My grandfather came to Canada from the old country — Poland — during the First World War, and for the next 35 years he dressed like a typical Orthodox Jew of his day. He wore a yarmulke and a long black coat in all seasons and had a large white beard. He refused to change his facial hair and his clothing to suit Canadian tastes.
When I was a child, people (including some fellow Jews) would ask me “Why does he insist on dressing like that?” My grandmother, too, wore clothing that clearly marked her as Jewish. Neither spoke much English, content to use Yiddish and let their children translate for them. But they had five surviving children, who had a score of their own children, who spawned a legion of grandchildren, and all of them spoke English and all of us are proud Canadians.
My mother told me that during the late 1930s she would accompany her father to The Beaches and Toronto Island, both places with swastika signs and warnings to Jews to stay away. One day, they were surrounded by a gang of youths who taunted and assaulted my grandfather. According to my mum, he struck out at them with his cane and drove them away. How dare he? I’m sure that, looking down the lens of history, nobody begrudges him this act of self-defence. Long before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, you had to defend your rights yourself.
This was around the same time that Canada’s attitude to Jews and Jewish immigration was summarized by federal government official F.C. Blair in the infamous phrase “None is too many.” In a letter to a colleague, this vicious anti-Semite wrote of certain Jewish cultural practices (which he no doubt believed to be barbaric):
“I often think…that it would be far better if we more often told them [the Jews] frankly why many of them are unpopular in Canada….If they would divest themselves of certain of their habits I am sure they would be just as popular in Canada as our Scandinavians.” (cited by Irving Abella and Franklin Bialystok)
We are reminded of the history of Jews in Canada as we watch the disgraceful reaction to Zunera Ishaq’s refusal to uncover herself at her citizenship swearing-in ceremony. She is perfectly willing to show her face to a female immigration official to prove who she is, and the ceremony itself is a formality. Twice the courts have defended her. Yet Prime Minister Harper and his party, as well as the Bloc Québecois, have shamelessly stirred the ugly cauldron of racism for calculated political gain. And way too many Canadians are buying in.
Surely we have learned that a person’s clothing is a personal choice and a basic human right, whether they are influenced by religious or ethnic custom or not. Haven’t we?
That’s why I am doubly disappointed and saddened by the non-reaction of the official Jewish organizations in Canada. Where is the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs? Where is B’nai Brith, once a stalwart champion of human rights for all? Indeed, when Justin Trudeau last March compared the rising tide of Islamophobia to Canada’s anti-Semitic past, B’nai Brith denounced his remarks as “inaccurate historical parallels” and “highly inappropriate.”
How quickly and conveniently our Jewish “leaders” forget. Or perhaps they are simply glad that it’s not the Jews who are the subject of xenophobic scorn nowadays. The widely quoted poem by German pastor Martin Niemöller describes the perils of standing by while evil flourishes, and contains the words “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew….Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Obviously, that famous poem deserves some updating.
I’m a proud member of Independent Jewish Voices — Canada, a national Jewish human rights organization. Our mission includes rights for everyone, not just Jews. And we unequivocally condemn the verbal pogrom being waged against our Muslim sisters and brothers.