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Fitting in and sticking out at York University

York University students
York University students

“Be a Jew at home and a human being outside.”

This maxim, which encapsulates the program of Jewish assimilationists, is credited to Yehuda Leib Gordon, a 19th-century Hebrew poet, essayist and apostle of the Jewish “enlightenment,” who was born in Vilna in 1831 and died in St. Petersburg in 1892. Ironically, perhaps, Gordon wrote in Hebrew and spent much of his life teaching at Jewish schools.

History records the lengths to which many Jews went in pursuit of Gordon’s dictum. Jewish names were changed, western culture acquired, Jewish culture abandoned, and a few extremists tried to move the Sabbath to Sunday. Some Jews even tried to conform physically in order not to stick out. In Hellenistic times in the land of Israel, some Jewish men tried to undo circumcision. Not long ago, nose jobs were common operations in North America, especially for Jewish women.


Towards the end of his life, Gordon wrote a poem, For Whom Do I Toil? There he laments the success of his own assimilationist program, noting that his audience has disappeared in their eagerness to fit in. His success was also his failure.

Today in many places, and certainly in Canada, Jews and others have outgrown “fitting in.” That has happened not the least because we live now in a pluralistic society, which not only allows differences but values them. Most of us take pride in the ethnic diversity of our country. Once Torontonians sneered at Italians claiming they stank of garlic. Today pizza seems to be the Canadian national food, followed closely by sushi and curry. Most of us have learned to live comfortably with kippot and saris and hijabs worn in public, by people of different religions, ethnicities, and languages.

As late as the 1950s, Jews and African-Canadians were accepted as students on sufferance in Canadian universities and almost not on any terms as faculty members. And while “Jewish Studies” were taught at some universities, they were almost always taught by Christian clerics whose spin, when “positive,” was to see Judaism as the handmaiden of Christianity. (McGill in the 19th century was something of an exception.)

York University’s founders had a rather different philosophy. They understood that a university had to deal with the universe in terms of its faculty and students and also the subjects it offered. Inclusivity in all those areas was not just a slogan, but a watchword. Jewish Studies made its appearance in 1968. Disciplines had to be taught in their own terms, so two faculty members were hired whose academic discipline and training were Jewish Studies.

And most early York faculty and students understood that everyone had much to learn from everyone else. I recall after jointly teaching a course with a faculty member (who was also an ordained Protestant clergyman) who said to me: “I never realized Jews read the Bible differently from Christians.” It hasn’t been a love-in and there has sometimes been friction; sometimes prejudice reared its head. But mostly there has been mutual respect. And that came because the emphasis was on the humanities and social sciences, the backbones of western culture in all of its diversity.


York is now more than half a century old. But much of that early spirit survives. I have been teaching a course on the Holocaust for a number of years. It was, I believe, the first such course in Canada. Over time, many of the students have been Jews of all stripes, of course, but non-Jews are probably now the majority: Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and many who do not see themselves as belonging to any faith group. And the students mirror Toronto’s ethnic and racial diversity. They are generally respectful of one another and able to talk about the challenges that the Holocaust presents and its lessons for different groups, and for humanity, in general, something that could only be done in a course in the liberal arts.

So, while I am pained to do so, I must take issue with Seymour Schulich, a person who has been enormously supportive of York University over the years and of other universities in Canada, as well. But “fitting in” is out these days, and sticking out is in. And while friction sometimes results, diversity is our glory in Canada.

Anti-Semitism is intolerable; racism of any kind is intolerable. Singling out Israel for its bad behaviour and ignoring the misdeeds of many other countries – sometimes even our own – is intolerable. But Mr. Schulich is right in pointing out the unbalanced nature of the unstinting and unacceptably disrespectful rhetoric against York and its officers. That flies in the face of the good work done at York over the years – and being done now. And it presents a distorted picture of life at York University that threatens to destroy all that has been painstakingly achieved.

Professor Michael Brown, PhD, teaches in Humanities, History, and the Department of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at York University

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