Discovering a Homeland Abroad
A review of The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, by Harold Troper
In May 1967, as part of Expo ’67, Canada’s Jewish community proudly opened a Pavilion of Judaism that deliberately contained no mention of Zionism or Israel. The pavilion’s planners had taken pains to ensure no overlap with the official Israeli pavilion, which represented the young state as the “rebirth of a nation which, after 1900 years of adversity, has recovered and restored its homeland.”
Today, nearly four and a half decades later, no local or national Canadian Jewish event overlooks the community’s visceral commitment to and identification with Israel. In The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, historian Harold Troper provides his explanation for the shift: shortly after Expo’s opening ceremonies, Egyptian and Syrian armies amassed on Israel’s borders. Three long weeks of unsuccessful diplomacy led to the outbreak of war on June 5 and Israel’s subsequent lightning victory. Canadian Jews rode an emotional roller coaster before and during that war, and from then on identification with Israel became a permanent feature of their daily communal life.
Troper’s central thesis is provocative. Throughout the 1960s, Canada actually opened more doors to Jewish participation in the country’s professional and social elite, but, paradoxically, this did not lead to greater assimilation. Increasingly after 1967, he argues, Canadian Jews saw themselves as an ethnic community whose collective identity revolved around Israel.
Troper traces this evolution within a richly drawn context of Canadian and Canadian Jewish history. This is no dry academic tome and, as in his previous books, Troper is a fine raconteur. The book caps extensive research into previously untold stories of individuals and institutions that populated the Jewish community’s landscape in the 1960s and is replete with colourful anecdotes and quotes from literary and news publications of the time. Some scholars may take issue with Troper’s informal style, but this does not detract from its content. The volume should appeal especially to the current generation of Jewish leaders and activists, who know little of how what they now take for granted came about.
In 1960, Canada’s Jewish community numbered some 250,000, less than 1.5 percent of the general population, and the majority lived in two urban concentrations—Montreal and Toronto. Forty percent were born outside of Canada and of those, 50 percent came from Europe in the aftermath of World War Two. In Canada, Holocaust survivors numbered more than four times their proportion in the United States and ranked second only to Israel in their percentage of the overall Jewish population. This stark demographic reality permeated the community’s DNA. Especially in Jewish Toronto, memories of Canada’s shameful rejection of Jewish immigration during the pre–World War Two years were never far from the surface1. And even though official anti-Semitism was no longer tolerated, social discrimination against Jews abounded.
Troper introduces his account of the “decade of change” with two seminal events: the death of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis in 1959 and the launch, that year, of celebrations marking the bicentenary of Jewish life in Canada. The first of these paved the way for reform in a province where Jews lived surrounded by official Catholicism; the second reflected a conscious decision by Canadian Jews to promote themselves as part and parcel of Canada’s original state-building narrative.
In marking the arrival of Aaron Hart, Canada’s first Jew, to its shores in 1759, Jewish leaders consciously played up their community’s role as Canada’s third faith community, equal in contribution to Catholics and Protestants. Like other major decisions at the time, this had been dominated by a Montreal perspective, thanks largely to the forceful leadership of the Canadian Jewish Congress by Samuel Bronfman, the legendary “Mr. Sam.”
Montreal was a city of boundaries in which the Jewish community existed as a “third solitude,” separate from francophones and anglophones alike, described by Mordecai Richler as “an almost self contained world. Outside of business there was minimal contact with Gentiles.” But throughout the 1960s, taking advantage of Liberal premier Jean Lesage’s more open approach to integration of non-Christians, the Jewish community successfully fought for integration into a religiously controlled public school system (all Quebec public schools were either Catholic or Protestant). Troper presents this as the first of three examples of the lowering of barriers during the 1960s. Jews were eventually allowed on to Protestant school boards and public funds were allocated to private Jewish schools that had mushroomed in the face of earlier barriers.
