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New book offers global view of Canadian anti-Semitism

The cover of Ira Robinson’s book A History of Antisemitism in Canada features a Federal Photos image from the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives taken around 1938, probably in Quebec.
The cover of Ira Robinson’s book 'A History of Antisemitism in Canada' (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) features a Federal Photos image from the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives taken around 1938, probably in Quebec.

Anti-Semitism persists in Canada despite the efforts of Jews and lawmakers to eradicate it, according to Canadian Jewish studies scholar Ira Robinson.

But, Robinson, author of the newly published A History of Antisemitism in Canada (Wilfrid Laurier University Press), urges perspective.

In the preface, Robinson quotes writer and lawyer A.M. Klein as having said in 1932: “Anti-Semitism in this country is a mild affair compared with the persistent and malignant forms which it assumes in some countries.”

In 2015, Robinson comes to a similar conclusion: “Anti-Semitism in Canada is a worrying phenomenon, but also a much milder version than in France, for instance.”

He writes that, by objective measure, “At the beginning of the 21st century, life has never been better for Canada’s Jews,” yet Jews perceive that anti-Semitism is worsening, and the community devotes ever more discussion and resources to countering it.

Hardly a day goes by when anti-Semitism is not in the headlines, Robinson says, and is part of, not only the Jewish community’s, but also the public’s consciousness. He hopes his book, geared to the general reader, will provide context.

A History of Antisemitism in Canada is an attempt to put in a concise volume an overview from the British conquest of New France in 1759 (non-Catholics were not allowed to settle in North American territories previously held by France) up to the present day.

There has been much written on anti-Semitism in Canada, particularly in the 1930s and ’40s and notably Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s seminal None is Too Many, and considerable scholarly work on the subject since then, Robinson acknowledges, but these are specific to time and place.

What he has tried to do is provide a comprehensive study of the country as a whole.

What’s more, he agrees that much that has been written about anti-Semitism in Quebec is “superficial and  shallow.”

Robinson, who is director of Concordia University’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, does not rely solely on archival sources or previously published academic work.

An avid consumer of the daily news, he has drawn on journalism, both traditional and digital, especially for recent years.

Robinson, who was previously chair of Concordia’s department of religion, provides an introduction to anti-Semitism, its definition and history, back to pre-modern times, with specific attention to how the English and French – Canada’s founding peoples – regarded Jews from medieval times.

A chapter is devoted to the question of how opposition to Zionism and Israel influences negative attitudes to Jews, or the reverse.

“It seems clear that as long as Israel’s conflict with its neighbours remains unresolved, the Jewish community of Canada will remain the target of anti-Semitic accusations and actions related to Israel,” he believes.

Of Concordia, where Robinson has taught since 1979 and where a violent demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place in 2002, he observes that Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), a principal opponent to the Israeli politician’s speaking on campus, remains affiliated with the Concordia Student Union (CSU).

“Groups of Muslim students and separate groups of students coming from such countries as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are likewise affiliated with the CSU and likely share large portions of the SPHR agenda.”

As for Quebec generally, where overt expression of negativity toward Jews and Israel continue to be mainstream, Robinson comments: “The intense and sometimes fractious relationship between Jews and French Canadians… that has been ongoing for over a century, and the controversies engendered by this relationship, show no sign of abating in the near future.”

Jews as “others” is likely to remain the prevailing view, he suggests, until Quebec resolves its perennial question of what kind of society it wants to be – inclusive or assimilationist.

Robinson dedicates A History of Antisemitism in Canada to his grandson, Aaron Mark Epstein: “May you grow up to see a world in which the phenomenon described in this book is of only historical interest.”