Commentary Magazine

Quebec's Jews: Caught in the Middle

Until very recently, the prevailing ethnic tension in Canada’s province of Quebec—between the French-speaking Roman Catholic; majority and the strong minority of English Protestants—stimulated the development of a large, cohesive Jewish community, perhaps the most vigorous in North America. Quebec’s climate of candid ethnicity had made Montreal, where most immigrants to Canada once settled, an increasingly polyglot, cosmopolitan center, hospitable to groups (like the Jews) that could readily maintain their distinctiveness. But with the rise of a separatist nationalistic movement, culminating in the election last November of the Parti Québecois, the atmosphere has rapidly changed. For the first time in the history of Canada, a provincial government has been elected that is committed to taking Quebec out of the confederation. Whether or not it is ultimately successful, the French Canadian bid for separate statehood has already resulted in proposed legislation and policies of dubious constitutionality, if not actual threat to individual civil liberties. Ever a barometer of change, the Jewish community has entered upon a state of almost continuous caucus that reflects uncertainty about the present and anxiety about the future.

From the point of view of French Canadian nationalists, the potential erosion of minorities in Quebec is a negligible consideration in the struggle for sovereignty. Themselves a minority of 6 million in a country of 23 million (and on a continent where some 225 million speak English as a native tongue), the French Canadians feel they must effectively protect themselves from cultural extinction. The French Canadian birth rate in Quebec, once so high it was dubbed “the revenge of the cradles,” has now dropped to become the lowest in Canada. Immigrants to the province, while maintaining solidarity with their own ethnic origins, drifted into the English-language stream, swelling the proportion of “Anglophones” in the overall population. Most disturbing, from the nationalist perspective, was the steady flow of upwardly mobile French Canadians into the English school system and social milieu where opportunities for personal advancement have been more plentiful and attractive. The penetration into Canada of American media, and the increasing influence of English in cultural as well as economic affairs, seemed to insure a dilution of ethnic consciousness and a diminution of the French language base.

Like all nationalist movements, the separatists of Quebec are fired not merely by concerns for their future, but by grievances of the past. As the descendants of the “conquered” in the battle between the British and the French for control of this part of the New World, the French Canadians seem to have inherited, as part of their historical baggage, a sense of collective victimization. Although they form some 80 per cent of Quebec’s population, French Canadians point out that they have not achieved economic power or influence in any relation to their numbers. The laissez-faire policy of Quebec politicians in the mid-century period of rapid industrialization and expansion brought increased prosperity to the province, but it also guaranteed the linguistic domination of English, the language of most capital and management. Separatists insist that the historical wrong can only be righted, the economic and social inequities balanced, and the cultural threat dissipated, in an independent Quebec. The French Canadian therefore advocates affirmative action, but of a kind that would culminate not in integration but in a separate but equal constitutional status.

With a sense of eerie familiarity, Quebec’s community of 115,000 Jews finds itself beset by a crise de conscience: on the one hand, Jews understand, even sympathize with, the aspirations for self-renewal on the part of French Canadians. At the same time, Jews fear the inevitable fallout of these nationalist impulses and oppose their repressive dimensions. They also wonder at what point their own particularism, so acceptable in what was once an atmosphere of ethnic pluralism, will stick in the craw of a nationalist bid for domination. Where the individual Jew weighs the spiritual and material costs on the personal level, for the Jewish community as a whole the matter is more complex: does the uniqueness of the Montreal Jewish community justify a special effort at adaptation to the new situation, in order to protect and nurture the community’s many institutions and cultural achievements? Or is the Montreal experience now being revealed as just another piece of evidence corroborating the old Zionist contention that the Diaspora can never provide a wholly comfortable home for Jews?



The present tensions have impressed upon Montreal Jewry an awareness of its previous independence, and of the ripe promise that may now remain forever unrealized. The virtues of Jewish communal and cultural life in the city are only now being appreciated and understood. In themselves, the Jewish health and welfare agencies, the many social and cultural organizations, may not set Montreal apart from American cities with comparable Jewish populations. But the centripetal force of communal activity is stronger there than elsewhere, and for most Montreal Jews the other “solitudes”—French and English—seem not only uninviting but uncompelling when compared to the dynamic activity within the Jewish community itself.

