Canada - An unlikely haven in 'The Plot against America'

A dystopian novel, 'The Plot against America' consists of a re-writing of the history of the United States over 28 months, written from the point of view of a Jewish family.

Author Philip Roth (1933-2018) at his home in New York on September 15, 2010 (photo credit: ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)
Author Philip Roth (1933-2018) at his home in New York on September 15, 2010
(photo credit: ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)
When I read Phillip Roth’s The Plot against America shortly after it was published (2004) it gave me a chilling sense of the insecurity Jews of my parents’ generation must have felt during the 1930s and 1940s. I thought of the novel again as I watched the televised clips of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the summer of 2017.
A dystopian novel, The Plot against America consists of a masterfully crafted re-writing of the history of the United States over 28 months, June 1940 to October 1942, written from the point of view of a typical Jewish family; Roth (Phillip) himself at seven to nine years of age, an older brother and his parents, living in Newark, New Jersey.
While Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually won a third term as president in 1940, in the novel he loses to Charles A. Lindbergh, who became the Republican nominee at a stalemated convention. Roth seamlessly blends fact and fiction, for his portrayal of Lindbergh, the popular hero and famous aviator, as a Nazi sympathizer, an anti-Semite, and a supporter of the anti-war anti-Roosevelt America First Committee, is true to the facts.
The novel demonstrates how quickly it is possible to manipulate the checks and balances of the American democratic system to suit the aims of an authoritarian leader, and where Jews are concerned, a malevolent regime. The first steps include a seemingly innocent program called ‘Just Folks’ which aims to break up Jewish families and areas of Jewish concentration by using increasingly coercive measures to force Jews (especially Jewish children) to move from the cities of the Northeast to the rural and Christian heartland. From there we see how the police services, including the FBI, intimidate and silence the government’s critics, up to and including murder.
Finally, with the incitement of Washington and the president’s supporters, hundreds of Jews in a number of major cities are beaten, some killed, and their property destroyed; an example of barbarism that can only be reminiscent of Kristallnacht. Then, while on a flight in which he is the pilot and sole occupant, President Lindbergh and his plane disappear, his vice presidential successor is removed from office, Roosevelt runs and wins in a special election held in November, and order is restored.
Roth’s book received a number of awards, including the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction given by the Society of American Historians. The parallels between the novel and recent American history, especially the election and government of US President Donald Trump, created renewed interest in the book and resulted in the production of a widely acclaimed six-part television mini-series, which aired in March and April of 2020.
A recent CBC posting of a radio interview with the Canadian playwright and theater director Jordan Tannahill, drew attention to the role of Canada as a sanctuary in The Plot against America, comparable to the portrayal of Canada as a refuge with progressive values in Margaret Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments.
With this point in mind, I reread The Plot against America and sure enough, Canada appears on numerous occasions. Early on, Alvin, an older cousin, who is an orphan and lives with Phillip and his family, joins the Canadian army in the fight against Nazi tyranny, loses a leg and ultimately returns to the US broken in body and spirit. In fact, estimates indicate that nineteen thousand Americans joined the Canadian forces before the United States became a part of the war effort, although it is not clear how many of them were Jewish.
However, it was the frequent mention of Canada as a potential sanctuary when the Lindbergh administration turns against the Jews that caught my attention. For example, Phillip’s father, Herman, has a close boyhood friend who decides to leave the United States for Winnipeg, along with his extended family. Representatives of the Winnipeg Jewish community help him find employment and accommodations. The Canadians also arrange for a low interest loan to help pay for the move. Later, we read that in the year and one half since Lindbergh’s inauguration two to three hundred Jewish families have taken up residence in the haven of Canada. One last example: After violent anti-Jewish riots in Detroit, “several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.”
Sadly, this aspect of Roth’s novel does not jibe with the facts. Roth has been cited as saying that in writing The Plot against America he wanted to highlight a series of what-ifs that did not actually happen in America, but did happen elsewhere; that is, to the Jews of Europe. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Jews of Europe seeking sanctuary did not find it in Canada, or elsewhere.
Canada’s appalling record insofar as Jewish refugees from the Holocaust is concerned is well documented in books such as None is too Many, 1983 by Harold Troper and Irving Abella and in Haim Genizi’s The Holocaust, Israel and Canadian Protestant Churches, 2002. Troper and Abella document how the Canadian civil service, with the tacit agreement of the governing politicians, systematically denied sanctuary to Jews trying to flee Europe, in spite of the efforts of the Canadian Jewish establishment, in spite of pleas based on family reunification and in spite of applications from individuals of means. It is difficult to believe that the situation would have been substantially different if hundreds and possibly thousands of Jewish refugees from the United States tried to seek haven in Canada, as in the scenario painted by Roth in The Plot against America.
Troper and Abella note that the number of Jewish refugees accepted by Canada was the worst example of any of the western democracies. From 1933, the year Hitler came to power, until the end of the war 12 years later, only five thousand Jews were accepted. (In fact, the record for Newfoundland, which was then a separate political entity and not a part of Canada, is even worse. Because of the liberal wording of the Newfoundland Aliens Act, twelve thousand European Jews applied for entry but only eleven petitions were accepted!)
The abandonment of the Jews during World War II was largely the culmination of centuries of Christian antipathy to Jews. While there were exceptions, Genizi provides numerous examples from primary sources of the hostility of the Canadian churches, citing for example from a 1939 item in The Globe and Mail newspaper by the Reverend of a church saying “The Jews’ denial and crucifixion of Christ was the reason why God’s curse rested on them….”
The disingenuous reason given by Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister, for this callousness was that the admission of too many Jews would further inflame anti-Semitic feelings of Canadians, an excuse also used by President Franklin Roosevelt in limiting Jewish refugee admissions to the United States. This is not a new idea. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Garrett Deasy a minor character in the novel and the headmaster in the school where the protagonist Stephen Dedalus teaches, jokes to Dedalus, that Ireland is the only country that has not persecuted the Jews. Why? Because they never let them in!
None of this is meant to diminish the significance of the many situations in which Canadians and the Canadian government did act with compassion and understanding to those threatened. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions that 30 to 40 thousand African-Americans escaped slavery by coming to Canada with the help of the Underground Railroad, even before Canadian Confederation, while twenty to thirty thousand Americans avoided the draft and the Vietnam War the same way.
Thousands and thousands of refugees from war zones such as Hungary, Vietnam, and most recently, Syria, have found sanctuary in Canada since World War II. Yet, during the same period, Canada’s abusive treatment of its indigenous peoples, the First Nations, has been a shameful episode in Canadian history.
On November 7, 2018 the Canadian prime minister rose in the House of Commons and offered an apology to the Jews of Canada for the hatred and indifference Jewish refugees experienced when they appealed for help from Canada during the time of World War II. He stated that “time has by no means absolved Canada of its guilt or lessened the weight of its shame.”
The writer is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo