deicides and ritual murderers. During the early twentieth century, the Quebec church drew to the province reactionary French clerics angry about the separation of church and state in the Third Republic. Many were ardent anti-Dreyfusards, influenced by the anti-Jewish ravings of the French racial antisemite Édouard Drumont. French Canadian journalist Joseph-Édouard Plamondon wrote for Drumont’s fiercely antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole. French Canadian Catholic intellectuals idealized rural life and associated Jews with urban filth and corruption. Catholic organizations in Quebec like L’Action Catholique and the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste during the interwar years backed a boycott campaign against Jewish businesses designed to force Jews out of the province.
The most prominent Canadian antisemitic agitator of the interwar period, Adrien Arcand, received backing from the Catholic Church hierarchy. Robinson might have compared Arcand with the Detroit-based Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, born and educated in Canada, whose antisemitic diatribes were similar to Arcand’s. Coughlin, one of America’s leading antisemitic demagogues, like Arcand described Communism as a movement led and inspired by Jews, a view propagated by the Nazis. Arcand’s and Coughlin’s newspapers reprinted grotesque antisemitic caricatures and articles defaming Jews taken from the Nazi press.
The Quebec separatist movement, much influenced by Catholic theological antisemitism, mistrusted Jews as unassimilable and pro-English. Its growth during the last several decades caused Quebec’s Jews “profound disquiet” (p. 121), prompting thirty to forty thousand of them to move out of the province.
Robinson does not systematically compare Canadian and American antisemitism to determine what is specifically Canadian. There are many similarities. Jews in both English Canada and Quebec, as in the United States, confronted discrimination in employment and housing, as well as quotas in university admissions. The Canadian government, like the American, remained indifferent to the plight of European Jewry during the Holocaust. The non-Jewish populations and governments of both Canada and the United States showed little or no concern about the significant numbers of Nazi war criminals who found refuge in both countries. Robinson gives little attention to Canada’s Ukrainian or Baltic populations. Significant numbers of immigrants from those regions who had collaborated with the Nazis received preference over Jews in gaining admission to the United States after World War II. The US government considered them very desirable immigrants because they were anti-Soviet. On the Lower East Side of New York City, Ukrainians terrorized Jews in a series of violent street attacks during the early 1950s. Did anything similar occur in Canada?
In recent decades, Canadian antisemitism has become intertwined with anti-Zionism and Holocaust denial. During the 1970s, German-born Ernst Zundel became one of the world’s leading distributors of Holocaust denial propaganda. Robinson notes that Zundel was strongly influenced by Arcand, who donated to him his sizeable collection of antisemitic publications. Canadian Muslim newspapers sometimes joined in promoting Holocaust denial.
As in the United States and Britain, Canadian universities became a principal arena for anti-Israel agitation and antisemitic propaganda designed to delegitimize the Jewish state and transform the victims of the world’s longest hatred into the world’s most nefarious criminals. In 2005, for example, the University of Toronto introduced Israel Apartheid Week, now regularly promoted on numerous Canadian, American, and British campuses. As in the United States, Muslim and far leftist students have often shouted down pro-Israel speakers and harassed and intimidated Jewish students.
Although British and, for the most part, American television displays a strong anti-Israel bias, the author does not examine Canadian media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or even the recent Gaza war. He also could have devoted more attention to Canadian Jewish grassroots and organizational responses to antisemitism.
. Robinson’s approach is largely narrative, but he documents numerous cases in which the anti-Zionist rhetoric of the Canadian Far Left and Far Right, Muslims, and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement was explicitly antisemitic, and sparked anti-Jewish violence.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Stephen Norwood. Review of Robinson, Ira, History of Antisemitism in Canada.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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