Episode 59: The Canadian Jewish Difference

David Koffman brings us into the Canadian Jewish conversation and discusses how it differs from the American conversation on key issues.

The following is a transcript of Episode 59 of the Identity/Crisis podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis the show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. We’re recording on Tuesday, June 8th, 2021. For a long time, I’ve been enchanted by the question of Jewish “at homeness” I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of diaspora, possibly an invention of the Jewish people whose paradoxical twin characteristics are that Jews would live anywhere and seek to be at home there, but remain connected and in some ways have their identity defined by a different homeland. The possibility of believing in both the possibility of home and homeland as noncompeting non-contradictory ideas. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of journey towards home that is core to the biblical tradition. In fact, the story of the Bible is a story of exile and the journey towards home, the dream of home, and like Homer’s “the Odyssey”, the knowledge that when you actually get there, it’s not quite as good as you imagine it to be.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

In so many ways the story of the 20th and 21st centuries for the Jewish people has been the story of mass dislocation, departure from home, and a search for home. And perhaps the story of the 21st century increasingly is: “what is the experience of home when you actually arrive?” And of course there are all the weird ways in which we, as Jews, can feel at home in different places and in different ways. I oftentimes describe the feeling of getting off a plane in Israel and feeling like I’ve arrived at home and then returning back home to Riverdale, New York unlocking my house, and I’m like, “oh, finally, I’m at home.” Some of our recent episodes on Zionism have tried to get at this paradox or this tension of the question of “athomeness” as well as some of the episodes we did over the course of this past summer, especially in the racial justice moment in America about the American Jewish story and the ways in which American Jews have told themselves a particular story of American “at homeness” and how that gets disrupted sometimes with significant psychological consequences.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

When you discover, sometimes, for the first time that the story that you tell about your own homeland is not the one that others share about the same place today. We’re opening our aperture a little wider on this question of at homeness, with what we’ll call the “Great Canada episode. And here I want a signal my own, in some ways, geographic blindness. I run a national North American Jewish organization. The Hartman Institute has a presence in Canada, but as a American Jew, it’s actually oftentimes difficult to fully integrate and assimilate the differences between the American story and the Canadian story to pretend as though there’s a North American Jewish experience can sometimes make light of all of the regional differences, both within America, but certainly across the border. And so today, I want to explore largely in response to an extraordinary new book that’s out, the question about homeness, as it pertains to Canadian Jews and how the Canadian Jewish experience is significant for us in processing this whole modern contemporary question of Jewish “at homeness.” So today I’m joined by David Koffman, the J Richard Schiff chair for the study of Canadian Jewry and associate professor in the Department of History at York. David is a cultural and social historian of modern Jewish life with a specialization in Canadian and US Jeweries. He’s the editor in chief of “Canadian Jewish Studies.” And as mentioned, he’s the editor of this new book called “No Better Home?: Jews, Canada, and the Sense of Belonging.” David, thanks for coming on Identity/Crisis.

David Koffman:

Oh, it’s my pleasure to speak with you today, Yehuda.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Awesome. So let’s start with the kind of basic America-centered question, which runs through this book, a collection of essays, which I think emerged out of a conference that you hosted on the question of Canadian Jewish “at homeness.” Let’s start with an American-centered question, which is what’s the same and what’s different. I guess I have a certain bias as it’s probably common among American Jews of understanding Canada is basically like America, but geographically bigger and Jewishly smaller. At least one of your essays, I think the Lois Dubin essay and some others make reference to the fact that there’s this assumption that what happens in Canada is basically the same as what has happened in America, but later and on a smaller scale. Dubin of course, argues with this and wants to find other comparisons. But start us off more generally as you look at these two stories, what’s the same and what’s different. And how do you want people to understand Canadian Jewry, whether from a kind of comparative standpoint or from its own idiosyncratic standpoint?

