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Facing a New Wave of French Canadian Nationalism, Quebec’s Jews Stand Their Ground

Rather than follow previous generations to Ontario, Montreal’s young Jews are saying ‘non’ to the Parti Québécois

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Tamara Kramer, center, at a live taping of Shtetl on the Shortwave where Montreal bands did covers of Leonard Cohen at his favorite Montreal brunch spot, Bagel Etc. (Courtesy of Tamara Kramer)
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On a bitterly cold evening late last month, a hundred or so people ambled in and out of a vernissage of local Jewish artists in the lobby of Cégep du Vieux Montréal, a downtown community college. The show, called “From Where We Stand,” explored how Jewish culture is “defined by its persecution and assimilation” and attracted a mix of religious and secular Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, drinking beer sold for a toonie.

The artwork included a photograph of a man pulling a child on a sleigh across a barren snowscape and an erotic performance piece about conception. But many in the room were less preoccupied with the art than with the poetic irony of a Jewish show being held at the Cégep at all: Less than two weeks earlier, Louise Mailloux, a philosophy professor at the college, prompted a political firestorm after giving an interview with the French-language daily La Presse in which she said she “absolutely” stood by her claim that the added cost of kosher-certified products is essentially a hidden tax levied on Quebec’s unwitting Francophone population for the benefit of Jewish interest groups.

More than one patron at the vernissage marveled at the thought of Mailloux—a candidate for the separatist Parti Québécois in today’s provincial elections—casually strolling through the two-week-long exhibit on her way home from work. Despite demands by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, one of the main organs of Canadian Jewry, that the PQ “disavow” the “kosher tax” conspiracy theory, party leader and incumbent premier Pauline Marois stood by her candidate: “Her writings are eloquent,” Marois said. “I respect her point of view.” (Mailloux did offer a weak apology—“I never wanted to hurt or offend anyone,” she said—a few days later.)

The inflammatory rhetoric was only the latest provocation to Quebec’s Jewish community, which today stands at about 90,000 people, most of them in Montreal. In a gambit to secure control of the provincial legislature—and to deflect attention away from questions about the province’s tanking economy—the PQ has campaigned on legislation that would ban public-sector workers from wearing kippot, hijab, turbans, and other “overt” religious garb while on the job. The chief target of this so-called “Charter of Values” is widely presumed to be Quebec’s ballooning Muslim minority; Montreal, a city of 1.6 million, is home to more than 220,000 Muslims, according to 2011 census figures.

Proponents of the legislation include Jews aligned with the PQ, like Evelyne Abitbol, a Sephardic Jew and former press secretary to Lucien Bouchard, the founder of the federal sovereignty party Bloc Québécois. Abitbol is running as PQ candidate and last week finally acknowledged at a debate—after months of party leaders dodging the question—that Jewish doctors could be fired under the law for failing to remove their kippot. The Coalition Avenir Québec, which also supports the charter, includes two Jews on its list, who have said the religious symbol ban should be limited to authority figures, such as judges, in order to prevent conflict of interest.

The debate over the proposed law has unleashed a wave of anxiety in the Jewish community not seen since the 1970s, when a PQ-led government passed sweeping legislation known as Bill 101, which imposed French as the dominant language of education and commerce across the province. That prompted a wave of emigration by Quebec’s largely English-speaking Jews, fueled by dwindling job opportunities and a general unease with the vagaries of Francophone nationalism.

The response to the charter from some members of the generation that stayed is something akin to battle fatigue. But among the cohort of Jews too young to remember the last round of battles, the legislation has triggered indignation—and a willingness to defend their own Québécois identity. “There’s a sense that we belong here, so we’ll fight for it,” said Zev Moses, the 30-year-old executive director of the online Museum of Jewish Montreal. “We’re not going to get up and leave.”

***

A century ago, Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe flooded into the working-class neighborhoods along the city’s Saint Lawrence Boulevard, including Mile End. Yiddish was Montreal’s de facto third language, after French and English. Jews were tolerated, even by French Canadian nationalists: In 1906, Armand Lavergne, a lawyer and acolyte of prominent nationalist politician Henri Bourassa, helped orchestrate a Jewish exemption from the federal Lord’s Day Act, so business owners could work on Sundays. The National Assembly of Quebec opened its doors to Jews the following year.

But eventually anti-Semitism began to fester, needling its way into French Canada through the Catholic Church—especially among the so-called pure laine, or “pure wool,” Québécois, an extant segment of the population who believe in a distinct French-Canadian ethnicity. Anti-Semitism “was always much higher in Quebec than in the rest of Canada, two or three times as high,” said Irving Abella, a historian of Canadian Jewry at Toronto’s York University and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995.

Francophone nationalism was tied up with Catholic values, and Jewish immigrants were seen as conniving entrepreneurs, social deviants, and Christ-killers, their non-Catholicism a toxic threat to the French Canadian body politic. In her controversial 1994 book The Traitor and the Jew, French Canadian historian Esther Delisle attributed much of the roiling hostility to the chief architect of Quebec nationalism, a Catholic priest named Lionel Groulx who wrote passionate condemnations of Jews throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. “In the rest of Canada there was no major institution behind anti-Semitism,” Abella said. “In Quebec, the Church was a mouthpiece.”

