March 23, 1930

This Nordic Nonsense

On Sunday, March 23, 1930 Rabbi Eisendrath delivered a sermon regarding the Ku Klux Klan. He was responding to events of the past month in Oakville, Ontario, a small town 20 miles west of Toronto.

What had happened in the Town of Oakville was this: Isabel Jones, who was white, and Ira Johnson, whom her mother and the Klan regarded as black (he was later to assert that he was part Cherokee, part white), were engaged to be married. Isabel’s mother was upset; she turned to the Klan for help. On the evening of February 28, 1930, between fifty and seventy-five gowned men arrived in Oakville. They planted a cross on a downtown street and set it on fire. They found the couple at the home of Ira’s aunt. Isabel was driven to her mother’s home and then taken and placed in the care of a Salvation Army captain. Ira was placed in a separate car and driven back to his house. A cross was nailed to the aunt’s home and set ablaze. Ira’s mother, who was present, was warned “that if Ira…was ever seen walking down the street with a white girl again the Klan would attend to him.”

As they left town, the convoy of Klan members was stopped by the Oakville Chief of Police. But he took no action against them. He recognized several of them as “prominent Hamilton businessmen.” (Hamilton is a city 20 miles west of Oakville.) He shook their hands and let them continue on their way. This was a group that described itself as "Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Canada, Hamilton Clan No. 10, Hamilton Ont.". Organizationally, the Klan in Canada was separate from its American namesake, but its purpose, save for a professed mission to protect Canadian or British civilization, rather than American, was the same.

A provincial investigation ensued, and three men were brought to trial. Each was charged with “having his face masked or blackened, or being otherwise disguised by night, without lawful excuse.” This was a section of the Criminal Code meant to prevent burglaries, hardly suitable for the offences that had occurred.

Rabbi Eisendrath, in an editorial in the Canadian Jewish Review, worried that the accused might escape conviction on the technical ground that they had no intention of committing burglary. [1]
It seems to us that a grave responsibility rests upon those seated in judgment upon the Klan's recent "peaceful demonstration" in Oakville, and those of us familiar with its bigotry, its boycotts, its lynchings and its savage, medieval, primitive intolerance in the United States cannot but pray that technicalities will not rule the day, but that the full spirit of a law intended to safeguard ordinary civil rights will be exercised, that the Klan's action will be unmistakenly and unambiguously branded as without the law, that the perpetrators of this ugly, night prowling, and hooded demonstration be summarily punished ….
At trial the evidence was insufficient to prove that two of the men had been masked; they were acquitted. Only one person, chiropractor William A. Phillips, was convicted. Although the maximum penalty was five years in prison, he was fined only $50.

This was the state of affairs as Rabbi Eisendrath stood to deliver his sermon. There was no need for him to describe all that had occurred. From newspaper coverage his audience was well aware of the events. Rabbi Eisendrath launched directly into a condemnation of the Klan, and the threat posed by its program and philosophy. He set himself two tasks: to caution his Canadian listeners against apathy and indifference, and to present to them the “vapidity and malignity” of the Klan’s doctrine of Protestant white supremacy.

For an authoritative statement of Klan doctrine, Rabbi Eisendrath referred to an essay by Hiram Wesley Evans, “Imperial Wizard and Emperor, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” [2] That doctrine could be boiled down to this: that the Klan represents the Nordic race, “the race which, with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization;” that in America (and in Canada too, the Canadian Klan would say) the Nordic race is threatened by foreign races; and that “the Klan is organized to defend our loved ones and our culture from the danger of these foreign races.” From such assertions the Klan derived its well-known prejudices: against Catholics, against negroes, and against Jews. Catholics are dominated by non-Nordic Italian popes; negroes can never claim equality with whites; Jews stubbornly refuse to assimilate.

Rabbi Eisendrath was emphatic that such principles constituted a threat to the very existence of Canada. His language is possibly the most passionate, most angry of all his sermons that we have read.
Impudent in action, sinister in motive, bestial in conception, vicious in method, pernicious in purpose, flagrant and frenzied and fanatic in the execution of its illegal, its irreligious, its un-British designs, it threatens the moral integrity and stability of our nation, and unless summarily and speedily brought to justice - by the prostitution of the ideals of this Dominion, it will turn one people against the other in hatred and contempt - Protestant against Catholic, white against negro, Christian against Jew, until even this wondrously cosmopolitan land will be torn by inner dissension and strife, until it perish in the blood of its own internal feud.
He made it clear that there was no scientific basis for accepting the racial categories spoken of by the Klan, or for believing in white superiority.
Anthropology to be sure is the youngest of the sciences and although it has yet come to no definite conclusions with regard to such highly complicated problems as the various races of men, still it is absolutely certain according to Professor [Alfred Cort] Haddon, … that "there is no such thing as racial culture. The culture of any given people is primarily dependent upon their mode of life which is itself largely an expression of geographical conditions,” and the division of men into races, Nordic, Alpine, Caucasian, Mongolian, Semitic, etc. is solely for the purpose of convenience as a means of categorizing different groups - but a pure racial type, he emphatically concludes, exists purely in our imagination. And Prof. [George Amos] Dorsey goes him one better when he states that "we have no anatomical nor psychological evidence which can prove that physically or mentally the white race is the highest type of man." …
Now I have no objection to anyone claiming that he is better than his neighbour. That is his prerogative; any man has an inalienable right to make a fool of himself, but when such sentiments are wholly false and set brother against brother and destroy all discipline and co-operation, then they become in very truth not merely a nuisance but a positive menace.
Rabbi Eisendrath provided numerous examples of contributions to civilization made by non-Nordic people.
It was the Renaissance, born in Italy, that ushered in our modern day; it was southern Europe, Italy and Spain that discovered the New World, and, by the way, it was a Catholic at that who explored it and gave it its name. It was a Pole, Copernicus, who revolutionized the whole astronomic thinking of the world and prepared the way for the conquest of scientific thought.
And it is indeed a moot point as to whether the art and music of Italy even today are inferior to those of England; as to whether the literature of Dostoievski and Turgenev, the literature of Russia, is so far beneath the standard of Norway and Scandinavia. Indeed, race is not the measure of all things.
The rabbi, who was more knowledgeable about the American scene than his Canadian audience, named several notable black Americans: activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, actor Charles Gilpin, tenor and composer Roland Hayes, educator Booker T. Washington , performer and composer J. Rosamond Johnson, and poet Countee Cullen. All, he took care to point out, had risen to prominence within sixty years of the end of slavery.
The fact of the matter is the negro has made good and has taken his rightful place in the industrial, educational, cultural, and religious life of America and thus has become himself the most potent demonstration of the truth that there are no permanently superior or inferior races, that even the lowliest and most backward when given the proper opportunities rise to heights of eminence and culture.
It is jarring today to realize that when this sermon was delivered in 1930, the complete abolition of slavery in the United States, which occurred in 1865, was still within living memory of some citizens.

