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Accommodating Bedfellows: Montreal’s Jewish Community and Quebec’s Intellectual Elite

By
Ph.D., Université de Montréal, Editor, Tolerance.ca®

Victor Teboul at UQAM's Symposium, May 2018.

Photo by Gunther Gamper.


Montreal Jews rely on non-Jewish academics, writers and filmmakers to present and even explain, in French, Jewish realities to the Quebecois public and within Francophone academia. The considerable number of publications on Jewish themes, both in fiction and non-fiction, written in French by non-Jews is certainly unequaled in the Francophone world and most likely in the West, contends writer Victor Teboul. But do these works encourage or dissuade critical assessment of Quebec and of Quebec–Jewish relations, asks Tolerance.ca’s editor, whose most recent book also questions Quebecois identity.

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Invited to speak on my latest essay, Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust. Réflexion sur l’identité québécoise [1], at a recent symposium organized by the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) [2], I received quite a cool reception on the part of the academics who participated in my panel. The seminar was to examine the role of ‘the Other’ in Quebec’s society, the idea of ‘otherness’ being at the center of most analyses which examine how majority and minority identities are constructed and how majorities and minorities interact.

Judging from the reaction to my presentation, many Francophone academics still have trouble with perspectives on Quebec’s history which do not originate from within their own circles. In Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust, I dared to raise several issues concerning our sense of belonging to a Francophone Quebec. As was made clear to me during this symposium, Quebec’s history is a well-guarded sphere under the watchful eye of Francophone intellectuals and writers who have appointed themselves the guardians of this province’s memory. And questioning this exclusive view causes discomfort, especially when it is also examined in the context of Quebecois Jewish relations. Indeed, intense emotions are triggered when one tackles the sensitive issue of Montreal’s Jews and their present relationship with Quebec’s elites.

Although I was aware of these sensibilities, I was taken aback by the influential forces who share these views and who shut down dissenters who seek to discuss these issues openly. Such censorship, as I cannot find a more suitable word, should in our democracy raise serious concerns if not alarm.

First, a disclosure: My essay, Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust. Réflexion sur l’identité québécoise, was self-published, following tiring and unsuccessful attempts to find a commercial or academic publisher.

I hope the following reflections on my experience will contribute to encouraging self-examination among both Jews and Francophone Quebecers.

Two major themes that I examine in detail in the book are, the place of the Anglophone Jewish community in today’s Quebec, and the defining/decisive but neglected role that memory plays in defining our identities.

Self-examination still taboo among Quebecois academics

The cold reception of my presentation at UQAM’s May 2018 Symposium reminded me of the reactions to my first book, Mythe et Images du Juif au Québec [3], which brought to light negative stereotypes of the Jew in Quebec’s major literary works. Although it had first appeared in a condensed version in an academic journal, it was later rejected by a number of publishing houses when I developed the subject at length and presented it to various publishers. When it finally came out in book form, it caused a stir among Quebec’s elite. Available today in major libraries in Quebec and throughout the world, it continues to be discussed in serious studies both in and outside of Quebec, even though certain well-known Quebecois historians continue to be disturbed by its findings and conveniently ignore its existence.

I wanted to demonstrate in that first essay that anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish stereotypes were much more prevalent in widely-read novels, history books and in the media than the local literati were willing to accept. But Quebec intellectuals, I discovered, were hypersensitive when it was shown to them that their crowd was not immune to anti-‘other’ prejudices, despite their claims to be in the vanguard of the fight against injustice and discrimination. I am still amazed that Francophone Jewish authors who, for years, were part of these literary circles did not dare to question these double standards.

As I point out in my new essay Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust, nationalist icons continue to be venerated today despite their controversial remarks on Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. And bringing that up continues to create discomfort vis-à-vis my writings.

Admittedly, some academics have finally recognized the anti-Semitic currents that have prevailed in the past, but they do so hesitantly. Pierre Anctil, for example, exerts excessive caution in discussing this issue in his recent Histoire des Juifs du Québec (Boréal, 2017).

My 1977 essay also had an impact on the Jewish community of Montreal. Several years after its publication I was appointed Regional Director of the Canada-Israel Committee, a forerunner of today’s Israel lobby group, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). I became ‘Our Man in Quebec’ on the exact date René Lévesque’s government was re-elected in April, 1981! From my new vantage-point at the helm of a Jewish organization, I was able to have a front-row view of the sensitivities which governed relations between the Jewish community and the Quebec nationalist movement, especially during the tensions that arose between the Levesque government and the Jewish community over Israel’s war in Lebanon in June 1982.