David Koffman:

Yeah. So both have to be done. And the reality of Canadian Jews living in the shadow of the elephant is a structuring principle. So to jump too deep into the differences is to miss a fundamentally important point that they are in a certain sense, the same, and that there is a continental reality. Now that actually has to shift some of the ways that Americans think about continental life in general, to include other folks who are on the continent, but the similarities are of course, very important. There are some similar language that describes different kinds of realities and there’s some different kinds of language that describes similar realities. So I would say that the biggest differences between the Canadian Jewish experience and the American – one has to do with its fact of bilingualism, it’s biculturalism, that Canadian Jews live in two regions, they’re centered in two different provinces and have histories where they are navigating their senses of belonging in both French, Catholic-dominated Quebec and in Protestant, English dominated Ontario and it’s west and east coast provinces.

David Koffman:

This is both a kind of fact of biculturalism, it is sort of to quote unquote founding peoples of Canada and a twin negotiation that has to happen sometimes without great between them. Next is the importance of indigenous issues for Canadian Jews and for Canadians in general. Religion is a different vector since Canada has no formal separation of church and state. And since the federal government has provided provisions for religious groups, federal funding and provincial funding for education and religion is recorded in the census. And religion is kind of a part of the constitutional arrangement that made Canada possible in the first place. So it’s publicly allocated for in school boards and stuff like that. So the religion question is really quite different than it is in the United States. So I think those are maybe three big ones that we can start with.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Great. So that helps to describe some of the kind of contextual differences between the Canadian experience and the American experience. I noticed in the book, so in Mia Spiro’s essay is she makes reference to the Azrieli series of Holocaust memoirs that are connected to Canadian Jewry. And one of the phrases she uses is the frequency of the appearance of Canada as a non place. In other words, rather than the kind of promised land destination that American Jews oftentimes used as part of the immigration story, the emphasis that she notices in at least some of the memoirs is it’s more of like the exit from the real place. And then there’s just like a neutral thing, which is Canada. And it echoes with a different essay in the book for David Weinfeld under the basic thinness of Canadian culture. It was just, first of all, astonishing, these are pro Canadian voices kind of naming that there isn’t the same kind of robustness of an attachment between the Jewish story to the Canadian story of itself. Do you think that’s accurate and what’s going on there narratively in the connection between these two stories or lack thereof?

David Koffman:

Yeah, I think it’s accurate. And I think it is very much a narrative question. There have been Canadian intellectuals and political leaders who have wrung their hands at this kind of absence of any clear articulation of what being Canadian has meant, but there are an equal number of political, intellectual, cultural leaders who really see this sort of absent center of Canadianness as something that provides a lot more room and is one of the merits and the kind of achievement of post-European, modern, liberal nation states that are in a way not national they’re, maybe not nation states, they’re post-national states. The current prime minister has even described Canadian as a post-national state itself. And this was meant to be a celebration of it, the room that it provides for people to live their lives and identify how they do and be who they need to be without as much pressure as sort of national simulation.

David Koffman:

So there are debates that are unlike the ones that happened in the United States. It’s certainly the case that Canada, as a whole is less polarized and it’s less tribal. Jews are less anxious about their political affiliations, even these days, even as the Canadian Jewish electorate ranges across the four major parties, Jews in Canada, certainly identify with their politics with respect to Israel and identity issues and fiscal policy. But seldom do they identify with parties per se. And this makes a great amount of creative room or at least room to live ordinary lives. I’d also say that this absence center has given Jewish Canadians a bit more room to ignore questions about being Canadian, which many ethnic and religious minority groups do. They get to ignore the fact of their Canadianness. And so this has consequences that are bad and good. On the one hand, there’s no museum of Canadian Jewish experience compared with the dozens of museums there are that speak to the state and federal American experience, or there’s, I think two Australian Jewish museums for a country that has a much smaller Jewish population than Canada does. There’s less cultural and scholarly conversation. There’s less pride perhaps in Jewish institutions. And overall I’d say Canadian Jews are less interested in, knowledgeable in their Canadianness. They tell fewer stories about themselves as Canadian at all.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah. Your book is even a data point to this, right? I can’t imagine how many scholarly books and also non-scholarly books are written that either explicitly or implicitly wrestle with the question of American Jewish “at homeness,” and you’re breaking new ground in some ways, by asking this question, you even hear from a lot of the scholars with their own ambivalences, as they start writing their essays of like, “can I really wrestle with this question of Canada “at homeness?” It’s like a little uncomfortable to raise the question. It’s kind of seems to tell a little bit of that same story of, well, to what extent am I really attached to Canada as opposed to simply being the place that I live?

