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
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
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
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
Quite an indictment.