Why are Jews so different in Quebec?

It has always struck me, since my arrival in this province in the 1960s, that the Jewish minority here is different from the Jews that I have known in Egypt, Lebanon, France and the United States. In most of the other societies in which they have become full-fledged members, Jews have not only adopted the language of the majority, but also its culture and idiomatic expressions; in some cases, they have even introduced Yiddish words into the vocabulary of the host country. In Western societies, they have also become prominent in the realms of literature, cinema, drama, show business, and the cultural world of their adopted homelands.

Why isn’t that true also in Quebec, even for Jews who are Francophones? Any Francophone visiting here from a foreign country will notice this remarkable difference between the Jews and Quebec’s majority society, but it seems taboo to try to examine the reasons behind this reality.

As we well know, Jews have been influential and active in many of Quebec’s social, economic and professional sectors, but unlike their involvement in other societies, they have not fully identified with the battles the Quebecois have engaged in. They have not, for instance, fought for the French language nor for other social issues, such as labour causes, although in the past, as I point out in my latest essay, several Jews did get involved in defending the labour movement. It is not a surprise therefore that the vast majority in the Jewish community today perceives the secular movement (“la laïcité”), with which a majority of Quebecers identify, as excluding other groups or as being racist, as some very vocal and high profile Jews have declared. In fact, Francophone Quebecers voted solidly, in the October 2018 provincial election, to elect a government led by a party (Coalition Avenir  Québec) which is unequivocally secular.

The situation that tends to differentiate Quebec Jews from the rest of the population is a direct consequence of Jewish history in the province, one that moreover applies to the majority of the ethnic groups who arrived in Quebec prior to the adoption of the French Language Charter in 1977, which requires the children of immigrants to attend Francophone schools. Established in Quebec for over two centuries, Jews had to attend Protestant schools, while French-language institutions were reserved for Catholics, as the school system was structured on a denominational basis until 2000.

This specific situation inherited from the past has accentuated the Anglicization of the Jewish community and increases the distance that separates it from the Quebecois majority. Furthermore, as I’ll explain below, the tendency to have ‘official’ spokespeople express concerns on behalf of all Quebec’s Jews reinforces a standardized perception of the Jewish community, to the detriment of individualized perspectives.

A revealing comparison: the role of Muslims in today’s Quebec

It is interesting to compare the uniformity of views which prevail in relation to Quebec’s Jews with those of Muslims and in particular Muslim women, when the latter join in the discussions concerning religious symbols. Whether or not they favour wearing the veil, Muslim women express themselves in an impeccable French and as individuals, not as representatives of a community. Moreover, they support their arguments and points of view by referring to events and legislative acts which constitute milestones in Quebec’s collective consciousness and have shaped modern Quebec, thereby displaying their knowledge of the Francophones’ recent past and, by the same token, their own successful integration into Quebec society.

The former Quebec Solidaire MNA, Amir Khadir, whose pro-Palestinian stance did not obviously draw sympathy from the Jewish establishment, was nevertheless quite popular not only within left-wing circles, but also among Quebec’s highbrows, because he adopted Quebec’s culture: he could proudly and quite naturally quote verses from Quebecois poets such as Gaston Miron and Gérald Godin in his speeches. Being knowledgeable in French is therefore not a sufficient criterion to claim being part of Quebec society: one must also master present-day cultural and linguistic codes in order to be in sync with modern Quebec. A recent academic study compares the curricula of a Jewish and a Muslim school and reveals the outdated French terms used by the Jewish pupils to define Quebecers, which even the newly-arrived Muslim students never use[4].

The appearance of a Sephardic – and hence Francophone - rabbi on the popular television program Tout le monde en parle also provides a striking example of the poor knowledge of Quebecois culture in the Jewish community.  After speaking about Hassidic customs and on the school of which he is the principal, the rabbi was asked to name just one Quebecois author. The answer that ensued was a resounding and embarrassing silence that hung upon the audience and filled the screen.

True, one or two Jewish personalities are today the hosts of popular French-language TV programs and a few Francophone Jewish writers and intellectuals, whose works have been duly recognized by Quebec’s élite, are indeed part of the cultural scene. But this does not alter the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community does not identify with Quebecois mainstream culture.