The CJC’s leaders believed that protecting Quebec Jews’ ability to provide education and social service to their own, as did Catholics and Protestants, depended on the provincial government’s view of the Jewish community as a faith rather than ethnic community. Saul Hayes, the CJC’s executive director, quipped that “all those jokes that began ‘there was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi’ had critical political meaning, especially when it came to protecting Jewish interests, and especially in Quebec.” For this reason, in a choice that seems remarkable today, the CJC gave a wide berth to the burgeoning Canadian debate over multiculturalism and, in 1965, chose not to appear before the hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
In Toronto, where the majority of Holocaust survivors of Polish origin lived, concerns were different and centred on a small but vocal pocket of neo-Nazism2. In 1960, George Lincoln Rockwell formed a Canadian Nazi Party affiliate of his American group and, to the Jewish community’s chagrin, CBC gave him and local Nazi activist David Stanley airtime. Absent a towering figure like Mr. Sam, the heated debate that ensued within the community over an appropriate response marked a split between the establishment leadership, which believed in low-key representation focusing on anti-hate legislative remedies, and a grassroots groundswell of survivors’ groups that demanded public, demonstrative action3. The Allan Gardens riots in 1965 and the successful lobbying campaign to break down membership barriers at the Granite Club (Troper’s second example of lowered barriers) dramatically changed the nature of Canadian Jewish advocacy and the community’s future responses to evidence of discrimination and prejudice.
Troper’s most powerful chapter deals with the sequence of events leading up to and during the Six Day War4. “Never before or since,” he says, “was Canadian Jewish consciousness so simultaneously traumatized and galvanized … Few could have imagined that Canadian Jews would draw a direct line between the threat to Israel and the Canadian Jewish future, between Israel’s survival and their own.” I agree. Even though Israel had figured prominently in community life since the country’s establishment 19 years earlier, after 1967 the degree of involvement changed exponentially. Troper’s explanation for what happened underpins the community’s psychology to this day: beneath the community’s calm surface was a latent anxiety, fuelled by the 1961 trial of arch-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Toronto’s experience with neo-Nazis and ongoing uncertainty about the place of Jews in Quebec5. Canadian Jews felt that “Israel’s secure existence was somehow a precondition for their own security.” (Similar reactions swept Jewish communities around the world.) The result, said McGill University professor Ruth Wisse, was that Canadian Jews felt “‘estranged from fellow citizens’” and “were instinctively drawn to the ones they were sure would understand.” This may seem irrational to the outside observer, but the outcome was clear: no longer would the community define itself in purely faith terms. Identification with Israel became the new religion.
Troper outdoes himself in recounting the Jewish community’s emotional response during three, long pre-war weeks. He brings to life numerous examples: volunteers who dropped everything to catch flights to the besieged nation; individuals who virtually gave up their savings for the emergency campaign to help Israel; and the tense national consultation at Montreal’s Montefiore Club, where Sidney Spivak of Winnipeg, a provincial Cabinet minister and committed Zionist, dared to challenge Sam Bronfman and significantly upped the fundraising ante for Israel.
This new emphasis drove a change in the community’s method of external representation. The newly formed Canada-Israel Committee was charged with consolidating several national organizations into “one voice” on Israel. But from the start, it was plagued by rivalries among its constituents. What Troper describes as “a cacophony of badgering which tended to get officials’ backs up” was at times counterproductive and hindered success.
But the war changed more than the community itself and Troper pointedly records pockets of unease spawned by the community’s new centre of gravity. First was the Pearson government: while sympathetic to Jewish concerns, its declared support for Israel’s security would not come at the expense of Canada’s additional interests in the region. The resulting foreign policy principle of “balance” in Canadian Middle East policy was disparaged by Jewish leaders who openly admitted they sought a pro-Israel tilt.
Moreover, from the start, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, populated by four million Palestinians, generated criticism from liberal groups, who had been the community’s natural allies on the anti-Semitism agenda and who otherwise supported Israel’s right to security. The community’s response was hostile; the vexing question of if and when criticism of Israel was anti-Semitism quickly surfaced, especially throughout a public feud with United Church moderator Al Forrest. And already then, liberal Jews themselves pondered the line dividing their support for Israel and opposition to the occupation. (All of these issues are still at play within the Jewish community and in its interaction with the larger Canadian landscape.)
