Home Perspectives Opinions Exposing anti-Semitism one book at a time

Exposing anti-Semitism one book at a time

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Ontario Conservative government leader George Drew and Jewish Labour Progressive MPP Joe Salsberg

The end of World War II and the horrific revelations about the Holocaust should have ended the anti-Semitism that had been ingrained in Canadian society from well before Confederation. And it looked promising.

In March 1944, the minority Ontario Conservative government headed by George Drew  – heeding the lobbying of newly elected Jewish Labour-Progressive MPP Joe Salsberg and the opposition Co-operative Commonwealth Federation  – had introduced pioneering anti-discrimination legislation.

The act marked the beginning of a decade of landmark human rights legislation, which ultimately altered the way Jews and other minorities were treated in Canada. But it hardly eliminated discrimination and it certainly did not eliminate prejudice.

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Still, in a sign of changing perceptions, anti-Semitism received prominent and critical attention in Earth and High Heaven, a 1944 novel by a Gwethalyn Graham, a 31-year old Montreal-based journalist born to a wealthy WASP Toronto family.

Her story, which unfolds in Montreal during the summer of 1942, traces the love affair and complicated relationship between the lovely and determined journalist Erica Drake of the very Protestant Westmount Drakes and Marc Reiser, a handsome and smart Jewish lawyer and a junior partner in a Montreal Jewish law firm.

Her parents, the stuffy Charles and Margaret, are distraught when they learn that Erica is dating Marc. They question his motives and cannot figure out “why doesn’t he pick a Jewish girl?” Charles was especially troubled by the thought that if Erica and Marc got married, his Jewish son-in-law “could not be admitted to his club.”

Upon first meeting, Marc, “the best type of Jew,” it suddenly dawns on Erica that many times she had seen, though ignored, the “endless” signs on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses and “the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians” that Gentiles only were welcome: No Jews allowed.

Erica is as principled and outspoken as Graham was at the time about racism and women’s rights. In a clash with her father about Marc, Erica cuttingly points out that, “After all, we Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Reflecting on her own prejudices, she decides, too, that “a Jew describes another Jew simply as a human being; a Gentile describes him first and foremost as a Jew…The highest compliment the average Gentile can pay a Jew, apparently, is to say that he doesn’t look or behave like one.”

As University of Toronto historian Rachel Gordan has related in the American Jewish magazine Moment, Graham’s novel was released three years before the more well-known U.S. novel about anti-Semitism, Gentlemen’s Agreement by New York Jewish author Laura Hobson (born Laura Zametkin), which became the basis in 1947 for the Hollywood film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire.

Hobson was inspired to write her book after reading Graham’s novel and Peck had initially signed on with movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn to star with Joan Fontaine in a film adaptation of Earth and High Heaven before that project was abruptly cancelled once news emerged that 20th Century Fox had obtained film rights to Gentleman’s Agreement.

Had Goldwyn gone ahead with his plans there would, in fact, have been three films in 1947 about anti-Semitism, a theme which was also front and centre in Crossfire, a murder mystery starring Robert Mitchum that was nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture (Gentlemen’s Agreement won that year).

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The anti-Semitic theme of Crossfire, however was a Hollywood adaptation. The movie was based loosely on the 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole by screenwriter Richard Brooks, who had explored anti-homosexual prejudice. Since anything to do with that topic was really taboo in 1947, anti-Semitism was used instead.

All but forgotten today, Earth and High Heaven was, as Gordan points out, the first novel published in Canada to be number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It sold 125,000 copies in the U.S, was translated into 18 languages and won the Governor General’s Award for fiction in Canada.


Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is The Bootlegger’s Confession, a Sam Klein Mystery.