In contrast, most members of the Muslim community, who arrived in the last twenty years from former French colonies, have quite rapidly absorbed Quebecois culture. They participate actively in the political and public spheres as newly elected MNAs or as columnists in widely-read newspapers. Their articles do not focus on issues related to the Middle East or the Palestinian cause; rather, they discuss everyday Quebecois topics, demonstrating the diversity of their interests.

Unlike the active, positive and variegated participation of Quebec’s Muslims, the Jewish community, despite its centuries-old presence in Quebec, depends mainly on its official communal organizations or on non-Jewish columnists to relay its concerns to its Quebecois fellow-citizens.

The Accommodating Role of Non-Jewish Intermediaries

On an academic and artistic level, this situation has resulted in the Jewish community’s reliance on non-Jewish academics, writers and even filmmakers to present and even explain, in French, Jewish realities to the Quebecois public and within Francophone academia. The considerable number of publications on Jewish themes, both in fiction and non-fiction, written in French by non-Jews is certainly unequaled in the Francophone world and most likely in the West. Although such an interest in things Jewish by non-Jewish Francophones should be viewed favourably, it should also invite us to examine the ideological perspectives which are put forth in these works. Do they encourage or dissuade critical assessment of Quebec and of Quebec–Jewish relations?

Whenever I point out this trend whereby non-Jewish authors have become experts on Jewish history, some Quebecois historians become irritated. They become even more irritated when I also bring to light that this province’s history, as treated in French-language academic publications, is itself a well-guarded and almost exclusive reserve of old-stock Quebecois specialists. This stands in striking contrast to Western societies, where scholars of all origins explore the history of their country. My views will be even more aggravating to the intellectual elite when I also stress that most of these recognized specialists espouse a narrowly nationalistic approach to Quebec’s past.

The closely knit and well-guarded approach to Quebec’s history is not without its impact on the study of Quebec-Jewish relations. It should come as no surprise that Denis Vaugeois, a former Minister of Culture in René Lévesque’s government, has also authored several works on Jewish history in Quebec and is the publisher of major works on this province’s past. He has also published Pierre Anctil’s translated works from Yiddish. In his writings, Denis Vaugeois denies the fact that the Catholic school commissions refused to admit Jewish pupils, and supports the view that it was the Jewish community that preferred to associate itself with the powerful English establishment.

The role non-Jewish Quebecois have assumed in explaining Jewish realities to the Francophone public is also an illustration that, with a few exceptions, Jewish personalities are generally absent among Quebec’s French-language intellectual elite.

The singular position of Jewish leaders, who do not completely master the French language or Quebec’s cultural codes, has created a rather unusual phenomenon. Contrary to what happens in other societies where Jews regularly address the media and offer remarks not limited to Jewish subjects, in Quebec it is often non-Jewish intermediaries who are relaying the Jewish establishment’s concerns to the wider public through the media and in universities. This is indeed quite surprising as Jews would normally be in the forefront as writers and historians of their own history in a given society.

Although some Jewish experts have indeed published works in French on the Sephardim or the Hassidic experience in Quebec, extremely few Francophone Jewish historians examine Quebec’s past.

While Quebecers’ interest in Jewish subjects is to their credit and Pierre Anctil’s work deserves admiration, the fact remains that his approach enjoys a monopoly on the Francophone scene over Jewish themes. Often he cites his own close collaborators in his books, as in his latest work where he repeatedly references his spouse, Chantal Ringuet, and valorizes her comments. It is certainly not a coincidence that Ringuet also reviews essays in one of the major periodicals on Quebec literature, Les Lettres Quebecoises.

Moreover, the approach favoured by works such as Anctil’s, which are aimed first and foremost at Francophone readers, stresses the contributions of Jews to Quebec society at the expense of examining the tensions which have existed between Jews and Quebecois. This approach, also favoured by the Jewish establishment when dealing with the general public, thereby contributes to minimizing strained moments that have occurred between Jews and the Francophone majority. It also does not bring into view the involvement of Jews and Francophone non-Jews who joined forces to combat injustice and anti-Semitism in this province, men and women such as Olivar Asselin, Éva Circé-Côté or Jean-Charles Harvey [5].

