1940s era anti-Semitism crept onto campus

As other universities posed restrictions, Queen’s quietly limited Jewish enrollment in ’40s

Queen’s set up a joint committee of Trustees and staff to “consider the problem created by the steady increase of Jewish students.”
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During World War II, Canadian campuses faced the anti-Semitism streaming out of Europe.

Compared to the Nazis’ overt anti-Semitism, more subtle forms existed in Canada. Domestically, Jews were excluded from many country clubs, summer camps, and even public parks.

When asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war, Canadian immigration officers stood in solidarity against it.

“None is too many,” one unidentified immigration officer infamously said, inspiring the title of Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948. According to the authors, between 1933-48, Canada allowed less Jewish refugee immigrants than any other developed country. 

Where Queen’s stood

Universities in Canada echoed these anti-Semitic sentiments, even before Hitler’s rise to power.

At the time, Queen’s was at a crossroads. Without the large Jewish communities of Toronto and Montreal, less Jewish people applied to Queen’s. However, as Canadian universities in larger cities placed limits on Jewish student enrollment, many of these students turned to Kingston.

In 1926—13 years before World War II began—McGill University instituted an informal ban on Jewish students from outside Quebec.

For Québécois students, the Faculty of Arts general admission requirement at McGill was a high-school average of 60 per cent. For Québécois Jewish applicants, this requirement was a 70 per cent average in 1929, and rose to 75 per cent in the 1930s. In the Faculty of Medicine at McGill, Jewish students weren’t to exceed 10 per cent of admissions.

The University of Toronto’s medical school also held Jewish students to higher admission standards as late as the 1960s. And in the United States, schools such as Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale were also instituting Jewish quotas.

At Queen’s, Principal Robert Charles Wallace noticed an increase in Jewish students. In the 1938-39 academic year, 2.44 per cent of students had been Jewish. By 1943-44, that number rose to about nine per cent. 

The number of Jewish students was rapidly increasing, and the overall decline in enrolment as some students went off to war made the trend more pronounced.

In 1943, Wallace held a meeting with the Board of Trustees to address this increase in Jewish enrolment. 

Many of the Trustees echoed McGill and U of T, suggesting Jewish enrollment numbers needed to be controlled, according to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall. They believed Jews were trying to take over academia, and a quota system would be a step in the right direction.

One of these people was Everett A. Collins—a Trustee and donor whose portrait hung in Richardson Hall until 2009. In a 1944 letter to Principal Wallace, he wrote, “Individually, [Jews] appear quite acceptable but in the mass one cannot help but think sometimes that Hitler was right.”

Queen’s set up a joint Trustees and Senate Committee in 1943, designed to “consider the problem created by the rapid increase in the number of Jewish students,” according to historian Frederick Gibson in Queen’s University Volume II 1917-1961: To Serve and Yet Be Free. The Committee was in charge of considering ways to solve the problem without contradicting Ontario’s 1944 Racial Discrimination Act. 

In the end, the Committee decided that the institution of a quota would be “inappropriate” during wartime, Gibson noted.

J.M. MacDonell, Chairman of the Board, wrote in a letter to Principal Wallace that a restriction wasn’t the answer. However, he could “not contemplate with equanimity, say 25 [per cent] of our student body Jewish. Though I do not feel proud or content with such a statement.”

One Trustee, D.H. Laird, suggested that university officers conduct personal interviews in Montreal with Jewish applicants from Quebec, after which they could select “a certain number of Jews, and refuse the others.”

But Principal Wallace considered conducting interviews with only Jewish applicants suspiciously prejudiced, and thought it could eventually result in charges of discrimination. 

Instead,  Queen’s changed its admission requirements to require senior matriculation standing of all applicants—meaning all applicants were now required to complete Grade 13.

Quebec had no Grade 13, which meant the province’s Jewish students unable to attend McGill were deterred from applying to Queen’s. 

“I have seen no way as yet, except raising in standard all round, which would have some effect, but would confessedly not meet the whole problem,” Wallace wrote. “But I think that is the only thing we can do.”

Inclusion of Jewish faculty, however, was a different story. Until 1938, Jews were hired only temporarily, for one or two terms at a time.

The Dominion Statute of 1912 declared that Trustees were expected to “satisfy themselves of the Christian character of those appointed of the teaching staff.”

In 1938, that pattern broke when Ben Kropp joined the faculty as the first Jew to be granted a long-term contract. As Queen’s tried to restrict the number of Jewish students admitted during wartime, Jewish faculty members secured employment at Queen’s for the first time.

Across the country, universities—including Queen’s—accepted students with high standing. But only Jewish students with exceptional qualifications earned the same acceptance.

Life for Jewish students

Despite the meetings, no problems concerning Jewish people were mentioned in The Journal during wartime years, and for the most part, Jewish people integrated into the rest of the student body, according to McDowall.

Because of the number of Jewish students attending Queen’s as a result of McGill and U of T’s restrictions, the first campus Hillel House—a centre for Jewish students on university campuses—opened in 1940.

Alfred Bader, a Jew who’d escaped from Vienna, helped create the centre. After family in Montreal sponsored him to escape to Canada, he was turned away from McGill but accepted at Queen’s.

Never forgetting Queen’s generosity in his time of need, he became one of the school’s most generous donors.

However, even in one of the most welcoming atmospheres for Jewish students during the war era, Queen’s campus still faced anti-Semitism.

Jewish medical student Ben Scott felt the effects in the late 1930s. According to McDowall’s book 1961-2004: Testing Tradition, an anti-Semitic professor failed Scott in his oral examinations, holding his graduation back one year.

In the same vein, in 1955, local Jewish residents Harry and Ethel Abramsky donated money for a Physiology building on campus. The University accepted the donation, but kept the plaque of their name behind the doors, not bringing it outside until 1974.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Queen’s became more culturally diverse. Arts courses began including more perspectives, and a Jewish Studies department was created, including a course on the Holocaust.

Queen’s has come a long way, but its past isn’t separate from the anti-Semitic world of the 1940s.

The Nazis created a genocide in Europe aiming to solve what they called the “Jewish question.”

Across the Atlantic within the same time period, in a 1944 letter to Principal Wallace, Chancellor Charles Avery Dunning—the namesake of Dunning Hall—wrote, “Thanks for your note regarding the Jewish question” at the time of the enrollment discussions. Evidently, there were many possible answers.

What matters is that the question was asked in the first place.

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