Researcher Spotlight: Remembering the Jewish Left

Jewish Labor Committee, [194-?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 10, item 29.
Jewish Labor Committee, [194-?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 10, item 29.

I am a Master’s student in Geography at York University, where I’ve developed an interest in modern Jewish history; in particular that of the 20th century Jewish left. For my thesis, I’m looking into the transnational practices and narratives of solidarity expressed by the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) in Canada. Founded in the 1930s, the JLC emerged in response to the needs of refugees from war-torn Europe. It would later make leading contributions to the civil rights and human rights movements in Canada, working closely with the broader Canadian labour movement. The JLC’s origins can also be traced back to the Bund, one among many different tendencies within the Jewish left and an Eastern European Yiddishkeit.

Preliminary research at the OJA over the past few months has been useful in guiding the direction of my master’s thesis. Available at the OJA is an extensive collection on the Jewish left, with material on the JLC. This includes letters and correspondences, press releases, committee reports, newspaper clippings, opinion pieces, photographs, among other assorted material. There are, in addition, digital copies of oral histories from leading figures of the Canadian Jewish left, as well as archived publications like the New Fraternal Jewish Association’s (NFJA) Fraternally Yours, Outlook magazine, and the Yiddish-language newspapers Vochenblatt and Der Veg (The Way). Much of this material was produced, received, and collected by the JLC and other organizations with which it forged close ties from the 1940s up to the early 1990s.

As an outsider to the Canadian Jewish community, I never expected to be drawn to the story of the Jewish left as much as I have been. And it certainly is a story -- one of a people caught between the traumatic ruptures of the 20th century, attacked from both far left and right. Yet rather than turn inward, they would extend their solidarity to communities well beyond their own: from Black Canadians in Halifax to Chilean refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship to First Nations communities in BC.  They would see, in their experiences of displacement and oppression, a mirror into their own people’s struggle against injustice, and for acceptance in the places where they found themselves living.

In Canada, the pivotal contributions of the Jewish community, and the labour movement in general, to the country’s vision of itself (real or imagined) as something of a bastion for human rights, racial tolerance and multiculturalism, has sadly been neglected over the years. Returning to this history is more important than ever, I believe, as we enter a period of mutual hate, intolerance, and divisiveness worldwide -- where these hard-won gains appear to be increasingly under threat. That said, it is a topic that certainly deserves to be treated with an equal measure of critical objectivity and sympathy.

With that objective in mind, I hope to continue looking through the OJA’s collection, and pursuing further research along these lines. My gratitude extends to the archivists here -- Donna, in particular-- who have been warm and incredibly supportive.

Christopher John Chanco
MA candidate, York University