This desire to dwell on all Jewish contributions to Quebec society seems to correspond to a need, felt implicitly by the Jewish community, to carefully avoid unpleasant realities or currents of thought that were and are present in Quebec’s history. In this way, Jewish community leaders reciprocate by accommodating rather than challenging the sensitivities of the Francophone elite.

 

Remembering Quebecers who fought against discrimination

Furthermore, little is known in the Jewish community about Olivar Asselin, who  fought against anti-Semitism in this province by denouncing in several editorials, on the front page of his newspaper L’Ordre, the French-Canadian interns who called a strike at Notre Dame Hospital to demand the resignation of Samuel Rabinovitch, a Jewish doctor who had been hired by the administration. The strike spread to other Catholic hospitals and Rabinovitch had to resign.  It took place in the troubled 1930s, in June 1934 to be precise. I have always admired Rabinovitch’s courage to dare introduce himself to a Catholic hospital during a period in which being Jewish was not – even in the Anglo-Saxon world – very favorably looked upon.

I refer in my book to a brief telephone conversation I have had with Samuel Rabinovitch as I attempted to learn more about his traumatizing experience. He was then in his 90s and was still practising medicine in Montreal. I subsequently immersed myself in the various documents related to the strike that are held at the Canadian Jewish Archives. Among other findings, I discovered more about Olivar Asselin, who insisted, in one of his letters, on obtaining from the hospital’s administration the names of the strike’s instigators. The Editor of L’Ordre was anti-clerical but he was also known for being sympathetic to Jews, which earned him threats. In one of his letters which is dated prior to the strike, he asked permission from the police department to carry a weapon [6].

Little is known in the public at large about Olivar Asselin, or about Jean-Charles Harvey, both of whom fought against racism. As a Jewish Francophone Quebecois, I create some discomfort among intellectuals whenever I stress the fact that, rather than idolizing figures who in the past were anti-Semitic and xenophobic, we should recognize in public spaces those Quebecers who fought for our liberties and against discrimination, even if they were not nationalists. I feel such figures deserve to be remembered in a pluralistic society. They should have main arteries and Metro stations named after them in Montreal, and streets should bear their names in Jewish suburbs.

Why such discomfort? I believe that today’s intellectuals have not really settled their accounts with their past. If they had really confronted the embarrassing anti-Semitic and xenophobic currents which were present in the Quebec nationalist movement before the 1960s and 1970s, they would not accept that a major Montreal Metro station and other institutions would be named after nationalist idols such as Lionel Groulx, whose anti-Semitic and racist remarks are still downplayed if not denied by most Quebec historians.

Ironic as it might be, a sculpture celebrating tolerance greets the thousands of passengers who pass through the turnstiles of the Lionel-Groulx Metro station every day, likely without even noticing. One is forced to wonder: If Montrealers were aware really of Groulx’s comments on immigration and on Jews, would they tolerate a central Metro station and an avenue being named after him? Do the names of such public spaces honour Montreal’s diversity? And does idolizing such icons contribute to identifying with Quebec’s culture? If this province’s elite is seriously interested in having Quebecers of other origins adopt Quebecois identity, they need to revisit their past and reconsider some of the figures their historians idolize. 

In this regard, it is interesting to note that in his Histoire des Juifs du Québec, Pierre Anctil reappraises the black sheep of Quebec letters, the Anglo-Jewish novelist and essayist Mordecai Richler. We will recall that Richler’s New Yorker article mocking Quebec’s narrow parochialism and exposing some of its anti-Semitic icons drew a hysterical backlash from this province’s elite in 1991[7]. Although Anctil treats Richler in a sympathetic manner, he does not mention that nationalistic circles vehemently opposed a Montreal city counselor’s proposal to name a street after him [8]. Montreal has yet to have a thoroughfare named for this internationally-acclaimed writer, little appreciated by nationalists; interestingly, they have idolized Montreal Jewish poet and singer Leonard Cohen who, unlike many outspoken folk singers in the United States, would never have dared to challenge our present tranquil ambiance. Likewise Anctil’s work avoids discussing the controversy sparked in December 2000 by Yves Michaud, whose disparaging remarks about Jews were condemned unanimously by members of the National Assembly of Quebec following pressures exerted by the Jewish community. One major consequence of this episode was the decision of Parti Quebecois Premier Lucien Bouchard to resign two months later.