David Koffman:

Yeah. I think that’s very much right. I think in particular, this book has some of that because not only is it a collection of essays, but by design half of the essays in it are writing about Canadian Jewish life for the first time. So while half of those scholars who contribute to it are leading scholars of Canadian Jewish studies in various fields, the other half are contributors who have expertise in some area of modern Jewish life, from whatever discipline they come from and have some kind of connection to Canada. They either lived and taught here for many years or were born here, but then haven’t taken Canadian Jewish life very seriously. So it was by design to include a larger range of voices, partly to help expand the field of Canadian Jewish studies itself. And to see if we could generate ideas that were more provocative. And I’m not surprised that this comfort with the question, which is not only a question about reflecting on Canada as a home, but the very cheeky question that the title poses about better the comparative question, a question that scholars really don’t want to answer for lots of good reasons.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah. We’ll come back to that at the end. I’ll put you on the spot and you’ll answer the question: Is there no better place for choosing Canada? But I thought what we might do is take a couple of examples of major Jewish issues and major Canadian Jewish issues, and maybe process them together a little bit and help our listeners understand, kind of, the state of Canadian Jewry on these questions. So one of them that you alluded to in passing, which I’m trying to wrap my head around is if it’s true that the level of attachment by Canadian Jews to the Canadian story is far less than it is for American Jews to the American story. I agree with that on the American side, for sure. And by the way, it’s a real risk on the American side, because the more attached you are to a particular narrative of a particular place, the more vulnerable you are when that narrative gets dismantled.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on in the American Jewish community right now. But then I don’t know quite what to make with the Zionism thing, because if Canadian Jews are less attached to the national story, as it relates to Canada, that might lead somebody to conclude that they are less attached to mythic narratives that are connected to patriotism, nation, and place. But actually Canadian jury is far more, not universally, of course not uniformly, but overwhelmingly more just pro-Zionist than the American Jewish community. All of the story around alienation from Israel, antagonism towards Israel is part of the Canadians – it exists in Canada, of course, but the American Jewish community is far less vexed by the problem of distancing from Israel. So why is that? Why if Canadian Jews have not in their own experience attached themselves to the story of the nation, why do they seem so much more fluidly comfortable with the story of nation for the Jewish people as connected to the state of Israel?

David Koffman:

Sure. That’s a great question. Now there are lots of factors, I think help explain it. I’m not sure anyone does the job fully, but firstly, it should be said that Jews who are Canadian citizens are no less in need of narratives that produce a sense of belonging. It’s not the fact that Jews who grew up in Canada, where there is a kind of absent center don’t need to feel like they belong somewhere. Like the muscle and the muscle memory for producing a sense of “at homeness” has not atrophied. It just doesn’t find good soil to mix my metaphors in Canada. As for its attachments I mean, it’s certainly clear that Canadian Jews are extraordinarily attached to Israel. And the idea of Israel as a home for the Jews, despite the fact that they don’t move there. I think something like 80% of Jews in the last national survey that was done in 2018 have reported having traveled to Israel at least once as compared with 43% of American Jews and nearly double the population has visited.

David Koffman:

I think one explanation that helps explain it is that in many bi-cultural states, the dual allegiance problem has been far less sharp. So in say Belgium or in South Africa or in Canada, where there are two nations that share a portion of the sense of the state, Zionism has been historically very strong and Zionism was extraordinarily strong. In fact, one of the great forces that managed to bring Canadian Jews together and ironically produce a sense of Jewishness, of Canadian Jewishness, despite the huge geographical distances across the middle of the 20th century, even before the state, but certainly after is that getting together as Canadian Zionists has produced a sense of Jewishness Canadianness for Canadian Jews. And they were far less anxious about expressing their support for, and love and fondness for Israel than in places where they didn’t have this kind of bi-national background. Another dimension might be that the proportion of Holocaust survivors is much stronger in Canada and therefore the influence of Holocaust survivors in establishing the kind of organizational agenda, taking leadership roles, descendants of survivors and stuff. There maybe 20% of Canadian Jews have direct Holocaust roots, which is much, much higher than it is in the United States. And this might help explain some Zionist commitments if we think of a Zionist committment as a kind of conservatism. Not sure if that’s fair to do, but let’s throw that out there.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

