Glory of humanity is what unites us: Coren | Toronto Star

Russia in 1882. Yuri and Olya were Jews from what is now Ukraine, and while the pogroms hadn’t hit them personally they had lost family members to the whole-scale anti-Semitic slaughter. It was especially hurtful to Yuri as he’d served in the...

Glory of humanity is what unites us: Coren | Toronto Star

Russia in 1882. Yuri and Olya were Jews from what is now Ukraine, and while the pogroms hadn’t hit them personally they had lost family members to the whole-scale anti-Semitic slaughter.

It was especially hurtful to Yuri as he’d served in the Czar’s army for more than 10 years. His village was raided when he was just 13-years-old and he was taken off to fight. The assumption was that Jews would convert to Russian Orthodoxy and effectively disappear. This was the government’s solution to “the Jewish problem.” Like most of his co-religionists, Yuri remained Jewish and that meant persecution was never far away.

The two of them walked for miles beyond counting through snow and cold, eventually boarded a decaying ship bound for London, and set up in a single room in the East End that would be their home for the rest of their lives. They worked all the hours God sent, had a large family, and while always poor were at least safe.

Not that they were always made welcome. Their neighbours — other Jews, Irish Catholics, and poor locals — were generally fine. It was outsiders who made a fuss. There were even MPs who condemned “alien Jews,” claiming they spread disease, were revolutionaries, and were behind organized crime. Yuri and Olya were too exhausted to pay much attention.

One of their children was named Rose, she married Harry, and they moved to Tottenham, a little to the north but still rough. They had four children, one of whom was named Phil. He was streetwise and tough. When Phil was a teenager the British Union of Fascists, dressed in their black shirts, marched around the place screaming that Jews should be expelled or killed. There was plenty of violence, and Phil was there when the labour unions, the Communists and socialists stood with the Jews to fight the Nazis. The good guys won a famous victory.

A few years later Phil was given more opportunities to fight fascism and serve his country, in the RAF’s Bomber Command. No longer a refugee, just the grandson of immigrants, he still encountered a few haters. But he also found romance, married a cockney girl named Sheila and settled down to married life. They had a son, who was the first in the history of the family to go to university. This refugee clan had done OK.

I’m not unworldly, not blind to some of the challenges that an evolving and changing society and culture present. But I also know that the great, glorious reality of humanity is not what separates but what unifies. Family, love, sacrifice, the desire for safety and stability, the dream of children having what parents did not — these are universal and not confined to any one religion or race.

Hatred is not a natural phenomenon but is contrived and is encouraged by the unscrupulous and the base. We see it at the highest levels of American governance but in Canada it’s largely on the right of the Conservative Party and within one or two acidic website and media blogs. Their shame and sin is splattered with the mud of exploitation and lies.

I find the word “sin” to be crisply pertinent in this case. The etymology is found in archery — not hitting the target. If we refuse to welcome the newcomer, if we reject the stranger, we have missed the mark by a mile.

To those in Canada as well as the United States who want to close gates and build walls I urge you to think again. It pains me that many of these people claim their Christian faith justifies their actions. Contrary to what they might believe, the Bible doesn’t speak of abortion and hardly refers to homosexuality but it screams about justice for the refugee.

Being born again doesn’t mean being born yesterday, so grow up and look at why people are dispossessed and exiled. Much of the blame is solidly with us in the West.

Canada is not perfect but we have generally formed ranks with Northern Europe rather than Washington and the new right, and for that we should be proud. But there is so much work still to be done.

Oh, and as for Phil and Sheila’s son — that was me.

Michael Coren is a Toronto author. mcoren@sympatico.ca

Michael Coren is a Toronto author. mcoren@sympatico.ca

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