The McGill Tribune
November 5, 1997
vol.16, no.10

Is there anti-Semitism in the sovereignty movement?

by Samantha Lapedus

Since last year's referendum on Quebec's separation, tension has mounted between Montreal's Jewish community and members of the sovereignty movement. And many Quebeckers are asking why.

Ranging from accusations concerning the breaking of language laws to outright anti-semitism, the confrontations between sovereigntists and Jewish Montrealers have been repeatedly sprawled across media headlines.

There was the Office de la Langue Française's crackdown on the packaging of kosher goods last Passover; Bloc Québécois leader Michel Gauthier's request to the Canadian Jewish Congress to disassociate itself from anglo-rights activist Howard Galganov; a column in Le Journal de Montréal by Pierre Bourgault calling the Jewish community "racist" for voting an overwhelming "No" in the referendum; a pro-Bill 101 protest outside the Jewish General Hospital; and the most recent anti-Semitic rants by former Front Libération du Québec militant Raymond Villeneuve.

Some sovereigntists admit that Jacques Parizeau's referendum-night comment, partially blaming the "ethnic vote" for the defeat of the "Yes" side, was directed particularly at Montreal's Jewish community. And even before the referendum, those who believed that Mordecai Richler was an able spokesman for the anglophone Jews of the province demanded that the leaders of the two groups publicly disassociate themselves from his 1992 book Oh! Canada Oh! Quebec: Requiem for a Divided Country.

According to Dr. Esther Delisle, recent events in Quebec politics are reminiscent of early 20th century fascist tendencies. In her book, The Traitor and the Jew, Delisle describes the climate in Quebec during the early separatist days, when the term pure laine, which literally means "pure wool," was first coined. "Pure wool," similar in concept to that of the German Aryan, was used to describe certain French-speaking Catholics who claim to have many generations of ancestors in the province. The concept of "pure wool" was purely discriminatory, and served to create a chasm between elite "pure-blood" Quebeckers and ethnic minorities. The phrase is still widely used today.

This discriminatory rhetoric was espoused by such prominent Quebec nationalists such as Lionel Groulx. According to Delisle's account, Groulx was an extreme right-wing nationalist with a fascist tinge. Groulx and his followers felt that the Jewish community was incapable of assimilation, since Jews were considered the driving force behind capitalism, and the most powerful opponents of the separatist movement.

While attitudes have greatly changed in Quebec since the fascist era, repeated confrontations between the Jewish community and sovereigntists have caused some to associate the separatist movement with underlying vestiges of anti-semitism.

Presently, the anglophone Jewish community in Montreal is about 95 to 99 per cent in support of Canadian unity.

According to Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Quebec), clear distinctions must be made between what is anti-semitic and other, more dubious attacks.

"I think you have to describe specific incidents as anti-semitic. Raymond Villeneuve and [Pierre] Bourgault were clearly anti-semitic, while other incidents were clearly not."

Jedwab emphasised that the OLF's attack on the packaging of matzoh was not anti-semitic. Rather, it was the result of the actions of one over-zealous bureaucrat who decided to crack down on products with English packaging. Jedwab also maintains that neither Michel Gauthier's request, the protest outside the Jewish General Hospital, nor the attack against Schwartz's delicatessen to change its English-only signs were considered anti-semitic by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

"There is no firm evidence of anti-semitism in these cases, and I think people should only make that charge if they're on extremely firm ground," insisted Jedwab.

According to a spokesperson for Le Mouvement Nationale des Québécoises et Québécois who preferred to remain anonymous, they do not fight for independence on a discriminatory level.

"We don't agree with anti-semitic charges. We, as an organisation, work with everyone. And we have a good relationship as a movement with the Jewish community."

If not rooted in anti-semitism, where does the tension between Montreal Jews and Quebec sovereigntists lie? Jedwab believes that it stems from the fact that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly federalist.

"The Jewish community has been here for over 200 years and is very attached to Canada," he explained. "Sovereignty is an ethnically motivated movement. Of course that's going to cause tension and perhaps spill over as anti-semitism at times."

However, Josée Legault of Le Devoir feels that the root of the tension lies in the hands of the Jewish leaders.

"The problem is that perhaps more than any other minority representatives in Montreal, Jewish leaders tie their identity to constitutional questions, effectively wearing three hats when they speak: a federalist one, the anglo-rights one, and the Jewish one," she said.

Delisle, however, maintains the age-old argument that the Jews tend to be easy scapegoats in times of political uncertainty.

"For people like [Raymond] Villeneuve and Jacques Parizeau, the big fight of their life is almost lost," said Delisle. "So instead of facing the fact that they failed to convince most French-Canadians that sovereignty could succeed, they blame the Jews."

Copyright © 1997 by The McGill Tribune. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.