It just seems interesting to me, I think probably your first answer feels most compelling to me, which is America kind of insists on an ironic kind of monoculture America has a very dominant sense of itself. And therefore the challenge of, I feel really deeply attached to my American story. And I also really feel attached to this national story of Jewish people who then incorporate the state of Israel almost at the get go invites as a kind of tension. And your argument around bi-cultural societies actually makes room for it. You can have your Jewishness and your Canadianness, and you can have a thick experience of Jewish peoplehood, which is connected to the state, which is simply not contradictory to the Canadian experience.

David Koffman:

Let me just add one more thing that I think actually might make an interesting difference is that the period of mass migration of Jews to Canada was slightly later than the largest period of mass migration to the States. So those Jews who kind of came in the first two decades of the 20th century, as opposed to from the 1880s to 1910 or a whole generation, more deeply steeped in labor, Zionism, and other forms of Zionism and, you know, Yiddish nationalism, and they were across more of those conversations. So those Jews that moved to Canada as compared with the States sort have had more practice and more engagement already thinking about it and perhaps their children and grandchildren did as well. Yeah,

Yehuda Kurtzer:

That seems like a bookend with the Holocaust survivor piece. And it continues to raise that interesting question of what does it mean to be at home, but we will come back to that. Let me take a different hot button issue, David, which is, it was very striking to me on the first page of the book you listed all of the characteristics of Canadian Jewish thriving. There were 10, you included relatively low rates of nonviolent forms of antisemitism, high degrees of Jewish literacy, high rates of voluntary religious participation in denomination, significant cultural production. And then number nine just jumped out at me. And here’s me really admitting to be an American Jewish reader under the influence of American Jewish politics. Number nine was comparatively low intermarriage rates as being a sign of communal health. Incidentally. This is echoed in a different essay in the book by a scholar who saw it.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

I was surprised and ironically makes reference to intermarriage and assimilation as a disease and Jewish education as the means by which one, vaccinated like as a disease. And that was a common language in the American Jewish community 30 years ago. It is basically considered forbidden language in the American Jewish community. I would say for a good reason. There’s something strange about that, but what’s particularly ironic about that, David, is many of us have come to understand that intermarriage is actually a witness to the disappearance of antisemitism and a witness to a degree of American Jewish participation in American culture. So first basic question, you position it as a sign of communal health. I think many Canadian Jews view it as a sign of communal health, but like walk me through that. Why does it appear in this book and to Canadian scholars as an indicator of community thriving when in fact the American Jewish community has actually flipped the script overwhelmingly on that story.

David Koffman:

Yeah, that’s a great challenge. And if I had a chance to rewrite the introduction to the book, I might do a more subtle job in that quick run-through of positives, because the truth is that this can be read either way and probably should be read both ways. And I’m not a social scientist either, but to some extent, the terms of the social science study of Canadian Jewry, which is a very small, very small conversation, the default tension is between assimulation on the one hand and cultural retention on the other. This is the frame that Morton Weinfeld uses for the essay that he contributes to this book, which is a wonderful and fascinating data driven essay that tries to compare Canadian Jewish life with Jewish life in the UK and France and the United States using the available data. So in this reading intermarriage, isn’t a stimulatory force and it pulls against the possibility of Jews retaining their cultural distinctness or their religious convictions or whatever.

