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Jews and the political melting pot: Americans vs. Canadians

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When contrasting Donald Trump with Justin Trudeau, many Canadians rightly take pride in Canada’s political culture as compared to that of the United States. The election of turban-wearing Sikh Canadian Jagmeet Singh to the leadership of the New Democratic Party was the latest indication that Canadians are more tolerant of religious and cultural differences than our neighbours to the south. Canada is not without bigotry, but racial and religious prejudice, including the radical secularism of some Quebecois nationalists, are thought to be contrary to the country’s pluralistic ethos.

We Canadians grew up with received wisdom: while the United States is a melting pot, Canada is a mosaic. In the American melting pot, immigrants assimilate and come out all-American; in the Canadian mosaic, ethnic groups become Canadian while maintaining ancestral identities and distinct communities. In 1971, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau embraced the mosaic and declared multiculturalism an official policy of the Canadian government. Despite the association of multiculturalism with Canada, the term “melting pot” has interesting Jewish and Quebecois roots that are instructive for our own time.

In October 1908, The Melting Pot, a play by British Jew Israel Zangwill, debuted in Washington, D.C., with sitting president Teddy Roosevelt in the audience. The play told the story of David Quixano, a Russian Jewish immigrant to New York who aspired to write a great American symphony. Quixano falls in love with Vera Revendal, a Russian Christian immigrant. Difficulties ensue when they discover that Revendal’s father is the same Russian nobleman who led the pogrom that murdered Quixano’s family (talk about Montagues and Capulets). In the end, the American melting pot conquers all, and the immigrant lovers live happily ever after.

Zangwill’s play was a hit, but many Jews disliked it for its seeming embrace of intermarriage and assimilation. Love it or hate it, Zangwill’s script provided a metaphor for America, which, as Quixano proclaims, is “the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!” Zangwill’s melting pot drew the colour line, with little room for non-white people. Jews, legally defined as white, were welcome to escape Russian anti-Semitism and become Americans.

READ: WHEN IDENTITY POLITICS BECOME TOXIC

Beyond endorsing the American melting pot, Zangwill was also a passionate Jewish nationalist. Initially one of Britain’s leading Zionists and a friend to Theodor Herzl, he became disillusioned with the prospect of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. He advocated for territorialism, the view that Jews should found a state wherever feasible (whether Africa, South America or elsewhere), until his death in 1926. Ironically, many Zionists see Israel as a melting pot, blending Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim and Ethiopians into the new Jew: the sabra.

Less well-known than the melting pot’s Jewish origins is its original Canadian connection. In 1889, the New York Times noted that French Canadians worried that “if they too were cast into the American melting pot, they would yield to that mysterious force which blends all foreign elements into one homogenous mass.” This was perhaps the earliest printed use of the term “melting pot” as a metaphor for American diversity, and it served as an explicit contrast with Canada’s bicultural population. Arguing against a proposal for the United States to annex Canada, the author noted that devoutly Catholic French Canadians in New England had not become American, and those in Quebec “would offer the same stubborn resistance to being Americanized that they have hitherto offered to being Anglicized.”

Jews and French Canadians have long grappled with the promise and problems of the melting pot. In a North American context, both groups worry about assimilation and cultural continuity. “Zachor” resembles “Je me souviens”! Ironically, what many separatist Quebecois nationalists want is for Quebec to become a secular francophone melting pot for people of all ethnicities and nationalities to speak French. Their vision is of a French Zion on the St. Lawrence. Israel Zangwill might even approve.