I find that in these last 100 days since the war began, that my feelings towards Canada are now very, very complicated. Uncomfortably so.
I was born in Toronto to a mom who was born in Bergen Belsen DP camp after the war. My dad was born in England two years after the war and emigrated to Canada when he was 3. So I was a first generation Canadian, much like most of my peers. Most of my friends’ grandparents were European survivors of the war just like mine were. A second generation Canadian my age was the minority. In fact, my husband is a second generation Canadian and I remember being surprised by that.
My father-in-law’s cousin co-wrote a book about the history of Canada and the Jews. It was titled: None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948.
Early in 1939 a government immigration official was asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war. He replied, “None is too many.”
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
From University of Toronto Press:
“Rigorously documented and brilliantly researched, None Is Too Many tells the story of Canada’s response to the plight of European Jews during the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath, exploring why and how Canada turned its back and hardened its heart against the entry of Jewish refugees. Recounting a shameful period in Canadian history, Irving Abella and Harold Troper trace the origins and results of Canadian immigration policies towards Jews and conclusively demonstrate that the forces against admitting them were pervasive and rooted in antisemitism.”
At a time when the Jewish population in Europe (which had dwindled by over six million) was at its most vulnerable, having just endured the worst crimes against humanity, they were kicked and beaten down yet again. Still recovering from severe malnutrition, wounds both physical and mental that would take a lifetime to recover from, all they were looking for was a place to call home. A place to rebuild their lives, a place they could be safe from the next bunch of sadistic monsters looking for Jewish blood. Boats carrying survivors were infamously banned entry into many countries, including Israel which was under the British Empire at the time, and… Canada.
The only way into Canada was if you had a sponsor. My grandmother’s aunt lived in Canada and filled out the necessary paperwork that stated she would sponsor them. Sponsoring meant giving them a place to live and supporting them financially until they were able to support themselves. Canada was in no way interested in aiding or assisting these refugees in any way be it financially or otherwise – they were not looking to burden themselves with these pathetic Jewish survivors.
As a young child growing up in Toronto, unaware of Canada’s dark history regarding their policies and feelings (read: antisemitism) towards Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, I thought of Canada as a compassionate, open country to which refugees from other countries have always been welcome. It was known as a melting pot for a reason. The embarrassing and sad truth – which I had only discovered as a young adult – was that between the years 1933 and 1948, when the Jews of Europe were looking for a place of refuge from Nazi persecution, Canada refused to offer aid, let alone sanctuary, to those in fear for their lives. And after the war, Canada wasn’t keen to take them without sponsorship.
So my grandparents made their way to Canada and lived with their aunt. My grandfather, having been trained as a furniture upholsterer making furniture for the Nazis in a work camp in Germany luckily got a job with Queen City Bedding, where he worked as an upholsterer until he retired. He was further lucky enough to work for a company where he was allowed to take off for Shabbat. But there were no allowances for anything else – when my grandmother went into labor with my uncle, she tucked a towel between her legs, took public transportation to the hospital and gave birth ALONE. My grandfather got a message during work that his wife was in labor and that he could leave after work to visit her. When life throws me for a loop, I try to remember how easy my life really is.
Jump forward to October 2023, and Canada is beginning to repeat its shameful behavior and is showing its true colors towards the Jewish people. Canada’s Jewish population is and has always been an integral part of its people, a rich addition to Canadian life. Like Jews who had been displaced worldwide throughout history, they shed their victimhood quickly and looked forward to a brighter future for their community and their families. They looked towards education and self determination and integrated into society. They proudly built productive communities and schools and have given back to the community at large creating a bright and vibrant Jewish community, one of the largest in North America.
But now Canada is turning its back on its Jewish citizens. Antisemitism is on a frightening rise, with schools being shot at and receiving bomb threats, and more attacks of arson and vandalism towards Jewish owned businesses than ever before. Jewish school teachers in different regions have reported a shocking rise of blatant anti-Semitic statements being hurled their way, and have expressed their fear and are requesting help from their respected representatives in the Board of Education. And while all this is going on, Toronto police are handing out hot cups of coffee to the Pro-Palestinian protesters who are blocking traffic and causing chaos.
You want to argue that they are attempting to diffuse a situation that could go bad in any moment and this is their way of handling what could become a more volatile situation? That may be so, but the message it’s sending is that the Metropolitan Toronto Police is supporting a group of people who are cheering for a terrorist organization and shouting “From the River to the Sea!” – a euphemism for the destruction of the Jewish state and its people.
Actions mean something and have consequences.
I used to be so proud to call myself a Canadian. I was genuinely insulted when mistaken for an American (sorry….), and prided myself on being that polite, friendly, often-apologetic Canadian that everyone knows and loves. I would introduce myself as a Canadian-Israeli, because that was who I was, those were my roots, and notwithstanding what I had subsequently learned about Canada’s dark stain during and post WW2, I did have “hakarat hatov” – appreciation – for everything I had grown up with: freedom of religion, a safe haven where we were able to live openly as proud Jews and not hide our Jewishness due to fear for our very survival. But now, I have to admit that my Canadian pride is waning. Shame is starting to nudge over the pride, and fear for my family and friends still living there is becoming more than a passing thought. As I stood today in “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv among the thousands that showed up to fight for the release of the hostages, I realized that I stood as an Israeli. Just an Israeli.
In 2018, decades overdue, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology for the government’s 1939 decision to turn away the M.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 German Jews fleeing Europe. He was spurred on to make the apology after the terror attack against the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Then he made this statement:
“Canada and Canadians will continue to stand with the Jewish community and call out the hatred that incited such despicable acts,” he said. “These tragic events ultimately attest to the work we still have to do.”
So here’s my question to Canada, and specifically to Justin Trudeau:
Where are you now?
Was that statement just a political tactic to get the Jewish vote? Did you say it to just placate the Canadian Jewish community who expressed worry that a similar attack would happen to their synagogues on Canadian soil? Did you say it because it would have looked bad NOT to have responded?
But maybe this is a better question:
Did you really mean it?
Because from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t really seem like it.