David Koffman:

And you’re right, this is a kind of, I don’t know if it’s old and outdated or if it’s old and has become more complex, but stills exist side by side with a view of intermarriage of that does see this as choose acceptability as spousal options as a kind of absence of racism. These are equally true. So there are data facts and there is anxiety about the terms of intermarriage. So if the debate about intermarriage in the nineties, in the American Jewish scholarly community was a hand wringing, oh no, we’re losing Jews and the sort of language of demographic loss, this is the American version of the Israel “the ever dying people” thesis, the terms of that debate itself has certainly changed. And the debate that we’ve been witnessing over the past couple of months about the Jewish continuity agenda and anxiety and the extent to which it’s misogynistic and undermines more than it supports, I think is just another indication that the very terms of debating intermarriage rates and what they actually mean are changing themselves.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had an interesting experience in Canada around this question because of the Hartman presence in Canada, which is growing. Actually, we just put our first full-time professional in Canada as part of the Hartman Institute for what it’s worth there’s history. First of all David Hartman came from Montreal. We’ll get to Montreal later on. So we have institutional history connected to Canada as a result of that I’ve been in Canada speaking and teaching to Canadian Jewish leaders, probably 20 times over the last 10 years. And there’s been this really interesting dance around questions like intermarriage, where I hear from one set of leaders in the Jewish community, “don’t project, American Jewish issues here. We just have much lower intermarriage rates.” It’s not the issue, whether or not they position it with this negative terminology. It’s just not the issue. And in contrast, I’ve at times been in closed rooms with rabbis, for instance, who say, can someone finally talk to us about intermarriage because it actually is present in this community, but there is a perception that we can’t talk about it because we don’t want to play into the notion that we’re simply 20 to 30 years behind to American Jewish tensions.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

And if we don’t prepare ourselves for this conversation, then we won’t be able to learn from the American Jewish experience around engagement strategies to be able to engage with Jews regardless of their marriage choices. So I don’t know if there’s a question there, I guess, from a scholarly perspective, what I’m naming too, is that I think on a Jewish, commonunal level it’s a little bit hard to tell whether the trends are moving in one direction or another depends on who you talk to. I’m curious whether you see from a scholarly standpoint that this story, or even myth that Canadian Jewry tells about itself actually correlates to the lived experience of Canadian Jews.

David Koffman:

Well, I think that the most important thing that your common here points to, to me, is the element of the Canadian Jewish social psychology that looks to the United States constantly and often with consternation or with anxiety about what our fate might be. Now, while I agree with Lois Dubin and many others who have pointed out that the generation lag theory doesn’t really work. It’s still true that Canadian Jewish leaders look to what’s happening in the states and they worry, they fret about what are the trends or what are the concerns? Should we have the same concerns? Are we following suit? There’s a kind of ongoing debate about the long-term possibility of continental fusion. That there’ll be a loss of Canadian is in the Canadian Jewish conversation. But thsy looking to the States is a kind of psychological default mode for Canadian Jews. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that so many of its leaders are trained in the states.

David Koffman:

They either are Canadian and they go to rabbinical school or go to doctorate programs or whatever, and then they come back to Canada. Or they’re imports. So they are actually Americans who would take up some element of the Canadian Jewish elite, but intermarriage is just one of these things. I mean, they also look to synagogue membership data or day school education, and much of the anxiety is also complemented by, or I suppose it’s hedged against a certain amount of Canadian Jewish pride or Canadian exceptionalism. Sometimes smarmy superiority that Canadian Jews feel when they look to some other sort of stats and anxieties about the states certainly goes with the depth of the polarization anxieties about anti-Semitic incident rates back to synagogue membership. I mean, Canadian Jews were pretty proud of their 50 or 60% rates as compared with half that in the states or with their 40-45% day school rates compared with half that of the United States and the strength of the Federation movements in which leaders in those circles are always keen to pat themselves on the back about,

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Some of the interesting pieces in the book made reference and tried to push and say, if you want to draw a comparison, actually some European Jewish communities might be a better analogy to the American experience.

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Yehuda Kurtzer:

So let me take something particularly Canadian, and we can try to stay on that for a couple of minutes. As I shared with you in the lead-up to the show on multiple occasions recently, in conversations with Canadian Jews or Canadian Jewish leaders, as I’ve asked some version of the question: what’s the big issue facing Canadian Jewry facing Canadian Jewish future people have made reference in one way or another to indigenous peoples, first nations, yhe whole question of indigeneity. For our listeners, those not following there’s a major story recently at the Kamloops Indian Residential sSchool in British Columbia, the discovery of over 200 bodies of children, First Nations families. Historically schools have essentially cultural persecution by Canada against First Nations people. And actually want to quote from the Canadian Jewish news, which covered this week, this story and statements by Jewish groups in solidarity with First Nations communities.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

