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First things first: Yves Engler’s Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid (Vancouver, British Columbia. Red Publishing 2010. 167 pages.) is the only book that need be written on Canada’s policies towards Israel. It is clear and pursues the subject at some depth. It is the most carefully documented book relating to the Israel/Palestine conflict I have ever read. Its analyses are perceptive and measured.
Among its more important claims are:
(1) that with the partial exceptions of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, Canadian leaders have supported Israel to the point of abasement,
(2) that Christian Zionism, in both its original and its evangelical form, should take their place among the explanations for this – the more usual obvious and still quite correct one being Canada’s aping of first British and then American foreign policy –
(3) that Canada’s devotion to Israel is so intense that its pro-Israel lobbies are pushing at an open door.
This story is unsurprising, but Engler makes some important and novel observations, for instance that even the later, 19th Century version of Christian Zionism preceded Jewish Zionism by decades. He also brings to life the full outrageousness of Canada’s Zionist and pro-Israel policies, the pathetic illusion of statecraft infusing its eagerness to subsidize oppression with guns and butter, diplomacy and hard cash. Unfortunately, almost everyone willing to read this book has probably had their capacity for outrage all but exhausted. Fortunate, then, that the author’s concluding suggestions for activists are notably modest, sensible and realistic.
This brings us to the inevitable question: who cares? When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Canada never counted for much and today, when Israel humiliates even the US with impunity, it counts for nothing. Yet Engler’s book is worth reading, not only by Canadians.
For non-Canadians, Engler’s book provides uniquely lucid and illuminating insight into how Dumb White Guys fell for Zionism. Compared to 19th and 20th Century Canada, England and the US were complex. England had the many concerns of a global empire, and its share of colonial functionaries who actually understood the Middle East and the Arab world: they were no fans of Zionism. America had a myriad of ethnic, class and economic conflicts, plus a rapidly changing role in the world that pulled it in many directions at once. To read Engler’s account is to see the WASP penchant for Zionism in undiluted form, and to appreciate its role in non-Canadian contexts. It is also to understand how support for Zionism and Israel brings a nation into deep, damaging contempt.
One of Engler’s virtues is that, unlike many commentators on the Israel/Palestine conflict, he is well aware that times change. Canada’s support for Israel was always stupid, but the stupidity took on different forms over time. In the 19th Century, Canada dreamt a Disraeli-style semi-millennial dream which saw Biblical fulfillment in the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. For 19th Century Canadians, the Palestinians simply did not exist: this was no disingenuous pretense as it was for Herzl and Golda Meier, but genuine hick parochialism. Later, and for most of the Twentieth Century, the Canadian leaders were poodles, first to England and then to America. (It is a hobby among Canadian historians to trumpet the most trivial signs of their leaders’ independence.) They didn’t trouble their pretty little heads about just why Israel was so very wonderful. Engler offers a priceless example of how far this went: in 1972, when an underling wanted to know how to vote on Middle Eastern issues in the absence of the External Affairs minister, he was instructed to "find out how the US was voting and do likewise."(45) True, during the Trudeau and Chretien years, there was some hint that Canada might contemplate thinking for itself, or at least with continental Europe, about the Israel-Palestine conflict. These were hopeful but passing deviations from the norm of pro-Israel fanaticism, largely promoted by fifth-rate Evangelical prairie boys and the far more intelligent, nastier Brian Mulroney.
Engler, if I follow him correctly, attributes this dispiriting course of events to a passing bout of Cold War anti-Soviet maneuvering, sandwiched between benighted seizures of Evangelical Christianity and guilt about antisemitism. Though the influence of Evangelical Christianity on the current government is undeniable, perhaps Engler overestimates it. He points to the "3.5 million" Evangelical Christians in Canada, but not all of them are Idiots for Israel. If you visit the more or less mainstream web site www.evangelicalfellowship.ca, for instance, you find the expected pro-Israel apologists, but also moderate voices who have spoken to Syrian and Lebanese Evangelicals as well as Palestinian Christians, who know that criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, and who have read Benny Morris in his New Historians phase, and who realize that the Palestinians have genuine grievances. For a while now and to an increasing degree, Canadian pro-Israel politicians cannot count on the votes even of all Jews, much less all Evangelicals.
