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Quebec’s Jews: Reconciling Religious Freedoms with Secular Concerns

By
Ph.D., Université de Montréal, Editor, Tolerance.ca®
To many observers, the Jewish community in Quebec is highly integrated into Quebec society, yet to others it appears insular. How can this apparent contradiction be explained? How do religious groups, including Jews, deal with the trend towards secularization in Quebec? We raised these questions and others with Dr. Morton Weinfeld. Professor of Sociology at McGill University in Montréal, Dr Weinfeld holds the Chair in Canadian Ethnic Studies. He is the author of Like Everyone Else, but Different: The Paradoxical Success of Canadian Jews (McClelland & Stewart, 2001), a study of the Jewish community in Canada. Dr. Weinfeld is also a recognized authority on Quebec’s Jewish community.

Tolerance.ca ®: Dr. Weinfeld, as a sociologist you have written extensively on Quebec’s Jewish community and have defined it as “insular.” Yet the Jewish community of Quebec prides itself on being one of the most bilingual groups in Canada after French Canadians. It has an education network as well as a social and health system that is considered a model by Quebecers. How do you reconcile the successful integration of the Jewish community in Quebec society with the apparent marginality of Jewish life in Quebec?

Morton Weinfeld: The fact that Jews are quite bilingual is not the same as being “successfully integrated” in Quebec, and specifically, into French Quebec. There is no doubt that Jews are productive citizens in Quebec and contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the province. But much of that vitality is directed towards the Jewish community itself, or to so-called Anglophone institutions like McGill University and some hospitals. And, of course, Jews live in Montreal, which in many ways is a “distinct society” within Quebec. It is ironic, but a truly liberal society is one that allows minority groups, if they so choose, to be somewhat marginal in certain spheres. I would note that much of what I have just said about Jews can apply to other minority groups.

Tolerance.ca®: American Jews identified with and became very active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Why do you think there hasn’t been a similar involvement by progressive Jews in Quebec with regard to the linguistic and separatist aspirations of an important segment of French Canadians in the last 20 years?

Morton Weinfeld:
I think that many Quebec Jews never saw the French in Quebec as an oppressed group, not like the Blacks in the United States. The French were the majority group in Quebec and held political power. The history of Quebec as a place of rigid Catholicism with authoritarian leaders like Duplessis also led to greater distance between the two populations.

Because of the diasporic nature of Jewish life, many Quebec Jews do not mind the English character of Canada, since they have family ties and links to communities throughout the English-speaking world as well as in Israel. The political integration of Jews in Quebec has always been minimal. Consider the case of Ontario, where in the post-war period three Toronto mayors were Jewish. Moreover, all three major provincial political parties have had Jewish leaders. That will not happen in Montréal or Quebec anytime soon.

Tolerance.ca®: Many Jewish community organizations also promote Israel’s case and lobby for their own institutions. As such, its representatives claim to speak with one voice—and, one might add, as the sole voice of the community. Do they in fact represent the majority views of the community?

Morton Weinfeld: By and large the mainstream organizations do, in my opinion, reflect the mainstream views on Israel. At the same time there are minority views, sometimes vociferous, that are not at any given time part of that mainstream consensus. And they express themselves through their own organizations, whether on the left or on the right. So the main community organizations are not now, and have never been, the “sole” voice of the community any more than the view or vote of the Canadian parliament (or a majority of the Canadian parliament) is the sole voice of Canadian opinion on any specific issue.


Tolerance.ca®: If we accept the need for the Jewish community to be cohesive and consistent in its positions vis-à-vis the political world, to what extent is dissent tolerated? And what place is there for dissenters within the Jewish community?

Morton Weinfeld: This depends on what we mean by the Jewish community. The informal community is full of dissenting voices. Historically, the organized or formal community structure was much more divided and fractured, in terms of ideological and class divisions, than the community today. Currently, dissenters are often co-opted or welcomed back, if possible. The Canadian Jewish Congress, for example, tries to cast a relatively wide net for inclusion. Groups like Canadian Friends of Peace Now, and I think organizations of Gay Jews, are part of the Congress. The only groups which I gather are excluded from the Congress network are those that seem to reject the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state (whether ultra-Orthodox or ultra-leftist groups) and those who advocate the use of violence (like the Jewish Defense League).

Tolerance.ca®: Jewish representatives have been very critical of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodations. They feel that the hearings held at the Commission allowed for all kinds of misconceptions to be voiced on Jews and other minorities, but did not allow for these views to be corrected publicly. Do you agree with this reaction?

