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Looking back on the legacy of nearly five decades of Jewish scholarship and community service

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Irving Abella was among the first generation of professional scholars to take up Canadian Jewish subjects, and his writings and findings left an indelible print on the now-mature and professionalized field. | Photo: Canadian Jewish Archives

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After nearly fifty years of dedication to Jewish scholarship and community service, Irving Abella’s shoes remain impossibly humbling to fill.

Professor Emeritus Abella, the historian, writer, teacher, and leader who has served at an impressive array of both Jewish and academic organizations, turned 80 July 2.

I now have the honour and privilege of serving as Dr. Abella’s first successor in the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry, a position established at York University in 1997.

When he was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1993, the state itself noted that “His writings and lectures have helped us to appreciate the rich and diverse roots of our country, and broadened our understanding of the contributions generations of immigrants have made to Canada.”

He was elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada the following year, and was recognized by a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Metal in 2002, and with a Louis Rosenberg Distinguished Service Award by the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies in 2006.

Abella’s importance as a historian stands in the breadth of his public reach, in his impeccable and incisive scholarship, and in the fact of his fellow historians’ steady citations of his work from a wide range of Canadian and modern Jewish historical subject areas. He wrote of histories that both mattered and had been overlooked.

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It hasn’t hurt his reputation to have produced a prodigious body of scholarly writings in books, journal articles, print essays in public intellectual magazines, encyclopedias, newspaper editorials, interviews, and innumerable public and academic lectures around the world.

He told me he felt his greatest accomplishment was creating the first course in Canadian Jewish Studies to be taught at a university, in this case at Glendon College (Toronto) in the early 1970s.

There were no books and few articles to read or assign; it was a field he himself would pioneer. Today, there are courses in Canadian Jewish studies from a variety of disciplines taught at close to a dozen universities across the country.

Abella with CJC's Executive Vice President Alan Rose in 1994, at the commemoration in Ottawa of the 50th anniversary of D-Day | Photo: Canadian Jewish Archives

Abella was among the first generation of professional scholars to take up Canadian Jewish subjects, and his writings and findings left an indelible print on the now-mature and professionalized field.

Along side historians Jack Jedwab, Harold Troper, Richard Menkis, Robert Harney (1939-1989), and Gerald Tulchinsky, (1933-2017), sociologist Morton Weinfeld, and literature scholar Adam Fuerstenberg (1939-2016), Abella helped establish archives and the institutional structure for the field, brought new research techniques and questions, and advanced the early communal project established by Louis Rosenberg, David Rome, Sol Hayes, and H. M. Caiserman.

Canadian Jewish studies is now an integrated element in both the Canadian academy and the community of modern Jewish Studies scholarship.

Abella is arguably the scholar with the largest imprint on Canadian Jewish studies.

His monograph None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe: 1933-1948, co-authored by Harold Troper, was a groundbreaking work about Canada’s abysmal Jewish refugee policy during and immediately after the Second World War, a work that framed some of the key orientations of the field, and impacted subsequent generations of historians of Canada and Canadian Jewish life.

None is Too Many has been subject to continual, almost orthodox citation, considerable reflection and even some recent reassessment (a special issue of Canadian Jewish Studies / Études juives canadiennes in French and English, New Research on Canada and the Jews During the 1930-1940s was titled “None Is Too Many and Beyond / Au-delà du None is Too Many”).

Irving Abella penned what would become canon in Canadian Jewish history reading with this book about the government turning away Jews during the Shoah.

Abella contributed several other books on Canadian Jewish life, including A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada (1999), and Growing Up Jewish: Canadians Tell Their Own Stories with Edwin Goldman and Rosalie Sharp (1997).

He also pioneered Canadian labour history in his first decade as a scholar, when that field was also in its infancy, with his PhD dissertation and first books focusing on the workers’ rights movements and the ordinary, immigrant working men who organized labour. By the end of the 1970s, Abella felt that the field had become “dominated by the ultra-left and anarchists”, scholars who “demeaned the field.” He turned his attention to Canadian Jewish life by the early 80s, where it remained until his retirement and beyond.

His personal reflections about the emergence of professional scholarship on Canadian Jewish life and thoughts about the field are expected to appear as an installment of the Canadian Jewish Studies / Études juives canadiennes’ subsection, “Contemplations” soon.

Abella’s leadership in the public history and Canadian Jewish civic sectors has been impressive too. He was the chairman of the Holocaust Documentation Project, the Canadian Jewish Congress International Affairs Committee, its National Archives Committee, and indeed its president from 1992 to 1995. He also served as the President of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) from 1999-2000.

His presidential address to the CHA, published as Jews, Human Rights, and the Making of Canada. New Séries, Vol. 11 / Nouvelle série, vol. 11, 3-15 in 2000, brought attention to profoundly important Jewish contributions to Canadian life to Canadian historians.

This photograph shows previous Canadian Jewish Congress presidents: (left to right) Irving Abella, Goldie Hershon, Moshe Ronen, Keith Landy and Ed Morgan, in 2004, at a CJC Plenary Assembly | Photo : Canadian Jewish Archives

As president of Congress, Abella told me, he helped convince the Minister of Multiculturalism, Gerry Weiner, to allocate a million dollar multiculturalism research grant to Canadian Jewish studies, between York University and Concordia University, investments that continue to bear fruit in producing new scholarship, and teaching hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish students at Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, and at York’s Golda and Israel Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

Records that reveal the inner workings of some of his work can be found in the Canadian Jewish Archives Irving Abella Fonds, 1969-1991, and in the Irving Abella Collection at the Archives of Ontario, a collection consisting of oral history interviews he conducted in the early 1970s.

The balance of his records, perhaps one distant day, may yet find themselves in the hands of researchers.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Jewish community, and its scholars in particular, owe him a hearty salute. Professor Abella serves as an eminent example of what scholarship and leadership together might yield.

David S. Koffman is the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry and an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He is the author of The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism and Belonging in America (Rutgers University Press, 2019), and the forthcoming edited volume No Better Home? Jews, Canada, and the Sense of Belonging (University of Toronto Press). He is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Jewish Studies / Études juives canadiennes.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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