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Montreal's Days of Shame: When 75 Doctors Went on Strike until a Jewish Doctor Resigned

July 19, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

In 1934, doctors in five hospitals walked off the job rather than work with a Jew.

In the 1930s, the calls to boycott Jewish businesses and stop hiring Jews rang out. The location of these odious messages wasn't Nazi Europe; it was in Montreal, Canada. Anti-Jewish feeling was running so high that when a Montreal hospital hired a Jewish intern, it triggered mass walk-outs by doctors at hospitals across the city. This little-remembered boycott shook Jewish communities across Quebec and deserves to be known about today.

In the 1920s and 1930s reactionary nationalist feelings were running high in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec. “Many Quebecois viewed Quebec as the surviving remnant of the French Roman Catholic ancien regime that had been ended by the French Revolution,” explains Dr. Edward C. Halperin, who researched the 1934 doctors’ strike and wrote a comprehensive account in 2021. Before 1963, there was no option for receiving a secular public education in the province (all schools were either Catholic or Protestant), and the region’s highly religious Roman Catholic schools inculcated a fear and dislike of non-French Catholics.

“Children in Quebec’s Roman Catholic schools received an education emphasizing royalist and religious values. Jews, Asian persons, and Black persons were viewed as undesirable immigrants and economic competitors.”

Amid the economic misery of the Great Depression, some of Canada’s most influential leaders blamed Jews for the poor economy. Jewish stores were boycotted in Ottawa. In Quebec an Achat chez or Achat chez nous – “Buy from Home” movement quickly turned into an anti-Jewish tool, urging French Canadians to boycott Jewish businesses.

“Do not buy from the Jews…”

Quebec nationalist leader Father Lionel Grouix stirred up hatred of Jews among Quebecois. In a 1933 article, he urged readers to heed his solution to “the Jewish Problem” by boycotting Jewish businesses. “Do not buy from the Jews…” he ranted. This and similar calls to refuse to do business with Jews were repeated in other French-Canadian newspapers as well.

“While ‘Achat chez nous’ does not in its title specifically target Jews,” notes Prof. Ira Robinson, Professor of Judaic Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, “its spokesmen were clear enough. Though in theory the campaign could be directed at anyone who was not French and Catholic, (French businessman) Henri Leroux in 1926 wrote that the organization must ‘fight against only one foreign race, the Jews.’ Another Quebec cleric assured an audience in Vancouver that 'Achat chez nous’ was not directed at English Canadians but solely at Jews.”

Canadian poet Irving Layton recalled his childhood growing up Jewish in Montreal in the 1920s being marred by the ever-present threat of violence directed at him because he was a Jew. “The strongest memory I have is of clashes. Around Easter...something seemed to happen to the gentiles. They took it as a cue to come and beat up on the Jews. So, without fail, every Easter, they would descend on the embattled Jews with bottles and bricks…” (Quoted in A History of Antisemitism in Canada by Ira Robinson. Wilfrid Laurier University Press: 2015.)

Jewish Doctors in Montreal

While Jewish businesspeople and professionals were subject to boycotts in Quebec, Jewish students were also subject to quotas, not only in Quebec but throughout Canada and the United States. Universities and medical schools strictly limited the number Jews who were admitted.

For Jewish medical students, life in Montreal in the 1930s was particularly challenging. Home to two medical schools – the English language McGill University and French-language Universite de Montreal – the region only had a limited number of opportunities for would-be Jewish doctors to study and train. In the early 1930s, between 11% and 15% of McGill’s medical students and 6% of Universite de Montreal were Jews. Dr. Edward C. Halperin notes that the anti-Jewish feeling was fierce. In 1933, students from Universite de Montreal “marched in the streets, angrily shouting anti-Jewish slogans. Tear gas was required to disperse the crowd.”

Despite this hatred, the top of the Universite de Montreal’s graduating medical class in 1934 was a Jew, Dr. Samuel Rabinovitch. Four of his brothers were already doctors. Dr. Rabinovitch was offered internships in St. Louis and New York, but he wished to stay closer to home. He applied for an internship with the Hopital Notre-Dame, one of Montreal’s major teaching hospitals, despite the fact that no Jews had ever before been hired as interns there.

French-Canadian medical students demanded that Dr. Rabinovitch be fired because he was a Jew.

In February 1934, the hospital reviewed applications for new interns for the coming academic year. They filled nearly all their openings with French Canadian applicants, but still had one open spot that they couldn’t fill, and offered it to the star medical student Dr. Rabinovitch, who accepted the position. He became the first Jew to be hired as a staff physician at a French-Canadian hospital. This was to provoke a storm of outrage that threatened to shut down hospitals across Montreal.

“We do not want him because he is a Jew.”

The Hopital Notre-Dame faced criticism immediately. Letters poured in from the public, demanding that a “foreigner” or a Jew should not “replace” a Catholic intern. French-Canadian medical students submitted a petition to the hospital demanding that they fire Dr. Rabinovitch. “We do not want him because he is a Jew,” their petition read.

The incoming class of interns warned that if the hospital did not fire Dr. Rabinovitch, they would walk off the job in June when their internships officially began. In the face of increasing outrage, the Hopital Notre-Dame refused to back down. “The hospital administration was wonderful to me,” Dr. Rabinovitch later recalled.