Fear, the rabbi believed, was at the root of these demonic behaviours – “fear of losing jobs, of being declassed and degraded, of relinquishing fond hopes for the future.”

Rabbi Eisendrath’s criticism was not only for members of the Klan. He warned of “tacit submission” to Klan gospel and denounced those who publicly condemn the Klan for its tactics, but privately approve of its goals.
Somehow too many of us though violently opposed to the lawlessness which the Klan has practiced silently condone the work which it seeks to achieve. The Klan is saying and doing those very things which myriads of our fellow citizens actually believe.
The end of the manuscript is unclear. There is a paragraph about racial conflict in Asia and Africa and then a quotation from a poem by John Oxenham. Rabbi Eisendrath often ended his sermons with a quotation from a poem. But then there is an additional page. “Append to last page from Zangwill,” he has written, followed by an excerpt, slightly reworded, from Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot.” This suggests that Rabbi Eisendrath was considering two different endings, and the manuscript we have is in not quite final form.


A report of Rabbi Eisendrath’s sermon appeared in the Hamilton Spectator the next day, “Rabbi Calls K.K.K. Lawless Body.” It was also reported in the papers that Isabel Jones and Ira Johnson had married on March 22. They remained in Oakville and raised three children.

Phillips appealed his conviction and sentence and the Attorney General counter-appealed. On appeal the sentence was increased to three months in jail. Ontario Chief Justice Sir William Mulock who delivered the decision stated, regarding Phillips and his companions:
[T]hey committed not only an illegal offence as regards [Isabel Jones], but also a crime against the majesty of the law. Every person in Canada is entitled to the protection of the law and is subject to the law. It is the supreme dominant authority controlling the conduct of everyone and no person, however exalted or high his power, is entitled to do with impunity what that lawless mob did. The attack of the accused and his companions upon the rights of this girl was an attempt to overthrow the law of the land, and in its place to set up mob law, lynch law, to substitute lawlessness for law enforcement which obtains in civilized countries. Mob law, such as is disclosed in this case, is a step in that direction, and like a venomous serpent, whenever its horrid head appears it must be killed, not merely scotched. …
We are therefore of the opinion that the monetary fine imposed by the magistrate was a wholly inadequate punishment, a travesty of justice, and we substitute therefor imprisonment for a term of three months. This being the first case of this nature that has come before this Court, we have dealt with the offence with great leniency and the sentence here imposed is not to be regarded as a precedent in the event of a repetition of such offence.
Rabbi Eisendrath praised the decision in the Canadian Jewish Review. [3] “Worthy of highest commendation and widest publicity is the forthright and unequivocal decision recently handed down by Sir William Mulock, Chief Justice of Ontario …” But he was not content that the other members of the mob received no punishment.
Surely if the inadequate fine originally imposed on Phillips was a "travesty of justice," this imprisonment of a single man out of a mob of over fifty is likewise a miscarriage of law. It is a pity indeed that such a ringing judgment as was read by Sir Mulock was not passed on all the accessories to the deed.
Constance Backhouse devotes a chapter of her book Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada to the events in Oakville, and names Rabbi Eisendrath as one of the parties whose efforts impelled the Attorney General of Ontario to commence legal proceedings against the Klan. [4] Regarding the long-term effects, she writes:
The ramifications of the KKK raid, the legal proceedings, Dr. Phillip’s conviction, and the increased sentence were substantial. Some have pronounced the Oakville trial a symbolic death-knell for the KKK in Canada. They suggest the glare of publicity, the official intrusion into KKK affairs, and the ringing condemnation of Klan methods from senior governmental and judicial circles, all combined to sap the growth of the hate-mongering movement. Others have suggested that the undeniable diminishment of the Canadian Klan was due more to its own internal and structural problems. Whatever the reasons, publicly discernible Klan activity dropped off significantly in the 1930s, not to revive until the 1960s.
Rabbi Eisendrath continued to be engaged with issues of racial justice throughout his life. His 1964 book Can Faith Survive? has a chapter “The Racial Revolution – From Law to Love.” In 1965 he joined Martin Luther King in a famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.


[1] “Within or Without the Law?”, Canadian Jewish Review, March 14, 1930.

[2] "The Klan's Fight for Americanism", The North American Review, March-April-May, 1926, pp. 33-63.

[3] “Justice in Ontario – Speedy and Sure”, Canadian Jewish Review, April 25, 1930.

[4] Backhouse, Constance, Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950, Chapter 6.

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