Jewish Montreal is still largely an immigrant community. While some local Jews can trace back their Quebec ancestry seven generations, the majority have come since 1920, and a third of the community since World War II. In religious affiliations, by far the greatest numbers are either Orthodox or right-wing Conservative; of thirty-odd congregations, only three are Reform and one Re-constructionist. The local Yiddish drama group, celebrating its twenty-fifth consecutive season, can count on several weeks of sellout performances every year. Within the overall “shtetl demography” of Montreal (which includes the municipality of Côte St. Luc, with the largest Jewish majority in North America), there is lively social activity of both a synagogue and street-corner variety, and even a rudimentary intellectual ferment that finds expression in a growing number of home-study groups and formal lecture series.

For the many Canadian Jewish writers who grew up in the city or made it their home, the Jewish milieu seemed a sensitive plant, carefully nurtured in the shadow of the Cross. In the subtle but charged struggle between French and English for cultural dominance, the Jew played a special role, sharing the Englishman’s tongue but more of the Frenchman’s perspective. A. M. Klein, who is recognized as one of Canada’s finest poets, explored, sometimes with great lyrical intensity, sometimes with a sense of comic dislocation, the image of the Jew breaking his way into English-style acceptance while recognizing a deeper bond with the French-Canadian “provincial,” like himself a singer of some distant ballad:

                                                  all refrain,
which turns about its longing, and seems to
to make a pleasure out of repeated pain. . . .

Poets writing in Yiddish and in English delighted in the spicy cultural distinctiveness of Quebec:

Layton, my friend Lazarovitch,
no Jew was ever lost
while we two dance joyously
in this French province,
cold and oceans west of the temple,
the snow canyoned on the twigs
like forbidden Sabbath manna;
I say no Jew was ever lost
while we weave and billow the handkerchief
into a burning cloud,
measuring all of heaven
with our stitching thumbs.

There may be more echo than original Jewish music in this song by Leonard Cohen, but the climate has inspired him, his fellow poet-dancer Irving Layton, and a host of younger writers to explore the mythology of their own past by comparing it with that of others.

Nor have writers been alone in feeling an almost instinctive sympathy for the French Canadian. Indeed, the Jewish community as a whole has in the past reacted quite positively to the assertion of French Canadian identity. For the first ten years of the “Quiet Revolution” in the 60’s, when the predecessor Liberal government generated a program of social, political, and educational reform that literally revolutionized Quebec society, the Jews considered themselves its beneficiaries and were highly responsive to the impulse for reform. Already enjoying the largest percentage of bilingual members among ethnic groups in Quebec, Jews voluntarily undertook to promote French in their schools, agencies, and institutions. Though the acceptance of the “fait français” did not proceed as quickly as some would have liked, Jews in general recognized in the French nationalist movement an opportunity for cultural enrichment and even a model for cultural solidarity. At the same time, the Montreal Jewish community was itself enriched by the immigration of some 20,000 French-speaking Jews, largely from North Africa, whose arrival comported well with the changing profile of Quebec. The high point of French Canadian nationalism in the 60’s was also the watershed of creative Jewish communal life in Quebec.

But the French Canadian renaissance of the 60’s also took another direction. The brief flare of violence a decade ago when the FLQ, the Front for the Liberation of Quebec, planted bombs in mailboxes, kidnapped the British High Commissioner, and murdered the Quebec Minister of Labor, jolted Quebecers out of their political complacency, reminding them of areas of the globe where competing cultures and groups solve their problems in more sinister ways.