For many readers, the chapter on Pierre Elliott Trudeau will likely be the most instructive. Troper analyzes the roots of Trudeau’s commitment to social justice and rightly credits the “colour-blind” prime minister with breaking Ottawa’s glass ceiling for Jews—the third example of lowered barriers. He tells a gripping story of Trudeau’s willingness to provide a Canadian haven for persecuted Iraqi Jews and to raise the plight of oppressed Soviet Jews with Soviet president Alexei Kosygin during his 1971 visit to the Soviet Union. These events will likely surprise those who focus on Trudeau’s later alienation from Israel and ignore his advancement of Jews to the most senior government positions, including Cabinet, the foreign service and the Supreme Court6.
Troper tries to decode the perplexing duality in Trudeau’s views on Israel by distinguishing his support for the concept of national sovereignty from his opposition to narrow and parochially defined nationalism (he sees a parallel to Trudeau’s support for the Canadian federalist state and his rejection of Quebec nationalism). According to Barney Danson, Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary and later a Cabinet minister, “Trudeau understood the roots of community [support of Israel] and its concerns, but when it went over to nationalism he’d find it anathema and tuned it out.” If this sounds like a recipe for misunderstanding between the prime minister and the Jewish community, it often was.
I missed one relevant dimension in Troper’s otherwise detailed account. There is no discussion of the interaction between the community and Israel’s diplomats in Canada. Israeli ambassadors and consuls often decisively shaped perceptions in Ottawa and among Canadian elites and, in turn, influenced the scope of Canadian Jewish advocacy.
As well, as a contrast to the quiet diplomacy that characterized the early part of the decade, Troper might have acknowledged Ambassador Yaacov Herzog’s public debate in January 1961 with historian Arnold Toynbee over the Jewish people’s historic right to a homeland in Israel7. It is no wonder that, given their bent at the time, community leaders urged Herzog to desist from going ahead. (They came around after the fact, once it became apparent that the young ambassador had bested the renowned historian.) But for the Jewish students who packed McGill University’s Hillel House and the thousands who heard the debate live on radio, the experience vindicated their beliefs as Jews and Zionists.
By 1970, much had changed. The Jewish community and numerous human rights groups had succeeded in making hate propaganda an offence in the Canadian criminal code. Jews served in Cabinet and in provincial and municipal senior positions. The community had reorganized its advocacy efforts and private diplomacy had made room for outspoken public statements. Effusive support for Israel and aggressive fundraising on its behalf were integral elements of the community’s values and modus operandi. Inside and outside the community, questions lingered about Israel’s intentions in the occupied territories.
In this multifaceted reality, Troper refrains from closing off the decade with one singular event. He notes, rather, that “the 1960s … shaped the terrain on which the next generation of Canadian Jews would walk … Canadian Jews today continue to stand in the reflected light of the 1960s.”
Today, other “new” Canadian communities view Canadian Jews as part and parcel of the country’s establishment. But Canadian Jews do not always see it that way and, surprisingly, many of the existential vulnerabilities that Troper describes still exist. For those who wonder why, this book helps to explain the roots of these pervasive insecurities.
Troper co-authored, with Irving Abella, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948, the story of Canada’s refusal to allow entry of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe. ↩
Nazi death camps were built mostly on Polish soil and the majority of survivors came to Canada from there. ↩
In 1965, the government appointed a special committee on hate propaganda, chaired by Maxwell Cohen. Law professors Mark McGuigan and Pierre Elliott Trudeau were members. ↩
Israel’s name for the June 1967 war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. ↩
The excruciatingly painful testimonies at the Eichmann trial made Holocaust awareness a permanent feature of Jewish life. ↩
Troper recently attributed Trudeau’s later disenchantment with the community’s attachment to Israel largely to the Jewish lobbying that led to Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark’s ill-fated 1979 promise to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—the first time that an Israel-oriented issue became a wedge issue in a Canadian election. ↩
I raise this despite what may be viewed as a bias since Herzog was my father. ↩