Academic journal article Manitoba History

Ethnic Politics on the Urban Frontier: "Fighting Joe" Martin and the Jews of Winnipeg, 1893-96

Academic journal article Manitoba History

Ethnic Politics on the Urban Frontier: "Fighting Joe" Martin and the Jews of Winnipeg, 1893-96

Article excerpt

Henry Trachtenberg (1)


When Abraham Lechtzier, a Winnipeg Jewish merchant tailor and active supporter of the Conservative Party, arranged a political meeting at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue for one warm June night during the 1896 federal election campaign, he was acting in a way much of the Winnipeg Jewish community understood. Seeking to guarantee their individual and communal security and wellbeing in the late nineteenth century, the city's Jews turned to political participation as a defense mechanism to avert hostility from the larger society and to gain its acceptance and approval. (2)

Recently, the proposition has been advanced that historical writing on immigrant groups on the Prairies has evolved from pluralism to "post modern cultural analysis", with social identity being perceived as "more ephemeral, more ambiguous, more individual than it was in earlier generations." While this may be the case, political and social history remains, nevertheless, very important in the interpretation of ethnic identity. Furthermore, the political histories of the various ethnic groups in Western Canada, including Manitoba, largely remain to be written. In addition to the view of many academic historians that political history is passe, there has been a tendency to accept the opinion expressed by W.L. Morton more than forty years ago that the "great immigrant groups" to the Prairies in the first years of the twentieth century "in the main left politics to the Canadian born." A more recent interpretation by Franca Iacovetta in her overview of writings dealing with English Canadian immigrant history, and one specifically relevant to the study of Canadian Jewish history, is that historians have tended to avoid researching and writing about Jewish-Gentile splits and heavily polarized ethnic communities because of the "real difficulties" they confront including "criticism or a studied neglect from colleagues on the other side of the divide." (3)

In a perspective similar to Morton's, Howard Palmer observed that the Liberal and Conservative parties made efforts to attract the support of new immigrant groups, particularly Icelanders, to Western Canada in the late nineteenth century. He noted, though, that before the 1890s, the other ethnic groups were "too few and too scattered to constitute a political force" and that "the political behaviour of people other than British or French origin did not become an important part of the political scene in Canada until their numbers increased substantially during the period of largescale settlement of the Canadian west between 1890 and the First World War." This was the situation of Winnipeg Jewry, a largely marginal urban immigrant community. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, Winnipeg Jews became increasingly politically acculturated. Their heightened awareness of and participation in politics was hastened by critical comments made about Jews and Jewish immigrants in 1894-95 by Winnipeg's Member of Parliament, Joseph Martin, described by one historian as one of the "zealous defenders of Ontario-style civilization" and another as "the Protestant champion".

The absence of primary sources, in either Yiddish or English, creates considerable difficulty in determining answers to some of the questions posed by historians about the social and economic acculturation of the Winnipeg Jewish community in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the lack of surviving diaries, private and official correspondence, and an oral tradition, is not surprising. Jewish immigrants of the time were concerned, not with preparing a record for future generations to interpret, but with the maintenance of religious values, the establishment of religious and educational institutions, economic survival in changing local, national, and global economies, and cultural accommodation. One is forced, therefore, to rely exclusively on newspapers, periodicals, and official documents, rather than on the interpretation of events by those directly involved in and affected by them. …

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