Pierre Berton’s ‘No Jews Need Apply’

Pierre Berton’s column “No Jews Need Apply,” which originally appeared in Maclean’s in November 1948 and was reprinted in last week’s CJN, offered a penetrating look at the discreet, country-club-style antisemitism that was rife in Canadian society.

Berton, who died last month, pointed out that people with names like Greenberg were frequently denied job interviews, promotions, hotel and country-club reservations and the right to live in certain neighbourhoods. He was one of a growing number of civil libertarians in the postwar era who produced a rash of books, movies, articles, plays and radio broadcasts like Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire and Earth and High Heaven.

A computer-assisted search of Toronto newspapers of the ’30s and ’40s highlights the prevalence of discrimination in those times. As the following examples suggest, the prejudice was sometimes quite blatant, yet was entirely legal.

“Alderman’s Ban Labelled Insult to Jewish Race” was the headline of a story in the Toronto Star of June 16, 1932. The piece centered around Robert Siberry, a city alderman who was preparing to open Bangor Lodge, a summer hotel whose advertising circulars stipulated, “Patronage Exclusively Gentile.”

When Siberry invited the city council to the opening, two Jewish alderman, John Glass and future mayor Nathan Phillips, publicly protested. Other aldermen also voiced disapproval of Siberry’s “indiscreet” advertising; the council had unanimously censured a local firm for similar public statements about a year before. Mayor Stewart also declined to attend, although preferring not to disclose his reason. “This is not the time to raise controversial issues,” he told the Star.

Sam Factor, a former alderman who had become a Member of Parliament, expressed surprise “that a genial Irishman like Bob Siberry would show such prejudice. I thought that kind of prejudice had subsided but apparently it crops up every once in a while. I certainly condemn his action.”

A parallel episode raised its ugly head the following winter. “Toronto Jewry Incensed at Proposed Island Ban,” screamed a headline in the Toronto Star on February 24, 1933. William J. Sutherland, a rooming-house operator on Centre Island, was “calling on island residents to unite ‘in keeping out undesirables such as Jews and indiscreet young folks.'” As Jewish leader A. B. Bennett noted, Sutherland’s property had been marked with blatant “Gentiles Only” signage for years.

“Improper and unjustified,” is how B’nai Brith representative J. L. Oelbaum described the proposed ban. “Unless the Jews are breaking the law, they have as much right on the island as anyone. The authorities should prevent the agitation going further and should prohibit these ‘Only Gentiles Allowed’ signs.

“If the Jews are breaking the law, it is time for the authorities — not some individual — to step in. But agitations like this should be squelched at once.”

Half a year later, Mayor Stewart came to much the same conclusion.

That spring and summer, newspapers carried regular reports of the rising tide of restrictions and persecutions against the Jews in Germany, where Hitler had recently taken power.

In superficial sympathy with the Nazis, some east-end residents formed a Swastika Club in the hope of keeping the city’s Jews from using the local public beach. City newspapers gave detailed reports of the clashes that occurred there in August 1933.

The so-called Swazis soon moved onto Jewish turf and unfurled a large swastika flag during a baseball game in the park at Christie Pits. Scores were injured in the famous riot that ensued. The episode is recounted in a work of historical non-fiction — Cyril Levitt’s The Riot at Christie Pits — as well as in Karen X. Tulchinsky’s recent novel The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky.

The day after the riot, Mayor Stewart prohibited any display of the swastika within the city of Toronto. ♦

© 2004