SOME OF MY FAVOURITE conversations have been with André, an avant-garde composer who happens to be my Francophone brother-in-law. We’ve developed a bilingual system in which he speaks English and I do my best in French; at Hanukah dinners chez moi and Christmas dinners chez lui, we stumble drunkenly through the other’s language. These discussions have taught me something about communicating across barriers: dialogue is not just about vocabulary; it requires body movements and facial expressions. And more than anything else, it requires generosity. You ignore the grammatical mistakes, the mispronunciations, and instead listen to the heart of what the other is saying. Our system worked for a decade—until we got into Quebec politics.
One summer night we were all sitting around for a family dinner. It was 2013, and we were discussing the latest news: turban-gate, when the Quebec Soccer Federation decided to ban the religious headwear on the fields. My in-laws, liberal Anglophones from Quebec and Ontario, were opposed to the ban. But André, the sole Francophone, thought it was worth considering. Things got heated, the word “racist” came up, and André decided to leave. On his way out the door, he looked pointedly at me as he suggested that “Anglo-intellectuals” have a cultural bias against the Francophone minority. He said it as if I were a descendant of the British who fought on the Plains of Abraham rather than a neurotic remnant of the Biblical Abraham.
The accusation left me unsettled. After all, I grew up in Vancouver hearing about how Jews like myself were victims of prejudice in la belle province, not perpetrators. Spending summers as a kid at my aunt and uncle’s cottage in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts—a town filled with a history of anti-Semitism—my father would tell stories of being harassed and bullied while growing up Jewish in Montreal. My uncle would talk of being thrown in jail for entering a hotel with a sign that read “No Jews or dogs.”
My personal experience with Quebec’s legendary racial tension was limited to just that: family legend. When I moved to Montreal thirteen years ago, the city felt welcoming. Strangers embraced my mis-conjugated French and I enjoyed being surrounded by Jewish history. One of my first apartments in Mile End was right across the street from Mordecai Richler’s old walk-up on St. Urbain. Across St. Laurent was the historic Schmatta district, once centre of the Jewish textile business. And on our way to his daycare, my son and I walk by buildings that used to house synagogues and socialist Jewish organizations.
But in the months following my argument with André, conflicts about religion and identity started popping up everywhere. The Parti Québécois (PQ) turned our family fight into a city-wide argument by proposing the Charte des valeurs québécoises, legislation that would ban religious attire at jobs in the public sector. And just a block away from my cozy Mile End, in the bougie Francophone borough of Outremont, tensions erupted yet again between the Hasidic Orthodox Jews who have built a strong community in the area and a group of other residents. There were complaints that buses carrying Hasidic kids for the holiday of Purim were slowing down traffic, there were fights about Hasidic congregations applying to extend synagogues and some residents lobbied to disallow the Hasids from holding a parade to celebrate the arrival of a grand rabbi from New York. (This in Montreal: the city of parades, marches, picnics and protests.)
Watching the Hasids get bullied out of public space, I wondered if the legendary Quebec anti-Semitism was alive and well. But André’s suggestion that Anglos are biased against Francophones echoed in my head. I started to question whether I was seeing things from the perspective of the Jewish minority or the Anglo-Canadian majority. Does Quebec have a more contentious relationship with its Jewish residents than the rest of Canada, or are the accusations that anti-Semitism is worse in the province just another way to disparage Francophone Quebec culture?
I SIT WITH MY DAD AND AUNT in my living room, discussing their childhood stories about the mean streets of Montreal. We start with my Uncle Sonny’s infamous run in with the police. My aunt rolls her eyes. “Oh, your uncle was looking for trouble.” A teenager then, Sonny and his friends were offended by the “No Jews or Dogs” sign in the hotel window, so they went in. “They were told to leave and they wouldn’t. They started smashing things up, so the cops were called,” my aunt says.
My dad talks about the neighbourhoods where a Jew had to be careful, such as on St. Joseph, where he went to Talmud Torah—two blocks away from my current home. At a corner store on Park Avenue, after coming out of school wearing a kippah, he would hear comments. “Mostly ‘maudit juif,’ nothing sophisticated. Just ignorant yahoos who were unhappy with their own lives, and we were chubby well-off Jewish kids,” he says. In high school, my dad would drive up to Saint-Agathe-des-Monts with his buddies to go to bars. “There was always conflict with the French-Canadian kids. But it’s hard to know if English guys would have had the same problem,” he says. In those days, English-French tensions were enough to cause issues between groups—especially if the Anglophones looked rich, he adds. But, he continues, “the moment they sensed we were Jews, that’s when the epithets would come out.”