Guilt about Canada’s antisemitic past is another matter. Old-line Zionists can still play the victim card, and even Engler is not entirely immune to its spell. Referring to the Second World War years, he states that "…the organized Jewish community was almost entirely unable to reverse Canada’s anti-Semitic immigration policy… Despite millions exterminated in Nazi concentration camps, Canada accepted fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees from 1933 to 1945." Soon after, he speaks of "the anti-Semitism underlying Canada’s "none is too many" policy towards Jewish refugees".
The reference is to the anecdote underlying a book that has become all but gospel in Canada: In their preface to their work which takes the sentence as its title, Irving Abella and Harold Troper state that their story "…is summed up best in the words of an anonymous senior Canadian official who, in the midst of a rambling, off-the-record discussion with journalists in early 1945, was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the war. His response… seems to reflect the prevailing view of a substantial number of citizens: "’None’," he said, ‘is too many.’” See None is Too Many, Toronto (Lester& Orpen Dennys) 1982, 1983. p. ix of the 1982 edition, p. v of the 1983 edition.
I must add that for a remark to which so much importance has been attributed, its provenance is less than stellar. Despite Abella and Troper’s boast that "This book was based almost exclusively on primary materials", no source, primary, secondary or tertiary, is given for the remark. Despite the claim that "Every effort was made to locate and examine all the relevant manuscript sources… and to interview as many of the individuals involved in the events… as possible", neither the individual who made the remark nor anyone who heard it are identified, much less its date and time. (Of course it must be possible to give a reference: the material must have come from somewhere.) And though it is no fault of the authors, inexplicably, a quite different provenance is sometimes assigned it. for example: "This story was documented in a book published in 1982. The title, “None is Too Many", was taken from a statement made by an immigration official when a delegation of Jews went to Ottawa in 1939 to ask: "How many Jews will Canada take in?" The Immigration Minister answered, "None is too many"."
To return to Engler: There are three problems. First, given Engler’s beautifully documented account of persistent philosemitism in Canada’s governing classes, the alleged antisemitism of its refugee policy is puzzling. Second, too much is built on the famous remark. Third, the implications of Canada’s policy are badly misunderstood. Addressing the second and third problems will take care of the first.
No doubt there was antisemitism in Canada. Given that many Canadian immigration officials are racist even today, no doubt some were antisemitic during the war years. Quite possibly antisemitism helps to explain why Canada did not do more to help Jews fleeing Hitler. However there is no strong evidence for such a claim and the immigration official’s remark cannot possibly bear the weight of evidence assigned it.
The remark concerns Jews with refugee status after the end of the war. This means the remark, though cruel and probably antisemitic can have nothing to do with saving Jews from Hitler’s extermination camps, nor with why Canada did not admit refugees during the war.
But isn’t this nitpicking? Wasn’t Canada reprehensibly and undeniably culpable in failing to rescue Jews from Hitler’s camps – and weren’t the horrors they faced before the Final Solution more than enough to oblige Canada to welcome them with open arms? Yes, the moral obligations are obvious and significant; no, it’s not nitpicking at all.
It may come as no surprise to the reader that people are not good and politics does not conform to morality. Unfailingly, national leaders feel authorized and mandated to further the interests of their own country, not of humanity and not of persecuted minorities abroad. What is remarkable about the story of Canada and wartime Jewry is not the callousness, but the pangs of conscience, which highlight the morally privileged position of Jews vis-à-vis other victims of oppression. Despite the antisemitism of at least some immigration officials, there is no reason to suppose that Canada’s policy on Jewish refugees was itself antisemitic, or that it victimized Jews.