Yet Montreal’s Jews prospered, aligning themselves with the economically prosperous Anglophone community—a move that bred further mistrust among French Canadians who saw their language and culture increasingly marginalized in a majority Francophone province. (Protestant Anglophones also played a part in the discrimination of the first half of the 20th century; English-speaking McGill University, Quebec’s leading academic institution, kept a quota on Jewish students through the 1940s.) As church influence began to recede in the early 1960s, nationalist ideology became grounded in protecting French Canadians’ peculiar cultural and historical identity under the flag of the PQ, which was formed in 1968 by René Lévesque, a former war reporter.

The separatist movement was never formally anti-Semitic. Indeed, Lévesque looked to Zionism as a model for Quebec nationalism. But the sentiment was ingrained among the rural rank-and-file partisans of the PQ. “It’s hard to get rid of so many years of teaching,” said Abella. In 1973, one Francophone union leader reportedly told the Federation of Canadian Arab Societies: “The Jewish population of Quebec enjoys more privileges than any other minority in the world. We don’t want them to poison the air of this country any further.” To some nationalists, Anglophones—Jews among them—were outsiders, deserving of minority status, or worse. The day before the PQ was first elected in 1976, the Montreal-born philanthropist Charles Bronfman was quoted calling party members “a bunch of bastards who are trying to kill us.”

Over the next 25 years, the center of Canadian Jewish life shifted to Toronto, in neighboring Ontario. But the outflow from Montreal abated after 1995, when the last PQ-led referendum on separating from Canada lost by a razor-thin margin of 1.46 percent. In the rousing concession speech that followed, the PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the narrow deficit on “money and the ethnic vote,” which was widely interpreted to mean Quebec’s Jews. The Francophone establishment summarily condemned the remark, and Parizeau, who was rumored to be drunk during the speech, resigned the next day.

Montreal eventually began to attract even those who had left. Henri Hadida, a 58-year-old photographer at the vernissage, moved with his English-speaking Ashkenazi wife and their two young children 125 miles west to Ottawa, Ontario, in 1991. “All of a sudden, here’s a political movement that’s going to threaten my way of living,” Hadida told me. “It was very reminiscent of what happened in Germany after the war.” But Hadida returned to Montreal in 2006, once his children had grown, lured by the tacit understanding between the city’s Jews and Francophone nationalists—a peace that has now been violated. “What’s occurred with the charter debate,” Luciano Del Negro, CIJA’s vice president for Quebec, told me, “is that this understanding was broken and the community felt it was coming under assault.”

So, the city’s Jews are fighting back. The city’s Jewish General Hospital has said it would flat out defy the charter without seeking an exemption, and community organizations, like the Federation CJA, have been unified in their condemnations of the law. Last month, someone vandalized posters outside the PQ’s offices in Longeuil north of Montreal with swastikas and the words “Don’t touch my kippah” and “Drainville out”—a reference to Bernard Drainville, the minister for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship who drafted the charter.

Zev Moses explained to me that the Jewish community, less insular than it was even two decades ago, has shed its protectionist, “circle-the-wagons” mentality. Having grown up under Bill 101, younger Anglophone Jews are more attuned to French language and Francophone culture. And French-speaking Sephardi Jews, who first arrived in droves from the Muslim world following Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, now comprise nearly a quarter of the community. While numbers are imprecise, hundreds of Jews—fleeing another brand of secular anti-Semitism—are believed to have emigrated from France in recent years.

When I met with Moses he rattled off a list of renewal programs that have cropped up in the last five years, from The Wandering Chew, a pop-up supper club that hosts ethnic Jewish theme nights, to Le Mood, a French riff on the Jewish learning conference Limmud. Last month, Moses said, more than 2,000 people attended a pop-up exhibit for his museum. Jewish life is undergoing a “mini-cultural renaissance,” he said, and won’t easily be unsettled.

***

The morning after the Cégep exhibition I met Tamara Kramer, the 37-year-old editor of an “alternative” online Jewish magazine called Shtetl, at a café in Mile End, blocks from Wilensky’s and the St-Viateur bagel shop, both longstanding pillars of Montreal’s Jewish food scene. Young, secular Jews have flooded back into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and a Hasidic population encroaches from adjacent Outremont. A friend of mine who lives in the Mile End, but grew up in the heavily Jewish suburb of Côte Saint-Luc, recently recalled her grandmother’s joking disapproval of moving back into an area from which her husband worked so hard to escape.

Kramer, who was in high school during the 1995 referendum, acknowledges that Anglophones—Jews among them—could ultimately respond to a PQ resurgence with their feet. But the likelihood of that happening, in her opinion, is low. Recent polls show that fewer than 40 percent of Québécois say they would vote “yes” in a referendum, and Marois has steadfastly tried to keep the issue far from the campaign trail. “It’s less dark,” Kramer said, comparing this election to the mid-1990s. And the charter, she argues, while a huge and potentially decisive wedge issue, is more provocative than practical. “It feels like theater,” she said, “like: Here [the PQ] goes, trying to get a rise out of us again.”

***

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Facing a New Wave of French Canadian Nationalism, Quebec’s Jews Stand Their Ground

Rather than follow previous generations to Ontario, Montreal’s young Jews are saying ‘non’ to the Parti Québécois