This is a quote from several rabbis in Hamilton, Ontario, quote, as follows, “our people were killed in the name of enlightenment as the final solution to the Jewish question. Not at all unlike the Indian problem spoke of by the Canadian Duncan Campbell Scott who ran the residential school system from 1913 to 1932. His stated goal was to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic. And there is no Indian question, no Indian department. We similarly cannot forget the many centuries attempts of the Catholic church to forcibly convert us and our children to Christianity and to eradicate our religion, heritage and culture identical to the self-stated goals of the Catholic and Anglican churches who ran Canada’s residential schools.” So this is a rabbinic statement of “we see our story in your story,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. So who are the Jews in this story of Canada confronting its past of its relationship with its indigenous people? And I’m asking you both descriptively and maybe also prescriptively. So who are the Jews in that story? And why do you think this is bubbling up as an important particularly Canadian Jewish story.

David Koffman:

Yeah. So this is a really quite fascinating knot of story and identifications and the quote that you point to in this week’s news is one of literally hundreds and hundreds of quotes that you could pull from Jewish civic leaders or from teachers at Jewish day schools from rabbinic leaders of almost all different denominations. So the indigenous reconciliation issues are at the forefront and have been at the forefront of the social issues and sort of race BiPoc conversation here in Canada that my American counterparts and perhaps lots of listeners don’t quite see because it’s not really at the same level of intensity in the United States. So every day the front page will be covered by indigenous issues and the CBC, you know, the Canadian BBC cover stories, constantly. It’s the Canadian story and has been for quite a lot of time since the recent release of the truth and reconciliation commission, which concluded that the Canadian government is responsible for cultural genocide, if not genocide itself, mostly through these residential school systems, but through other mechanisms of colonialism.

David Koffman:

So Jews as Canadians have been a part of this conversation in a fairly intense way. This is a conversation that I’m particularly interested in because I wrote a book as you know about the encounter between Jews and native Americans in the 19th and early 20th century American context. And then I found my way back to Canada and I’ve been thinking a lot about it as, and obviously watching Canadian Jews respond quite differently to this discussion and participated in different ways. So yes, there’s the identification part and the quote you plucked was a perfect example of the slippage, where there was a they that becomes a we in the state and the church’s efforts to eradicate indigenous/Jewish difference. So this kind of elected affinity is part of liberal allyship. It’s also a question of Jews trying to take responsibility in some ways for being part of the reconciliation process as members of a settler community, one of many settler communities.

David Koffman:

So there’s one move to empathy, which is to say, we understand suffering. We understand being targeted by the state for assimilatory practices and we sort of stand by you. But at the same time, it’s a much deeper challenge to what it means to be Canadian for non-indigenous Canadians to have to struggle with reconciliation, what it means and how to see themselves and their own existence in the country, and really on the continent as part of a settler colonial enterprise and the guilt, the struggles that goes with recasting your identity in this way. And of course there’s a very profound, unique subtext for Jews, which is that when Jews are asked to think of themselves as Canadians, as part of a settler colony, settler population, and think about the problematic politics of inhabitation, it immediately brings the question of Zionism back to the fore, to speak this language at all is very unsettling, obviously for a lot of Canadians and as Canadian Jews.

David Koffman:

And it seems to be more organic for many other Jews on the left, progressive. And even the center of Canadian Jewry. This also cuts, of course, both ways on the one hand, it makes Jews feel uncomfortable when they see themselves or are asked to see themselves as colonial agents in some way. But it also invites the question about Jewish indigeneity to Israel/Palestine, and the great debates about the extent to which Jews are an indigenous people in the land of Israel and Zionism is a decolonial project. And we see this debate in the Jewish press and among Jewish intellectuals all the time. And it plays out in very interesting ways. The most basic point though, is that it’s a framing device for the conversation in Canada, perhaps much more than it is in the United States.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah. I mean, reading your essay in the volume on this exact topic, it was, I’m not going to lie, – settler colonialism, indigeneity – And I was like, “wait, am I actually reading about Canada anymore?” This reads like a much bigger question. And just conceptually given that so much of a Jewish sense of home in diaspora is rooted in migration and travel towards home. It creates a fundamental opposition to, or even discomfort with indigenous rights, right? Like most American and Canadian Jews found their way to America and Canada in the past century as migrants in search of a home. And therefore we make no claim on indigeneity in these places. And our claims do not have to conflict with the rights of indigenous people, but they feel as though they come into conflict with the fundamental morality claims that are made by indigeneity.