Let’s review some facts which are not even on most people’s historical horizons. In 1965 – after Canada had liberalized and de-racialized its immigration policies – civil war in Nigeria brought starvation to Biafra. Images of dying children were sent all over the globe. Also in 1965, between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed on the pretext of a coup attempt. The very idea that we should have opened our borders to these victims apparently never registered in anyone’s brain. Nor did it occur to anyone to welcome without restriction those hundreds of thousands fleeing the most horrible murder and mutilation in Liberia or Sierra Leone. There was no great effort made to bring those fleeing a bona fide, well-confirmed genocide in Rwanda to North American shores. It never occurs to anyone today to slash immigration quotas to rescue hundreds of thousands of Congolese, three to five million of whom have already died amid atrocities not only legitimately comparable to the worst of Nazism, but much better known than the fate of the Jews during the war years. So the story of Jewish immigration in the Hitler era, appalling as it may be, is also testimony to how much more the (almost white!) Jews could claim from the West than their darker-skinned counterparts in later years. Democratic societies, whatever pet exceptions they may make from time to time, have always watched others die without compunction: many more cases could be cited. Callousness is the norm. Jews, at least, made it onto the moral radar; most others never did and never do.
In a later edition of None is too Many, the authors point to Canada’s acceptance of Hungarian, Ugandan Asian, and Vietnamese refugees. But the Hungarian case had more to do with cold war anti-communism than with compassion. The first two cases, moreover, involved largely standard non-emergency procedures. For the Hungarians, those responsible "did not waive or alter any of the normal immigration procedures and provisions." (http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-5b.asp#chap5-13)
Ugandan immigration was limited and not unrestricted: "Only when the situation grew more critical with the approach of the deportation deadline did Ottawa relax the points system and medical requirements for the Asians. Eventually 4,420 of these refugees entered Canada…".
(http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-6a.asp#chap6-13) The policy towards the Vietnamese was more generous, but still far from wholesale acceptance. The government accepted only very few directly off boats, rather than from Asian camps. The others were eventually accepted through ‘matching’ programs in which private individuals took considerable financial responsibility for particular individuals. None of these cases represent the open-arms rescues that would indicate humanitarianism skewed against the Jews. Most important, in none of these cases had there been ethnic ‘leaders’ who were passionately agitating, as they had done for years, that ‘their’ refugees be sent somewhere else, to an ethnic utopia that would solve all their problems.
Finally it is worth remembering that not only Canada but other democracies were very attentive to the wishes of the alleged spokesmen for the Jewish people If those democracies didn’t make greater efforts to admit Jewish refugees, it was in no small part because Jewish Zionists, deeply influential on those governments, cared far more about getting Jews to Palestine than about saving Jews from agonizing death in the camps. Ben Gurion’s explicit remarks on the subject are a matter of record. Less well known but equally telling is the reaction of The Jewish Chronicle to Roosevelt’s implementation of a no-questions-asked refugee camp for Jews very close to Canada, in Fort Ontario, New York:
"Why transport hapless Jews all the way across the Atlantic when a country – Palestine – in the very area where they are now located can find room for them not only in the proposed insignificant numbers but in the tens and scores of thousands?"( Quoted in Ronald Sanders, Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration, New York (Schocken) 1988, 556.)
Thus spoke those who had successfully arrogated to themselves the right to speak for a ‘Jewish people’. They showed no interest whatever in getting more Jews admitted to the US, nor any sense that traumatized refugees might prefer a long sea voyage to being placed in the middle of an ethnic war. Should we be surprised if the US government could not muster more enthusiasm for their project?
In short, there is reason to feel guilt about Canada and the US’s coldness towards Jewish refugees, but if anything less reason than to feel guilt about refugee policies generally. Canada does not have a shameful record of antisemitism, just a shameful record. So it is a shame that even books as good as Engler’s are tinged with a guilt that perpetuates that most cynically used of all moral clichés, the specialness of Jewish victimhood.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university. He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel. He also contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org