Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

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The Silence of Canadian Protestant Churches
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by Sheldon Kirshner, The Kirshner File, The Canadian Jewish News, April 23, 1998

Irving Abella and Harold Troper, in their landmark book None is Too Many, claimed that Canadian churches practised silence as Canada callously closed its doors to Jewish refugees during the 1930s and 1940s.

How true is this accusation? In How Silent were the Churches? Canadian Protestantism and the Jewish Plight During the Nazi Era (Wilfred Laurier University Press), Alan Davies and Marilyn Nefsky sift through the evidence and reach similar conclusions.

Davies, an ordained United Church minister, is a professor of religion at the University of Toronto, while Nefsky teaches sociology and religion at the University of Lethbridge.

Their book, a fair and balanced examination of Canada's Protestant sects, is based on official documents.

The United Church, the largest Protestant denomination, deplored anti-Semitism in Germany, and its leaders attended rallies to protest Nazi outrages, particularly Kristallnacht.

But as a "religious community," the United Church was not only silent, but condoned conversionary efforts aimed at Jews. And one of its leading liberals, Claris Silcox, a champion of Jewish refugees, favored Jewish quotas in Canadian medical schools.

As for the Anglicans, Davies and Nefsky conclude that too many of its clergy harbored anti-Jewish ideas "far longer than either conscience or historical sensitivity should have allowed."

One such figure, Bishop A.C. Headlam, chair of the church's Council of Foreign Relations, condemned the "folly and violence" of Nazi attacks upon Jews. But in the same breath, he blamed Jews for "the violence of the Russian Communists" and accused Jewish freethinkers of using Judaism to defame Christianity.

Like their United Church brethren, Anglicans believed that conversion was the ultimate cure for anti-Semitism.

Anglican ministers and publications, notably The Canadian Churchman, condemned anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht. But when it came to immigration, the church preferred immigrants of British stock.

The Presbyterian church, of which Canada's prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was a member, does not get off lightly either. While it raised issues concerning Jews, it was less vocal and less involved than the United and Anglican churches.

At times, Presbyterian ministers could be remarkably insensitive. In the wake of Kristallnacht, John Inkster, the minister of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, the largest congregation in the denomination, suggested that Jews were not blameless because they had failed to embrace Christianity.

As Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, one of the church's most passionate voices speaking out against it on a regular basis was Morris Zeidman. Born in Czestochowa, Poland, he was a convert to Christianity whose mother, brother and sisters perished in Treblinka.

Turning to the Baptists, Davies and Nefsky claim that they were "no worse and no better" than other Canadian Protestants vis-a-vis Jews and Judaism. However, Watson Kirkconnell, the pre-eminent Baptist intellectual, adopted a strong pro-refugee position.

Canadian Lutherans, a good many of whom were of German and Scandinavian origin, "did not say much" as the long night of barbarity descended on Germany. As Davies and Nefsky bluntly put it: "Of the Holocaust one can find no mention in the... Lutheran church press, nor in any other ecclesiastical sources during the war years. Only silence."

Mennonites, who were largely of German and Russian descent, compiled a decidedly mixed record. In the main, they lambasted Nazi anti-Semitism as wrong and cruel, while complaining that it interfered with missionizing attempts to convert German Jews.

According to Davies and Nefsky, anti-Semitism contaminated segments of the Mennonite community. Anti-Jewish sentiments were kindled by the fascination with Hitler and Nazism, and by a belief that Jews were responsible for the ills of the world, especially Communism.

Quakers, in principle, opposed racism and nationalism. But strangely enough, thy had a myopic attitude to Nazi anti-Semitism, at least before Kristallnacht.

Following Kristallnacht, there was a sharp upsurge of Quaker anti-Nazi fervor, and Quakers pressed for the admission of European refugee children - Jewish and Christian - to Canada.

The Quaker press, though, published little about Nazi atrocities, in part because Quakers preferred action to words, Davies and Nefsky add.

Summarizing their findings, they conclude that anti-Semitism formed "a subterranean current" in Canadian Protestantism, occasionally rising to the surface to nourish nativism.

Few Protestants in Canada, even in German communities, succumbed to Nazi-style anti-Semitism. By the same token, few understood the true dimensions of the National Socialist revolution in Germany.

Beyond that, Protestants never addressed the "profound negativity" toward Jews which lay at the core of their theology, say Davies and Nefsky.

"It took the Holocaust to awaken the Christian mind from its dogmatic slumbers, and only today, half a century later, are the effects of the awakening slowly becoming visible in the writings of Catholic and Protestant theologians, as well as in the sermonic and teaching materials used in the parishes and congregations."

Quite an indictment.

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