COVER STORY: The challenge of black-Jewish dialogue

From left, Karen Mock, Morley Wolfe and his longtime friend Arthur Downes at Wolfe’s 80th birthday

Good things happen when communities work together, but is a new generation willing to continue the struggle?


When protests erupted over Garth Drabinsky’s production of the musical Show Boat, Karen Mock was among those who searched for ways to calm the waters. At the time, Mock, an educational psychologist specializing in human rights, hate crime and diversity issues and multicultural/anti-racist education, was the national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada. 

“The minute I heard Show Boat was being produced in [Toronto], I knew there would be serious problems,” she said. “It provided a good example of the importance of effective black-Jewish dialogue.”

Morley Wolfe, a judge and human rights advocate and then-chair of the league’s intercultural dialogue committee, agreed. “The production of Show Boat intensified the black-Jewish dialogue. Members of the black community were concerned about the people involved with the production. They feared that blacks would be stereotyped and negatively portrayed.”

Wolfe invited his longtime friend, Arthur Downes, also a judge, and a man of colour, to work with him. “We already had an ongoing program with the Jamaican Society, so we invited them to a Passover lunch. I checkerboarded the tables so blacks and whites sat side by side. When they asked us, ‘What’s the program?’ I replied that they were the program.” 

The result, he said, was an amazing afternoon of exchange of information and contacts.

Show Boat was an explosive situation, and our dialogue program, co-chaired by Morley and Arthur, helped diffuse the tension,” Mock said. 

Mock began working with the League for Human Rights in 1989. She said that at the time, community groups were grappling with growing white supremacy issues. Organizations with vested interests in improving race relations were brought together under the auspices of the Ontario Race Relations Directorate to form Toronto Cares. In 1990, as a result of the relationships made in that program, members of the league, the community relations committee of Canadian Jewish Congress, the Jamaican Canadian Association and several other groups in the black community got together and created the Black/Jewish Dialogue. 

That initial group met monthly, alternatively in black and Jewish community venues, and encouraged the leadership of both communities to learn more about each other, to share mutual concerns and work together to combat racism and anti-Semitism. 

“Regretfully, that initial dialogue program waned, more because of challenges within each community, not between the two communities,” Mock recalled. “But the relationships formed helped get us through the Show Boat controversy in 1993, until it was clear that the rise in worldwide anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity had spilled over into the anti-racism movement, and we felt the strong need in 1999 to intensify the Black/Jewish Dialogue.”

Once again, Wolfe and Downes, served as co-chairs, and a joint planning committee did a major re-launch of the Black/Jewish Dialogue during Black History Month in 2000. 

“The program took place at the B’nai Brith building under the auspices of the League for Human Rights,” Wolfe said. “We invited people from the black community to join us. We expected about 60, and 300 showed up!” 

The first session included a presentation, a photo exhibit and a forum on the past, present and future relationships between blacks and Jews in Toronto, and called for them to unite in common cause. The intention was to remind both communities of the many positive changes made in the past when fought for together. Roundtable discussions were set up to encourage members of both communities to share and hear each other’s stories and promote social and professional contacts. The program was the launch of Blacks and Jews in Dialogue, an ongoing group that met monthly, jointly staffed by Mock and Lorne Foster, currently with York University.

“Historically, Jews and blacks in Canada had worked together and helped bring in civil rights and anti-racism legislation,” Mock said. “Jewish people worked side by side with people of colour at the forefront of the human rights movement, and we wanted the next generations to understand this, and not import tensions and hatred from elsewhere, thinking their histories were similar. We wanted to educate the students who needed to know that blacks and Jews had, and could, work together.”

Zanana Akande, a high school principal, whose parents immigrated to Canada from the West Indies, was a participant in the dialogue. She brought her daughter, who was in university at the time. 

“Our children hadn’t experienced the kind of prejudice we had lived with. Jews and blacks had been thrown together by a shared rejection by the greater community and we wanted to show them that we had been supportive of each other in order to get through tough times,” Mock said.

After the initial Black History Month launch, on June 5, 2000, about 60 participants who wanted an ongoing program attended the second meeting of the Black/Jewish Dialogue and Action Group, facilitated by Carol Tator and Hamlin Grange. The goal was to set up and prioritize initiatives to pursue over the coming year. They were divided into six tables, and each set up a list of goals. These included developing a program designed to heal tensions between the black and Jewish communities, organize a youth forum and engage in outreach educational programs, and develop a resource pool.

According to Downes, the goal was to “open channels of dialogue and discuss in a forthright manner areas of mutual concern.” Those areas, he said, covered topics as diverse as dating and employment. 

“It was about respecting other people’s cultural traditions. What we accomplished was learning how to speak to each other. It educated all of us,” he said. “For example, I quite often advocate for Jews when there aren’t any in the room.”

Mock said the urgency for dialogue and joint action programs had increased because the Mike Harris government had eliminated the anti-racism divisions of the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, and of the Ministry of Education. “The non-government organizations (NGOs) took over. We did leadership development to equip people to deal with situations as they arose. Our efforts ultimately helped bring in further anti-racism and equity strategies for the province by keeping the issues alive.”

The group produced a manual documenting the history of blacks and Jews in Canada and offering suggestions and strategies for programming. One of those programs was a Passover seder titled “From Oppression to Freedom: Our Shared Experience and Vision,” in which the black and Jewish participants shared the Passover experience and their common historical links to slavery.

Although the formal Blacks and Jews in Dialogue group has been discontinued, there are attempts from time to time to keep the conversation going. More recently, a play titled The Black-Jew Dialogues has been presenting similar themes. The play, which was written to stimulate discussion about race and diversity, was performed at Ryerson University in February 2012. The two-actor play explores the absurdity of prejudice and racism and the power of diversity. The program combines fast-paced sketches, improvisations, multi-media, puppets, a game show and a post-show discussion. 

Mitch Reiss is a student at Ryerson who helped bring the show, which originated in Boston, to Toronto. The show was sponsored by Hillel, the Caribbean Students’ Association and the United Black Students Association. The performance was open to the public. 

“The community was very responsive,” Reiss said. “All the groups came together to talk about stereotypes. For the groups involved, it created a better commonality in the micro sense. It opened up conversations.”

Mock points out that Jewish people working side by side with people of colour have historically been at the forefront of the human rights and anti-racism movement in Canada and the United States. “One hopes,” she adds, “that the new generation will continue the struggle – together.”