As the days ticked down to the June 15th deadline the French-Canadian interns refused to budge. If Dr. Rabinovitch was allowed to start his internship, all the other interns at the hospital would walk out. At midnight on June 14, 1934, the interns walked out of the hospital and refused to see any patients, even those requiring urgent attention.

Over the next two days, the interns of the Hopital Notre-Dame were joined by interns at four other hospitals across the city. Seventy-five doctors refused to work while Dr. Rabinovitch was one of their colleagues. Nurses in these hospitals threatened to strike too, demanding that Dr. Rabinovitch be fired. Jewish leaders in Montreal worried that the strike would soon widen to include a full-scale boycott of Jewish businesses in the region. The hospital stood firm, refusing to give in to these outrageous demands, but the atmosphere in Montreal was darkening for the city’s Jews.

The French language newspaper Le Devoir covered the story, referring to Dr. Rabinovitch as “the foreign physician” and “the Jewish physician”. Dr. Rabinovitch was accused of being tied to “high finance,” in a not-so-subtle dig at the anti-Jewish stereotype that equates Jews with money and international finance.

As the strike wore on, another Montreal Jewish doctor came into the antisemites’ crosshairs. Dr. Abram Stillman was doing a post-doctoral training in urology at the Hotel-Dieu hospital, where interns were also on strike protesting Dr. Rabinovitch. A French nationalist group demanded that Dr. Stillman be fired from his post-doc and a “French Canadian (appointed) in his place” immediately.

Dr. Oscar Mercier was a famous urologist who was supervising Abram Stillman, but he refused to issue a full-throated defense of his Jewish student. Instead, Dr. Mercier reassured locals that Abram Stillman was “not taking the place of a French Canadian” and was “not occupying an official position” as a post-doc. Instead, Dr. Mercier hastened to explain, Dr. Stillman was “just...a visitor.” Abram Stillman was allowed to keep his post, but the lack of support that the Hotel-Dieu hospital extended to him was chilling. Over 75 Montreal interns continued their strike.

Resigning his Post

With interns refusing to go to work, Dr. Rabinovitch and community physicians labored feverishly to see all the patients under their care. Across Montreal, patients went unseen as the interns continued their strike. Behind the scene, representatives from Montreal's Jewish community met with administrators at city hospitals to try and mend the dire situation.

Three and a half days into the strike, Dr. Rabinovitch resigned.

Finally, on June 18, three and a half days into the strike, Dr. Rabinovitch tendered his resignation. His resignation letter was printed in several of the city’s newspapers. “In view of the serious and dangerous conditions to which the patients of the Notre-Dame and other hospitals have been exposed...I feel it is my duty as a physician to tender my resignation as intern to your hospital,” he wrote.

“...I bemoan the fact that so many French-Canadian physicians, namely (new) graduates, should have ignored the first duty of their oath which they have so recently taken, and am glad of the fact that my resignation will make possible the immediate care that is so badly needed by those poor unfortunates who are today patients in the hospitals affected by the controversy.”

“I feel deeply grieved that the French interns have taken up a racial question where the care of the sick should be their first and only consideration and that they have completely disregarded the first duty of” medical care… “The duty of a captain is not to abandon; the first duty of a soldier is not to desert his post; and the first duty of a physician is not to desert his patient…”

Dr. Sam Rabinovitch

Dr. Rabinovitch’s resignation letter also noted that he had no choice but to resign; the continued strike was delaying operations and putting patients’ lives at risk.

Even though the Hopital Notre-Dame had threatened to fire those interns who refused to work, they never levied any sanctions on them. Within hours of Dr. Rabinovitch’s resignation, Montreal’s interns were back at work, with no repercussions for their dangerous and prejudiced walk-out.

The Hopital Notre-Dame did help Dr. Rabinovitch to find a new position as an intern in St. Louis. Ironically, the hospital where he worked as an intern was a Catholic institution. He specialized in Internal Medicine.

Opening the Jewish General Hospital

To some observers, the 1934 doctors’ strike became known as the “Days of Shame”. Later that year, the Jewish General Hospital opened in Montreal, offering Jewish physicians a world-class setting where they could train and hone their skills.

The Jewish General Hospital had been planned for many years, and was designed as a place to allow Jewish doctors to work in dignity, something that had clearly been lacking in Montreal. The Jewish General Hospital championed what’s has been called “the first official non-discrimination policy in Canada: patients and employees of all cultures, languages and religions were welcome.” The hospital continues to flourish today, offering medical care in the diverse Cote-des-Nieges neighborhood in Montreal, where it continues to treat all patients, and still boasts some of the world’s leading medical researchers and physicians.

Dr. Rabinovitch returned to Montreal and practiced medicine well into his 90s, becoming Canada’s oldest practicing physician.

In 1940, Dr. Rabinovitch returned to Montreal and practiced medicine well into his 90s. In his old age, he was thought to be Canada’s oldest practicing physician. After returning to Canada, he treated people from all faiths. “The patients cared more about my reputation for being a caring and honest doctor than they did about my religion,” he recalled.

Dr. Rabinovitch died in 2010 at the age of 101. Even after his long career, the memory of the 1934 strike remained vivid. “I bear no ill will toward anybody,” he later explained. For the striking physicians, “it was just the case that I was Jewish and they were Catholics… I just did not belong. I suppose in the end that is the frightening thing about is just that simple.”

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