When Canada belatedly opened its door to Jewish refugees – to some of the surviving remnant after the Holocaust – it did so not out of an abundance of humanitarianism but because of economic necessity, the need for skilled and unskilled workers in a booming economy.
Regardless of the motivation, that influx of refugees redefined Jewish identity in Canada. The increased Jewish population and the institutions they spawned essentially built the community we know today.
As former Vancouverite Adara Goldberg described in her book Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation, 1947–1955, the institutions that we now see as the organized Jewish community were created for and by the refugees and immigrants who came after the war. By contrast, those who came to the United States after the war were greeted by and largely assimilated into a strong Jewish community already in progress.
This has had several corollaries. The worldview of Canadian Jewish institutions – and, though not easily verifiable, probably a majority of Jewish Canadians individually – is imbued with the understandable anxieties imprinted on those who witnessed the rise of fascism and lived through it.
On the flip side, the Canadian Jewish community as we know it can be said to have been born almost contemporaneously with the state of Israel. Again, while Zionism is entwined with the American Jewish community, that community had many other preexisting cultural and political dimensions. In Canada, the rebirth and survival of the Jewish state occurred at the most impressionable period in the community’s history. As well, the idea of Jewish self-determination as the surest path to individual and collective security resonated powerfully with a community disproportionately made up of survivors of the Shoah. Moreover, Canada’s approach to multiculturalism, especially after 1967, differed from the American “melting pot” and suspicion of “dual loyalties.”
So, the nature of Diaspora-Israel relations is different for Canadians versus Americans. Yet, some of the challenges are the same.
A new essay by David Hazony, editor of the American Jewish magazine The Tower, takes a new tack on the topic of American Jewry’s existential challenges. The Jewish population is not only declining, he notes, but changing. The only demographic that is flourishing is the Orthodox, which is not necessarily reflective of what would have been recognized as “American Jewry” in the 1950s and ’60s. The two most-recognized paths to avoid assimilation, he says, are currently orthodoxy and aliyah – but he suggests a third way.
Hazony posits that the answer to challenges facing American Jews right now is a little more Israel. The essay reviews concerns that American (read: Diaspora) Jews and Israelis are talking across a widening divide. Hazony’s suggestion is that Americans, who have for generations viewed Israel as a political cause, begin to integrate Israeliness as a cultural characteristic and embrace it as the future of their Diaspora identity. For instance, he says, Diaspora Jews immersing ourselves in Israeli cinema, even with subtitles, will give us a remedial entry point into the culture.
Language – not an easy thing to learn, particularly for notoriously unilingual Americans, Hazony acknowledges – is another important entry point.
“Without Hebrew,” he writes, “any approach to Israeliness will be like walking into an enormous library in a foreign language but relegated to the tiny English-language section.”
He suggests a network of Hebrew language and culture centres modeled on the French example. How many times have you driven by the Alliance Française building south of Oakridge?
Finally, travel. Just 27% of Americans have visited Israel more than once, he notes. To understand a place, you have to go there.
The essay is fascinating and offers ideas that could both strengthen Diaspora communities and narrow the gap between us and our Israeli cousins.
As Canada Day festivities unfurl in the coming days, we will see the familiar dictum “The world needs more Canada.” In some ways, we can proudly say, the world would indeed be a more peaceful, cooperative and respectful place if Canadian models were emulated elsewhere. Like any country, we have our flaws, our oppressive history and current inequalities. But, as countries go, we’re pretty good.
Hazony is taking a similar tack, arguing that Diaspora Jews need a little more Israeliness.
In Vancouver, we are very fortunate that our Jewish community centre has, for longer than we can remember, recognized the vital importance of connections with Israel. A plethora of other Israel-related organizations keep these bonds strong.
While pondering what is great about Canada in the coming week, we might also reflect on the value of integrating more Israeli culture into our lives. It can enrich us individually and enhance Canadian multiculturalism, too.