Some of the apprehensions of those years linger on in the response of the English and the Jews, and some French-speaking Quebecers as well, to the new government of René Lévesque. To be sure, the Parti Québecois has scrupulously dissociated itself from violent tactics, emphasizing its commitment to the democratic process in the struggle for independence. Nonetheless, in promising fair treatment of “Anglophones,” government spokesmen do not hesitate to invoke the threat of a popular uprising if the current “oppression” of French Canadians is not alleviated. Some ministers talk openly of the “collective guilt” of the English. As the outward looking, progressive, “Quiet Revolution” gives way to the defensive “new society” that the Parti Québecois has proclaimed, a troubled restlessness has come to beset all those who have reason to believe that the embrace of the “new society” may not extend to them.

The Jews, of course, are haunted by a national memory that interprets current events in an ominous light. The decision of the Parti Québecois, ince” to “Je me souviens” provokes poignant re-on Quebec’s license plates from “La belle province” to “Je me souviens” provokes poignant reflection on the different impulses and memories of the two communities. When the French Canadian says, “I remember,” he thinks of the glories of New France, the conquest by the English, and the need—as Cabinet Minister Camille Laurin put it—to “reconquer” his heritage and his future. When the Jews remember—and the dialectics of nationalism have certainly stirred their own collective consciousness—they instinctively respond, “Never again.” There are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened. When the jubilant mass of Parti Québecois supporters at the victory rally of November 15 sang a French version of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” the Nazi party song from Cabaret that has unfortunately been adopted as a French Canadian nationalist hymn, it triggered in countless Jewish minds fresh images of storm-troopers and jack-boots in the night.



At many points the agenda of French Canadian nationalism will encounter and possibly conflict with Jewish concerns. In the field of education, where Jews have staked out their most considerable independent claim, it already has. Thanks in large part to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 60’s, Quebec’s network of privately-financed Jewish day schools has enjoyed “associate status” with Catholic and Protestant schools and has been provided with per-capita subsidies to cover the cost of the general, non-ethnic curriculum. In the early 70’s, the government’s grants to these schools were made conditional on an increase in the hours of French instruction, but for the new Lévesque government, bilingual English and French instruction is itself unacceptable. French must now replace English as the language of secular study; otherwise, the government threatens to withdraw its funding altogether. Having grown dependent on heavy government subsidies, the schools must decide whether to withstand the pressure and be prepared to assume an enormously swollen financial burden, or to embrace the program of full “Francization” and suffer the consequences, which will almost certainly include further social insulation as well as a depreciation of the Jewish component of the curriculum.

Negotiations in this area, where Jews, appearing as Jews, have had their most extensive and intimate contacts with the new government, have been discouraging. Government spokesmen and bureaucrats, seemingly unaware of pedagogic consequences or of the actual level of French competence of the students, have submitted a succession of contradictory “minimal guidelines,” some of which call for the virtual elimination of the Jewish curriculum and for the immediate transfer of “Francophone” (Sephardic) children out of those Jewish schools in which English is still the major language of instruction—the vast majority—thus undoing at a stroke a sustained effort on the part of the Jews to create an integrated community out of its two diverse subgroups. With the supposed intention of fostering French, and always with expressions of good will and even appreciation for Jewish accomplishments, the government is pursuing a veiled policy of intimidation; the Jewish community, at the point of greatest sensitivity, sees its autonomy threatened by the very financial support that had appeared to guarantee it.

As the argument over the Jewish day schools shows, the movement of Quebec toward French appears to be irreversible and inevitable, quite apart from the eventual nature of its government. Even Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the chief exponent of federalism and bilingualism, has said that there is nothing wrong in Quebec’s being as French as Ontario is English. The White Paper on Language Policy proclaims the institutionalization of French not just in the schools but in every area of society—public administration, commerce, work. The recently introduced language legislation, symbolically titled Bill 1 (now cosmetically redrafted as Bill 101) proposes to enforce unilingualism through a stated policy of surveillance and the denunciation of “offenders.”