David Koffman:

Yeah, I think that’s very well put. And I think that Jews in Australia and New Zealand probably talk about this a lot more than American Jews do. There’s a conversation that I’m trying to start with counterparts there and in other places where the massive relocation of Jews from Eastern central Europe centuries ago, to places that were in essence British and less so French Commonwealth are part of the story of the colonial enterprise. And I mean, small “c” colonial. I don’t think of it as a bad word. I really just think of it as a descriptive term. Although I know it’s so button pushing for so many people, and of course they see the American Jews in the same situation, although the conversation is less loud about it. And I think that’s because the American conversation is so much more preoccupied in the last couple of years with black issues and kind of dealing with the legacies of this other version of racism that touches on this other founding sin of American life, which is slavery.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

You had a great line actually in your essay on this, which I thought was summarized the problem. And maybe even the aspiration quite well, which is you said, “Jews have contributed to indigenous displacement as they have sought to make Canada their home and have fought against indigenous disenfranchisement while seeking to make Canada a better home.” I was like, “oh, that’s a pretty good bumper sticker, both descriptively of the problem, but maybe of the future.” So there’s a lot more of this book, David, it’s really a worthwhile project and very recommended. There’s quite a bit on Quebec, which was useful for me and understanding the context by which when David Hartman makes Aliyah, I think in 1979. That’s not a coincidence. Although it’s quite a bit in that essay by Ira Robinson of it’s not clear whether the Jewish community was in fear or in fear of fear.

David Koffman:

I just have a quick note to this one. So yes, this Ira Robinson contribution is about the kind of Jewish community response to the first time the party Quebecois, the nationalist party was brought into provincial power, but it’s part of a moment or ever, let’s say there’s a new historigraphical debate that’s emerged among scholars who are interested in Canadian Jewish life in Quebec’s quiet revolution in the sixties and seventies. This was a moment that was sort of demographically tied to a significant migration of Jews out of Montreal to Toronto and elsewhere, and a lot of anxiety about the future of life in Quebec as it became more secular and more national. But the fascinating part of this historigraphical debate is that non-Jewish, Quebecers, French Canadian intellectuals and historians are suddenly in the last 10 years, much more interested in the Jewish experience in historical Quebec and in what they call intercultural Quebec.

David Koffman:

It’s kind of Quebec’s version of multiculturalism in the quiet revolution nationalist moment and in the multicultural reality of life in Quebec, even as French Canadians see themselves as minorities in Quebec. And they’re interested in how the Jews navigate their place in Quebec society initially as an Anglophone minority that through in its lot with the Protestant elites of Montreal, but as the course of the 20th century rolls on and more and more Jews move to Montreal from nodes in the French colonial world from Morocco and from Algeria and are Francophone and are non-white and participate in the cultural and political life of a officially secular Quebec in a totally new way. So there’s fascinating debates, and it’s unfortunate that many of these debates are not really available to readers unless they’re perfectly bilingual because the French Canadians are writing to other French Canadian non-Jewish scholars. And for the most part, the readership and the producers of Canadian Jewish scholarship has often mono lingual. And so has neither access to the sources in French nor is in direct dialogue with their French Canadian counterparts. But it’s a good place to come back to as we come closer to the end here to remind you and your readers, that the French fact, the bilingualism and biculturalism of Canada is really not a point to be, to be missed.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