The pizzeria in the Montreal neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges was another story. “Those were English guys, and it definitely had to do with us being Jewish,” he says. “Three of us were minding our own business, eating a pizza, and they started making comments: ‘Dirty Jews,’ ‘Jewish assholes,’ ‘Jewish pricks,’ that type of thing.” The Anglos also made aggressive sexual comments and mocked the nose of the girl in the group.
Listening to these stories, I could feel some of my family myths starting to unravel. It turns out that Anglophones were just as bad as Francophones—at least when it came to teenage boys trying to look tough back then. And when it comes to the relationships between adults, my aunt pipes in with a story about my grandfather, an immigrant who started as a peddler and worked his way up into the business world of Montreal. “Your zaida spoke French before he spoke English, and he always said he’d rather do business with the French than the English. ‘If they don’t like you, they’ll say it to your face. With the British—you’ll never see it coming.’”
My zaida understood something about the difference between Anglophone and Francophone culture that remains relevant today: in Quebec, people don’t shy away from words. In January 2015, La Presse, one of the province’s largest newspapers, ran a front-page story on internet loan sharks titled “Les Nouveaux Shylocks.” Named after the vilified Jewish money-lender in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the term recalls Europe’s demonization of Jews and their association with money. Jewish advocates were outraged, but the paper did not apologize. On CBC Radio One, caller after caller defended the word choice, denying the claim that the word is anti-Semitic. Others pointed out that this would only happen in Quebec.
IN ADDITION to being a regular on CBC Radio’s Wiretap, Howard Chackowicz is a self-declared expert on Jewish hatred, collecting vintage anti-Semitic literature that would make Mel Gibson blush. Chackowicz has heard many joual slurs, and he was fired from a taxi company when a Francophone boss found out he was Jewish. Howard shows me a book by Karl Marx translated as A World without Jews and a collection called Kike! that promises “marvellous murderous comedy” by compiling decades of American anti-Semitism. But the jewel of his collection is La Réponse de la Race. “Quels sont les plus grands ennemis du Christ? Lucifer et les Juifs,” one section proclaims.
La Réponse is published under the pseudonym Lambert Closse, but Chackowicz says it was reportedly written by Lionel Groulx, a Roman Catholic priest who was one of the founders of Quebec nationalism—he even has a Montreal metro station named after him. Authorship of La Réponse was debated in the early 1990s, when Francophone scholar Esther Delisle wrote a doctoral thesis—later turned into a book—which claimed that Groulx had penned the anti-Semitic tract. Delisle’s central argument was that anti-Semitism was an essential component in developing Quebec nationalism at the time. Quebec scholars contested Delisle’s research—specifically her claim about Groulx.
This debate took place during the lead-up to the 1995 sovereignty referendum, when Anglo-Franco tensions were high. Into this cauldron of uncharacteristically Canadian animosity, Mordecai Richler tossed a Molotov cocktail: Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, a book drawing on Delisle’s research. “From the beginning, French-Canadian nationalism has been badly tainted by racism,” he wrote. “The patron saint of the indépendantistes, the Abbé Lionel Groulx, was not only a virulent anti-Semite, but also a nascent fascist.” The book ridiculed the French as backward and provincial, and became a bestseller throughout Canada. In Richler’s satirical tone, the voice of the Jewish minority was absorbed into the voice of the Anglo majority. The history of anti-Semitism in Quebec became a pawn in the battle between Anglo-federalists and Franco-sovereigntists. After losing the 1995 referendum, then-Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote”—a comment that some think was directed at the Jews and other minorities.
In Je me souviens, a documentary about the province’s anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies through the 1930s and forties, Quebec Jewish filmmaker Eric Scott supports Delisle’s argument that anti-Semitism was imported from France’s Catholic-Monarchist right by the Church; the same organization that educated the population. Then, through figures such as Lionel Groulx, this prejudice made its way into nationalist groups such as L’Action Nationale. “We were [considered] the bearers of an infection that would infect the French-Canadian people with Hollywood, socialism, Marxism, pornography,” says Scott. But this form of anti-Semitism did not play out violently in the streets, as was the case in Europe. “Anti-Semitism in Quebec was a function of the chattering classes, the elite, the political classes,” he says. Scott did not have to look far for examples: Sam Rabinovich, a close friend of his uncle, was the first Jew to be hired as an intern at the Hôpital Notre-Dame. Rather than work with a Jew, French hospital staff across the city walked out on strike. In response, a group including Scott’s grandfather founded the Jewish General Hospital.
But far from being the product of a particular time, Scott says that Quebec anti-Semitism survived the Quiet Revolution, after the province cast off the shackles of the Catholic Church. He points to matzah-gate, when, in 1996, Quebec language police confiscated the ritual food (due to its English packaging) just two weeks before Passover—the holiday when Jews around the world commemorate being persecuted strangers in a strange land.
