Eighty-four years ago, Toronto’s Christie Pits Park was the site of one of the largest ethnic clashes in Canadian history. The six-hour riot became a symbol of pride and resistance for Canadian Jewish opposition to anti-Semitism, and has been commemorated for decades.
The date was Aug. 16, 1933. The setting: Willowvale Park (today, Christie Pits). A few months prior, Adolf Hitler had risen to power, and reports on Nazi Germany’s discriminatory laws and incitements of violence against Jews flooded the Canadian press. During a softball game at the park, a huge swastika flag was unfolded to the shouts of “Heil Hitler!” But the Jews did not retreat; they fought back. In the ensuing hours, hundreds of Jewish youths and Nazi sympathizers engaged in an intense ethnic riot, fighting one another with clubs and baseball bats.
Eighty-four years later, almost to the day, a similar riot took place in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., when hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen.Robert E. Lee. On Aug. 11, with torches in hand, the group marched through the University of Virginia campus grounds chanting, “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and soil”, and “White lives matter.”
The following day, demonstrators took to the streets with signs that read “the Goyim know!” and “Jews are Satan’s children.” Men with swastika armbands shouted “Jew” every time the city’s mayor, Michael Singer, was mentioned, and ultimately surrounded the local synagogue clamouring shouts of “Sieg Heil.”
David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard and notorious anti-Semite, and among the myriad of infamous white supremacists present, remarked, “We are determined to take our country back… We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump,” he said. “That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
And what did U.S. President Donald Trump have to say? His first response was to condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, “on many sides.” Seventy-two hours later, he made a more direct condemnation of the events. But then on Aug.15, Trump asserted that not all of the protesters had been white supremacists, and reiterated a false moral equivalence between white supremacists and their opponents.
As I watched the horrifying events unfold in Charlottesville, I couldn’t help but think of Christie Pits. When I saw images of white supremacists surrounding the city’s synagogue, I thought about the St. Peter’s baseball team swarming supporters of Harbord Playground. When I heard about the neo-Nazis giving Hitler salutes on the Charlottesville streets, I thought about Swastika Clubs taunting Jews in downtown Toronto.
These two events took place almost a century apart, and yet one thing remains true: those who oppose Nazis stand on the right side of history. The lesson of Christie Pits is that Nazism and its ilk should be confronted and shamed. Toronto’s Jews demonstrated in 1933 that there is no acceptable level of tolerance for Nazism – for its proponents, its defenders, or its apologists – and their efforts led to Toronto banning the swastika and other Nazi symbols. Perhaps, more importantly, it became a symbol of bravery and resilience, one that holds a primary place in the historical consciousness of Canadian Jews to this day.
In 2017, as in 1933, Jews must stand firm and ready against those who don the swastika. As for those who stand with apologists for white supremacy, they are trampling on the legacy of Canadian Jewry’s finest act of resistance against hate.
Jordan Devon is studying political science at McGill University where he is also a managing editor of Bull & Bear magazine.