And by the way, your book engages with really trilingualism because Yiddish appears in multiple of the essays in this volume as well. And that’s just a whole other move. I’ll just also say, it was an interesting footnote, it could have been an whole other essay that one of the chroniclers, one of the researchers in the late seventies of what was happening in Quebec and its ramifications for the Jews is a really critical essay by Ruth Weiss together with Irwin Cotler. And I started to play out what are the ways in which the Montreal experience of this fear by Jews, much of which as your essay has described is one to two generations removed of a lot of Holocaust survivors, the fear of the transformation of Quebec politics in ways that were endangering the Jewish community. In what ways does that travel through Weiss’s work into shaping her on politics today, even on the American side, which are rooted in “this could happen here. This will happen here.” So there’s something else going on there, but that’s, I think for another day

David Koffman:

There is there’s lots going on and it’s totally fascinating. And the only point that I want to say is that the Montreal Jewish diaspora itself is its own thing and it’s large and it’s significant. And ex Montrealers keep in touch with each other in a way where Montreal is already the lost homeland Montreal was of course, a fantastic center of cultural, rich intellectual production that rivaled New York. And certainly, probably better at almost every other American city, even though those Jewish populations were quite a bit larger. There’s a kind of Brooklyn, Jewish diaspora from people who left Brooklyn as well, and still think of it as homeland that they’re displaced from. But there’s a Montreal story there that’s equally rich and probably more complicated on the bilingual factor.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

Yeah, we could fight about the bagels, but I’ll end with this. And your book asks in its title: Has there ever been a better home for the Jews than Canada? You know, as I said before, a number of your authors question, the chutzpah, the title, Lois Dubin actually uses that phrase, chutzpah, having put out a book called the New Jewish Canada. I’m very familiar with chutzpadik book titles. She also asks, are we tempting the gods? Whenever Jews say we’re at home where we tempting the gods? And so it’s hard to tell whether this is an academic question or a personal question. So I’ll ask you having done this research as a leading scholar of Canadian Jewry. What do you think in answer to your own question? Has there been a better home for Jews than Canada?

David Koffman:

So, you know, as an academic, it’s not a scholarly question and it’s not an answerable question. It clearly stinks of 250 years of post-emancipation diaspora apologetics and defensive nationalism. And I certainly don’t want to reproduce this,

Yehuda Kurtzer:

But…

David Koffman:

On the other hand, Jews do have this conversation amongst themselves, even if it’s not scholarly conversations that people would put in print and of course often voted with their feet. So there’s a couple things I want to say about it. One is that Canadian Jews do have much to be appreciative of and our lot in civil life shouldn’t be taken for granted because societies can change very quickly, often for the worst they’re fragile and they need to be shorn up. I also think it’s really an important thing for scholars to consider how much room there is for appreciation in their work, as opposed to critique.

David Koffman:

I mean, one can be critically appreciative and appreciatively critical. And I don’t think we do enough about that. I’d say Mort Weinfeld essay in the book does a pretty good job of laying out the case for why Canada is a safer, more socially welcoming, economically secure, religiously tolerant home for Jews than other countries, including the United States. And I think it’s provocative and worth reading. There are other answers. Hasia Diner’s answer in the book is no, of course not. We know this because Jews chose the United States and Canada was a second choice, second best. But I would say that the final point is that in a way I’d want the emphasis of this book to be less on the question of better and more on the question of home. This is ultimately a book that’s an opportunity for many different authors, not just me, to meditate on this theme, which is elusive and it’s emotionally powerful. And it’s a point of departure for contemplations and perhaps celebrations of what home means.

Yehuda Kurtzer:

I’ll say one of the things that I think scholars can do most effectively to toddle that exact line that you’re describing of not being too positivistic or descriptive in their work of some transcendent reality to provoke and to study as opposed to make these kinds of pronouncements. One of the most effective ways to do that is to ask a question in a particular way. And I think that that courses throughout this book. I think you’ve set a real agenda for a conversation that I found fruitful today, not just on the question of comparison between American and Canadian, because that dominates this conversation, but more essentially, how does a community navigate the tensions and responsibilities that come with “at homeless?” That is a critical conversation for whatever cultural or national milleu the Jewish people find themselves in today. So with that, thank you all for listening to our show and a special thanks to my friend and my guest this week, David Koffman. Identity/Crisis is a product to the Shalom Hartman Institute, it was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Alex Dillon with assistance from Miri Miller and music provided by “so-called” To learn more about Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online shalomhartman.org.

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