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Commemorating the Christie Pits riot: what does interfaith have to do with it?

Cynthia Levine-Rasky

August 16, 2017

On the night of Wednesday August 16, 1933, two local softball teams, St. Peter’s and Harbord Playground, met to play a quarter-final game. St. Peter’s was sponsored by a Catholic Church at Bathurst and Bloor. The Harbord team was predominantly Jewish with some Italian members. At the end of the game, members of a local Swastika Club displayed a large blanket with a swastika painted on it. They had done so at the first game on Monday night. But this time, Jewish onlookers (and their Italian and Ukrainian supporters) rushed at the symbol intending to destroy it—sparking the Christie Pits riot.

Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir, authors of the 1987 book, The Riot at Christie Pits, put the riot into historical context: 1933 was the year that the Nazis seized power in Germany, an event that was celebrated by racists around the world. In Toronto, it spawned the new Swastika Clubs in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood with its 500-strong membership.

Solidarity against fascism

As Levitt and Shaffir explain, the riot is a significant event in the history of Toronto’s Jewish community, and in the broader community: “First, it represented a direct response by several hundred Jewish youth to numerous blatant and relentless anti-Semitic provocations throughout the summer, against the backdrop of Hitler’s coming to power in Germany…[Police] reinforcements were only sent, some say, when it became apparent that the Jewish boys were acquitting themselves well in the street brawl…The fact that many more claimed to have been involved in the action testifies to the great pride it engendered among Jews at the time and among those of subsequent generations. Third, the riot caused anti-Semitic provocations to be taken more seriously by the municipal government…Fourth, the Italian boys who went to the park to fight alongside of the Jews demonstrated that the anti-Semitism they experienced was embedded in a more general xenophobia, which included anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments…Fifth, the riot became a marker of remembrance, pride and resistance not only for the generation involved in the riot, but for successive generations of Jews…Finally, learning about the riot helped the city come to grips with a less savoury aspect of its pasta—with its racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and the prejudices, discrimination and exclusion involved with all that.”

Over eight decades later on Sunday August 20, people are gathering in the park for the Christie Pits Riot Commemorative Barbeque. Sponsored by the Toronto IWW General Defence Committee Local 28, in partnership with the United Jewish People's Order, International Socialists and the Organizing Committee Against Islamophobia, the event is a family-friendly way to break bread together, to remember our roots, and take pleasure in our solidarity against fascism. Taking place the first weekend after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the event has taken on a special significance.

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom

One group enjoying the barbeque will be the Toronto Circle of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Its mission—to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women to end acts of hatred against us—is carried out by a group of women, now more than 70 in number. Co-leaders Cynthia Levine-Rasky and Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui have been busy with organizing meetings, recruiting members, and with publicity. Stories about the group have appeared in CBC, Metro News, Canadian Jewish News, and The Muslim Link.

While the Toronto Circle is very new, the US-based organization was founded in 2010 by Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab. The Sisterhood is based on the idea that social action must be based on personal relationships. Its goal is to develop sustainable friendships across religious lines—or in the words of the organization, to genuinely know your “sister in faith” and to develop trust in and respect for her beliefs and practices. Its aim is to speak out in public, guided by faith, reflection and experiences to preserve and protect religious freedom.

Not all members are religious. In fact, deep diversity in religious identity and practice, as well as in age, place of origin, and cultural values, is one of the group’s strengths. Preferences for political action are also diverse. While some members appreciate dialogue, others are involved in activism of all kinds. The group also engages in community work and look forward to volunteering in Regent Park’s community kitchen for Christmas. Something for everyone, the group takes seriously its responsibility to accommodate differences among the sisters. And for many, soft dialogue and hard activism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, many would argue that you cannot sustain commitment to the latter without the former.

Stronger together

So what does interfaith have to do with remembering the Christie Pits riot? A lot. The 500 white supremacists (or who many call fascists) who attempted to rally in Charlottesville on August 11-13 called openly for violence to Jews. Their rallying cry, “Jews will not replace us” is a distressing reminder that anti-Jewish hatred is anything but historical. It is as present as can be. Many have expressed surprise and dismay at these events, but we cannot be naïve. The white supremacists are not a fringe group. They are our neighbours, our co-workers; they are the guy at the barbershop, and the guy on the bus. The five hundred of them who showed up at Charlottesville represent thousands of online supporters. Jews, Muslims, black and brown people of all ethnicities, people of diverse sexualities, and many other groups are their equal targets.

I don’t mean to stir up suspicion. This is not the time to withdraw out of fear. The best antidote against fear is engagement. It is time to reach out across differences that, once you explore them, are insignificant in contrast to what we share. We are stronger together. Muslim and Jewish women stand in solidarity with each other. We have your backs, too. We are old and young, urban and suburban women, mothers, wives, workers, activists, artists, and students. We are sisters. If we do nothing more than stand together, we make a powerful political statement against hate, white supremacy, and fear of apparent, but minor, difference. On August 20, we will be there to help build a movement. You bring the bread. We will bring the roses.

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