Morton Weinfeld, chair of Canadian ethnic studies at McGill University, says that Quebec did see higher levels of anti-Semitism than the rest of the country in previous decades, as shown in surveys of Canadian attitudes toward Jews from 1984 and 1993. But, he says, “on a day to day level, the Jews of Quebec have had a rich cultural life.”
Weinfeld points out that the key problem is one of social distance—the so-called third solitude. “There hasn’t been an integration into Quebec—socially, politically, culturally—in a way that there has been in Toronto or New York,” Weinfeld explains. “In the post-war period, Ontario has had three Jewish leaders of the major political parties. Quebec hasn’t had one. Toronto elected three Jewish mayors. Montreal hasn’t elected one.”
When I ask Scott what kinds of anti-Semitism he has personally experienced. He stops and thinks silently for a moment. “None.”
ATTITUDINAL anti-Semitism is a matter of opinion: what people think and say. Outremont is a sort of ground-zero for Jewish-Franco tension, but one local resident (and Hasid) says that the situation has been bearable. “We feel that we are more or less respected here, living as visible religious Jews going around with long peyos ... physically, we were never threatened.” Sure, someone will occasionally drive by and yell “fuck Jews,” but he points out that this also happened when he lived in Brooklyn. So, I ask, is Outremont anti-Semitic? “I’ve been thinking about it for years already,” he says. “In general, the Outremont bourgeois are educated and open-minded and quite tolerant. There are a few people who are bitter, and they bring out their bitterness, they release it on us.”
Local resident Leila Marshy formed the Friends of Hutchison, named after a street in the area, to open up a dialogue between the Hasidic residents and those who are objecting to their ways of life. “I personally find the term anti-Semitic a conversation stopper—and a thinking stopper,” she says. So what is this resistance to Hasidic Jews, if not anti-Semitism? “If the Hasidim were Haitian, and were too Haitian in a particular way, they would hate that too,” she explains. “Some people are anti-everything if it threatens their sense of self.”
UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA history professor Pierre Anctil says that there is only one way to get a clear picture of whether or not Quebec is more anti-Semitic than the rest of Canada: “Don’t listen to anyone,” he says. “You have to go into the archives, you have to read for yourself.” Anctil has spent thirty-five years researching the Jewish experience in Quebec, and he says that the evidence for the argument that anti-Semitism was more significant in the province simply isn’t there. But that’s not the story that is told, he says. “It’s part of the Anglo assumption that the French are always worse.”
Anctil says that rather than Francophones being more bigoted, their forms of discrimination were simply different that the rest of Canada. “On the British Protestant side, it was racism, it was social Darwinism, less religion and more political,” Anctil says. “In British environments these things were not spelled out or addressed. In French environments it was the opposite—it was discussed. This makes a difference.” Digging in the McGill archives, Anctil found examples of how the English university treated the Jews. “It was perceived that Jews were out of their place, that they were too aggressive, that they had chutzpah to think that they would be hired by banks, become lawyers, that they would influence this city,” Anctil says. McGill erected social barriers in the 1920s through quotas (which would not be lifted until shortly after World War II). Ira Allan Mackay, then-dean of arts at McGill, said of the Jews, “As a race of men their traditions and practices do not fit in with a high civilization in a very new country.” On the other side of Mont Royal, the francophone Université de Montréal never had any quota. Outside the province in Toronto, as the number of Jewish applicants rose, the University of Toronto medical school limited the “Hebrew problem” by requiring higher marks of Jews.
When Anglophones accuse Francophone Quebecers of bigotry or anti-Semitism, they run the risk of forgetting how discrimination functions in Anglo-Protestant culture. Harold Troper is a professor at the University of Toronto, and one of the co-authors of None is Too Many—an essential book on the history of anti-Semitism in Canada. He points out that throughout much of Quebec’s history, the Scots and Brits were running things—Francophones and immigrants including the Jews were in competition for work in low-profit industries such as the textile trade. But Ontario has always had a different relationship to immigration. Troper explains that the urban Anglo elite had been sold on the idea that immigrant labour would prop them up. Immigrants were welcome to work—in a lower social position. “The Jews were objectionable because they defied the intent of Canadian immigration policy and settled in the cities,” he says. Once there, they became educated, and aimed to be doctors and professors—jobs that the Anglo upper class wanted for themselves. The Protestants didn’t demonize; they enforced a hierarchy designed to keep immigrants at the bottom.