How would you summarize the Jewish community’s position at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission? What is your own view on the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and on the Jewish community’s position?

Democratic societies seek to balance majority rule
and minority rights

Morton Weinfeld: I think the Commission did provide a forum for ignorant and hostile views on Jews as well as Muslims. For many Quebecers outside of Montréal and even in parts of eastern Montréal, Jews are like Martians. There is very little contact. But the Commission did not create these views. Moreover, one often hears similar views on French radio call-in shows. I am not sure how much new negative impact the hearings have had for Jews.

The Quebec Jewish community staked out an expected liberal position, emphasizing the need for accommodation but also recognizing the importance of integration. There is no other option for the Jewish community. On this issue, it has a common cause with Quebec Muslims. People should realize that no Commission will ever come up with a magic formula to solve these tensions once and for all. Democratic societies will always seek to balance majority rule and minority rights, and at the end of the day the courts will play a key role.

Tolerance.ca®: Quebec has evolved into a secular society with strong reservations expressed by its leaders toward all religions—and specifically toward religious doctrines including Catholicism. Although most Jews are not religious, the Jewish community has defended positions such as the wearing of the hijab for Muslim women or of the kippa in publicly held jobs.

How does a community with a religious foundation reconcile its obligations toward its own group with that of a secular-oriented society that attempts to separate religion from the public sphere in order to treat everyone on an equal footing?

Morton Weinfeld: This is a profound question, and not an easy one. In fact the foundation of Jewish identity is not only religious, but ethnic/national. In the Bible, Jews are called “am Yisrael,” the people of Israel, and Jewish identity is determined not by a set of beliefs but ultimately by birth to a Jewish mother. Yet clearly Judaism is also central to Jewish identity.

We should note, however, that this dilemma is not unique to Jews. All people and communities of faith have to wrestle with this, given that we live in a secular society. It is even a problem in Israel. The quick answer to your question is that all citizens have to make some sort of accommodation. By and large, people can maximize their religious commitments in their private lives, and this is an important achievement. In their private lives, Jews can live the kind of Jewish life they wish for and belong to whatever segment of Jewish tradition they desire.

The problem emerges in the public space, and courts have to play a role in balancing rights like religious freedom and majority or secular concerns. All Western societies are wrestling with this at the moment, not only European societies dealing with new Muslim communities. In the United States, the abortion debate is an example of these tensions between private religious convictions and public policy. One useful strategy for minority communities is to develop an internal pluralism so that different members of the community can find different approaches to this dilemma. The Jewish and Protestant communities, in terms of formal organizations, have this degree of internal pluralism, far more than do Catholics and Muslims at the present time.

Tolerance.ca®: Multiculturalism as a policy has been an important component of Canadian identity. It has, however, come under severe criticism in the last decade, mainly because it is perceived as contributing to the fragmentation of society rather than helping to create a cohesive force. The most recent example is the Toronto Public School Board's controversial decision to open the first black-focused school in Canada, a decision with which several Afro-Canadians disagree.

How does the Jewish community, with its well-developed social, health and educational systems, respond—or how should it respond—to growing public concern about the possible fragmentation of Canadian society, due to increased demands from different ethnic and religious groups to develop their institutions with the help of public funding?

Morton Weinfeld: Jews are perhaps the most “institutionally complete” minority group in the country (similar perhaps to First Nations.) So it would be hypocritical for the organized Jewish community to join the chorus of opinion that warns against black-focused schools or the spread of private schools more generally (though individual Jews might do so). Recently, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, criticized multiculturalism in his country as being excessive and leading to a lack of social cohesion. He has called for a renewed emphasis on common social and cultural British values, and he has been criticized for this.

In fact, Jews in the West have been a kind of poster child for the benefits of multiculturalism and could not easily begin to challenge its key principles. Jews, especially in Canada, do try to have their cake and eat it: they try to retain a strong identity and culture while participating fully in the host society. Two thousand years of experience as a mainly Diaspora community serves Jews well in this difficult task.

Interview conducted by Victor Teboul for Tolerance.ca® 

© Tolerance.ca Inc. 2008.


* Image : Reuters. Ultra-Orthodox Jews recite the traditional New Years prayer of Tashlich as a secular Jewish couple return from an afternoon on the beach. At the close of the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashana religious Jews should pray nearby running water and symbollically throw their sins into the moving water at sundown. The group are praying on a promenade alongside the main Tel Aviv public beach as the sun set. 




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