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Christie Pits riot revisited

Christie Pits (File photo)

Over the last 50 years, Toronto has become a place of relative harmony and peace between ethnic and racial communities. A riot of the sort experienced at Christie Pits on Aug. 16, 1933, is unthinkable in today’s city. And yet there are new manifestations of anti-Semitism at home and abroad. One of the hottest debates within and without the Jewish communities of the Diaspora concerns the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. This debate is especially acute on our university campuses where the Israeli-Palestinian question has become the focus of student attention in much the same way – although not quite to the same degree – that the war in Vietnam did for the student generation of the 1960s.

Tensions on and off Canadian campuses have been increasing over the last decade. Ironically, the same sorts of tensions have arisen on Israeli campuses, where left-wing Jewish students have been active in criticizing government policy, exemplifying the active character of Israeli democracy and emphasizing its political tensions. But what is most telling and disconcerting about all of this is that there are opposing assessments of the significance of anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish manifestations by Jews themselves. We have spoken with colleagues on the left and right; the former arguing that the extent of anti-Israel/anti-Jewish manifestations on campus is greatly exaggerated, and the latter arguing that it is a clear and present danger and a growing threat to the Jewish community as a whole.

Why is all of this relevant to a reconsideration of the riot at Christie Pits? Because the riot was a response to anti-Semitic provocation, to a culture of anti-Semitic prejudice, to exclusionary practices and discrimination, and to the calculated display of the swastika in Canada’s biggest city at a time when the chronicling of Nazism in Germany was daily fare in the local press. Today it is not the blatant anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the polite “gentleman’s agreement” WASP exclusionism that Jews face, but an anti-Semitism that is couched in terms of anti-Zionism. Yes, it is possible to be a critic of the policy of the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic, as indeed is true of at least the majority of Israel’s opposition parties. And this is not to say that some, especially younger, Jews in Canada and throughout the Diaspora more generally are not concerned about certain trends in Israeli society. Many are troubled by the predominance of Orthodox Judaism with regard to issues of conversion, marriage, divorce, as well as its hostility toward intermarriage; large numbers of non-Orthodox and certainly religiously unaffiliated Jews find it an affront that their offspring would not be considered Jewish by the dominant religious authority in Israel. There are those concerned about what they see as anti-democratic trends in Israel. There is much less unity within the Jewish community in Canada more generally today than there was in the ’30s  – or even in the ’80s.

The Riot at Christie Pits was first published in 1987 when there were many people living in Toronto who remembered the riot and its impact on the city. It was considered a badge of pride that young Jews had stood up to the provocations of the Swastika Club at The Beaches and the Pit Gang in Willowvale Park (the official name of Christie Pits at the time). But the pride in the violent altercation was also felt in relation to the general culture of anti-Semitism at the time, reflected in city hall, in the Orange (Protestant) dominance in the hiring of city workers, police and firefighters, in the smug prejudice of the WASP elite with their exclusionary clubs, the polite anti-Semitism of some of the press, the numerus clausus at the universities, restrictions in housing and so on. After the Second World War, the situation for the Jews improved. The Legion Hall replaced the Orange Lodge as the preferred gathering place for our vets. The coalition of organized labour, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the liberal churches supported legislation in the late-’40s and early-’50s that ended legal discrimination in employment, housing, recreation and higher education. The pace of change accelerated with the entrance of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association into the fray, with the moral authority of the Catholic Church through Vatican II, through the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of thousands of civil rights volunteers. And it was Martin Luther King Jr. who suggested that anti-Zionism was equivalent to anti-Semitism.

However, Judea Pearl, father of the brutally murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, drew a clear distinction between the two: “Anti-Zionism rejects the very notion that Jews are a nation – a collective bonded by a common history – and, accordingly, denies Jews the right to self-determination in their historical birthplace.

It seeks the dismantling of the Jewish nation-state: Israel. Anti-Zionism earns its discriminatory character by denying the Jewish people what it grants to other historically bonded collectives (e.g., French, Spanish, Palestinians), namely, the right to nationhood, self-determination and legitimate coexistence with other indigenous claimants. Anti-Semitism rejects Jews as equal members of the human race; anti-Zionism rejects Israel as an equal member in the family of nations.” And in the mind of most Jews, the collective memory of the Christie Pits riot is seen through the linkage of the older form of Jew-hatred and contemporary anti-Zionism.

We tend to assume that conditions that obtain during our own times are “natural” and we fail to understand the context of historical developments. The riot at Christie Pits took place during the depths of the Great Depression; it may seem idle to speculate whether there would have been a riot with nearly full employment in 1933. We are of the opinion that prejudice, discrimination, racial and ethnic hatred, and violence, although not created by economic hardship and dislocation, are significant contributing factors to the violence of its expression. Would Hitler have come to power in Germany with nearly full employment in the Weimar Republic? Would FDR or Mackenzie King? One may repeat the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” the unofficial slogan of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential bid – surely an oversimplification of the complexities of political life – but there is no doubt that a population that experiences sharp economic dislocation and hardship is open to demagoguery and racial and ethnic hostility and incitement.


World politics and economics have changed drastically since the release of the first edition of the book. The relatively sudden rise of anti-globalist, nationalist forces manifested in the Brexit election, the elections of anti-Semitic governments in Hungary and Poland, the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and the entry into the Reichstag of the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany have caused a shiver to run through the Jewish world. But perhaps, most symbolically, the gathering of the alt-right and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017, the flaunting of the swastika amidst the violence of the occasion and Donald Trump’s insistence that both sides ought to be equally condemned for that violence, will cause readers to study the Christie Pits riot with greater present concern and alarm. Reports of increased anti-Semitic activity – the smearing of swastikas, the prevalence of slurs and epithets on social media, videos of a neo-Nazi assembly with members giving the Hitler salute and yelling “Heil Trump!” have been widely circulated in the mass media. Debates carried on in the mainstream Jewish media as to the meaning of a Trump presidency and the nature of the threat from the anti-Semitic right are currently raging and have caused a level of alarm and consternation within the Jewish communities of North America not seen since the Second World War. Comparisons with Germany in the late ’20s are legion while others caution against overreaction and recommend a wait-and-see attitude.

Whatever the reality of the threats may be, we take some comfort in the successes of Toronto even as we express our concern about new dangers and threats to the Jewish community and indeed to the free world.


Adapted from The Riot at Christie Pits by Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir, which has just been reissued by New Jewish Press in a paperback edition.

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