According to Yasmin Jiwani, a professor at Concordia University who researches representations of race and gender in Canadian media, “British forms of racism are very class-based. Elite classes are not going to throw things at you, they are going to tell you very politely the job is taken, the apartment is taken. They are going to communicate a relation of superiority in different ways,” she explains.
If historical anti-Jewish attitudes—like anti-immigrant attitudes today—manifest in different ways in English Canada and Francophone Quebec, does this explain why Francophones are perceived to be somehow “extra” anti-Semitic? When I pose this question to Ira Robinson, professor of Judaic studies at Concordia University, he tells me the tale of two synagogues.
In 1944, a brand new synagogue opened in Quebec City. It had taken three years to secure the building permit due to the vocal opposition of local residents who successfully lobbied to prohibit the Jewish community from finding a spot among the Catholic parishes. On the eve of its opening, the synagogue was torched. The story made headlines in Canada and around the world. Then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King rose in Parliament to lament the Quebec City attack. During this same time period, there was a similar arson attack on a synagogue in Toronto. But this attack did not receive the same reaction: King and the rest of English Canada said nothing.
So why did the Quebec incident make international headlines, while the Toronto arson was ignored? “The issue was part of a very public discourse—there were anti-synagogue demonstrations in Quebec City. In Ontario, there was no municipal campaign, there was no public discourse. Some anti-Semite went and torched the place,” Robinson explains. “The result is the same, but the public nature of the discourse is different.” As my zaida knew, Francophones will say things that Anglophones won’t—but this doesn’t mean the English are morally superior.
HAROLD TROPER ARGUES that anti-Semitism in Quebec was different than in Ontario, in part, due to the structure of nationalism. “French nationalism was, from the beginning, based on the identity of the French,” he says. Is it possible to be nationalist and inclusive at the same time? “Mit eyn tokhes ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes,” Troper says in Yiddish: with one ass you can’t dance at two weddings.
PQ founder René Lévesque tried to promote Quebec national identity and cultural inclusiveness—particularly with Quebec Jews. As a news correspondent with the United States army during the Second World War, Lévesque witnessed the Dachau concentration camp—an experience that stuck with him and ultimately drove him to try to clean anti-Semitism out of Quebec nationalism. He wrote for magazines, television and radio to denounce bigotry against Jews in both elite and popular forums, even going so far as to call anti-semitism a mental disease. Lévesque maintained close contact with the Jewish community throughout the 1960s—visiting synagogues, and meeting with the Canadian Jewish Congress—in order to welcome them into the nationalist project.
Rabbi Langner was at Beth El synagogue when Lévesque visited in the sixties. “He made a comparison between Quebec and Israel. He said Israel was surrounded by enemies, but Israel manages to survive. That Quebec, even though it is surrounded by the English speaking world, he felt that Quebec would survive as a French country.”
Jean-François Beaudet is a Université du Québec à Montréal-affiliated academic whose thesis research looks into Lévesque’s dialogue with the Jewish community. Beaudet says Lévesque recognized that French sovereignty required acting like a majority rather than a minority.
Sadly, he notes, the fragile dialogue with Jews and other minorities did not continue after Lévesque left the PQ in 1985.
“LES QUÉBÉCOIS FRANCOPHONES, ils ne sont pas racistes ... they carry, from generation to generation, an insecurity with regards to this territory wherein they have never taken their place for granted,” André says. “They’re worried.” A year-and-a-half after our argument, André and I are sitting in his living room, sipping bottles of Belle Guelle and cautiously treading back into our turban-gate debate. He looks me in the eyes: “Listen—maybe fifty years from now, French will be disappearing from Quebec. What will be left of Quebecois identity if the language disappears? Dans le contexte sociopolitique actuel, cette identité est extrêmement fragile.” As André speaks, I see that beneath the defensive exterior of Quebec nationalism lies a real uncertainty about what Quebec is, and what will become of it. “What is our present? Who are we? In every generation we have to ask this question,” he says.
At first I can’t help but feel defensive; it’s as if we’re competing for minority status. But it strikes me that beneath the neuroses, the Jewish Diaspora may be more confident in their future than Francophone Quebecers. Jews have ridden the waves of assimilation, transformation and continuity many times. We’ve switched countries, changed languages, been persecuted by different nations and survived to joke about it.
The ghost of anti-Semitism is a strange and powerful thing. A history of oppression can make you more empathetic, or more oblivious to the predicaments of other groups. If Jews and Francophone Quebecers have something in common today, it’s that both groups oscillate between being minorities concerned for our survival and majorities who exercise our privilege.
Montreal is divided by languages, cultures and histories, but the most concrete division is between power and vulnerability. Forget the myth of the two solitudes; forget the history of the third solitude. Generous communication is possible, but only if we embrace and respect fragility—both our own, and that of others.