In this regard it is worth recalling a series of fourteen one-hour radio programs on the Jewish community of Quebec which I produced and hosted on Radio-Canada.  Among the significant historical testimonials (notably Léa Roback) was an hour-long interview with the then Premier and founder of the Parti Quebecois, René Lévesque. When I quoted to him and asked his view on a lengthy anti-Semitic letter written by Lionel Groulx, Lévesque was surprised to learn of the contents of that document, but he had no difficulty condemning Groulx’s remarks, revealing his sensitivity towards Jews and their history. He was, we should recall, a journalist during the war and was among the reporters who uncovered first-hand the horrors of the concentration camps.

I was authorized by Radio-Canada to reprint my long interview with Lévesque in a book entitled René Lévesque et la communauté juive, which was launched at a reception organized at the Saint-Jean-Baptist Society in June 2001. Although it is ignored by Anctil in his recent book, the publication received critical acclaim, including a glowing article by sovereigntist essayist, Pierre Vadeboncoeur, in his column in the newspaper Le Couac.

The tendency to overlook certain works and events in publications that claim to cover the history of Jews in Quebec fits perfectly with the spirit of the times among Quebec’s intellectual elite—a climate which seeks to steer public discussion and discourage serious critical approaches to this province’s past. Such approaches are a reflection of the ‘bonne entente’ ambience which dominates present relations between Quebec’s intellectual – and business – elites and the organized Jewish community. But should such good rapport come at the cost of critical thought and the smoothing over of differing and difficult views?

As a French-language writer who is not of French-Canadian extraction, I understandably arouse some discomfort by daring to interfere, like an intruder, in this exclusive club of Quebecois historians and to challenge their perspectives.

Unlike English Canada, Quebec’s cultural and intellectual establishment still has trouble accepting the outlooks of Quebecers of other origins, as the recent cultural-appropriation controversies over the plays “Slav” and “Kanata” have brought to light. But there may be hope for change, as new generations of Quebecois, who do not share the same closed approaches to Quebec’s history as rendered by ‘official’ recognized historians, have no interest in perpetuating a false complacent or rosy picture of this province’s past.

I hope that this article as well as my latest book will help to fill the current void of Francophone Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals who, whatever their views, should be taking a more active part in the new trends which express our diversity of culture and thought, and who are reshaping today’s Quebec. 

An earlier version of this article appeared in French under the title  «L'Érosion de l'examen critique. Les Juifs et les élites québécoises : des susceptibilités à ménager».

 

 

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Victor Teboul is a Canadian writer and educator. He is the author of several novels and essays. He has taught history at Université du Québec à Montréal and literature at a college located near Montreal. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt and immigrated to Canada in 1963. He is the Editor of the online magazine Tolerance.ca and lives in Montreal. Website: www.victorteboul.com

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Copyright, Victor Teboul, 2019. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication of this article is strictly prohibited.

January 14, 2019

Endnotes

 

 

[2]  The Symposium “Le Québec et ses autrui significatifs” was held on May 24 to 26, 2018.

 

[3] Mythe et images du Juif au Québec, Éditions de Lagrave, Montréal, 1977.

[4] See Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust, p. 80 - 82 and Stéphanie Tremblay, Les écoles juives, musulmanes et Steiner, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2014, p. 220.

 

[5] See Victor Teboul, Le Jour. Émergence du libéralisme moderne au Québec, HMH, 1984, and Jean-Charles Harvey et son combat pour les libertés, Kindle Edition. Also, the 8-part radio series on Harvey which I produced for Radio-Canada: Le libéralisme moderne au Québec, Radio-Canada, 1988.

 

[6] See Les Juifs du Québec: In Canada We Trust, p.28 – 43 and Hélène Pelletier-Baillargeon, Olivar Asselin et son temps. Le maître, Fides, 2010, volume 3, p. 254.

 

[7] Mordecai Richler, «Inside/Outside», The New Yorker, 23 September 1991, p. 40-92.

 

 

[8]  Following the controversy and several years after the writer’s death, the former Mile End Library, located on Montreal’s Park Avenue, was named after Richler, as well as a gazebo which stands at the foot of Mount Royal.

 



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Victor Teboul is a writer and the publisher of Tolerance.ca ®, The Tolerance Webzine, which he founded in 2002 to promote a critical discourse on tolerance and diversity. He is the author of several books and numerous articles. 

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