Responsive as they might be to a graduated and uncoerced policy of making French the common language, many Quebec Jews regard English as a cultural gateway essential to Jewish self-expression. They are concerned lest they become isolated from the rest of continental Jewry with whom they enjoy an organic relation and for whom English is the lingua franca. While there may be nothing sacred about English as a language from a Jewish viewpoint, it has become an indispensable tool of Jewish communication, even in international affairs. Moreover, as Quebec Jews rather bitterly note, their adoption of the language was not simply a voluntary act or a historical accident but the consequence of legislative fiat. For in defining Jews as Protestants within the educational sphere, the government itself had dictated that the language of acculturation be English.

Nonetheless, were it only a question of unforced adjustment to a new linguistic reality, the Jews would probably adapt themselves, as they had already begun to do. They are concerned, however, that “Francization” may be only the initial expression of nationalism, not its ultimate satisfaction. It is presently unclear whether the term Québecois refers to all inhabitants of Quebec, as conciliatory public statements advise, or to French Canadians alone, as Bill 101 more concretely proclaims. Several years ago, an earnest Jewish study group in the city invited one of the leading separatist intellectuals, a sociologist from the Université de Montréal, to explain French Canadian aspirations. The presentation and discussion were predictably lively; the audience was surprisingly sympathetic. But when one of the most intense of the participants, herself a professor at the French university, asked, “And what can we do to help you?” the speaker replied, “Honestly, nothing. You can be with us but you cannot be of us.” The potential for happy integration into an exclusivist society of this kind has been, in Jewish historical experience. slight.



What then of the future? Already a trickling exodus of the most mobile young professionals and businessmen has begun; as yet only the moving companies know for sure its exact size and composition. The process of emigration and Jewish population decline is all the more painful in a community whose sedentary nature expressed a desire for genuine rootedness, not merely an unimaginative attraction to security (for which it was often derided). Nowadays Montreal Jews are turning the joke on themselves. Question: how does a smart Montreal Jew talk to a dumb Montreal Jew? Answer: long distance.

Even supposing that French Canadian nationalism may be seized upon as an advantage by the Jewish community in deepening its own sense of peoplehood, of internal self-reliance, there may nevertheless develop a serious tension between the two groups. Quebec nationalism is becoming more introverted, politically narcissistic. Conversely, Jewish nationalism, perhaps driven to undo by its engaged commitment the sins of passivity of the 30’s and 40’s, calls upon Jews to become increasingly extroverted, to assume responsibilities for their fellow Jews in Israel, the Soviet Union, and in all other troubled places. If, to the Jews, Quebec nationalism appears insensitive, not to say contrary, so may the Jewish preoccupation with international Jewish causes and the Jewish dedication to cosmopolitanism as a mode of existence appear to the nationalists to be non-Québecois, if not actually contrary to Quebec interests.

There has never been any institutionalized or governmental anti-Semitism in Quebec, and Quebec’s treatment of its Jewish minority compares favorably with that of other Western democracies. But in both the past and present lie seeds of anxiety concerning the future. Such manifestations of anti-Semitism as there have been have derived from both religious and nationalist sources, now ominously combined in a new political eschatology that has appropriated the religious symbolism of the Church and converted it into a secular nationalism. The emergence of “Palestinian” as the code-word for national liberation among intellectuals, artists, and journalists may signal the movement away from classical anti-Semitism, which denied the equal rights of Jews as citizens within a free society, to the “new” anti-Semitism, which denies the equal right of the Jewish people as a lawful sovereignty within the family of nations.

Whereas the previous generation of Quebec nationalists often found a model in the democratic state of Israel, and in Zionism as a national-liberation movement the present elite identifies the Israeli “settler-state” in Palestine with the Anglophone “settler-community” in Quebec. It is of sufficient concern when the head of the Quebec Teachers’ Union attends the Conference on Zionism and Racism held in Libya last summer, becomes a member of the executive of a new organization created to fight “Zionism and racism,” and returns to Quebec to state that the equation of Zionism with racism should be taught in all local schools. It is of yet greater concern when that statement—along with others of its kind by equally prominent spokesmen for labor and the media—remains on the record, without repudiation or condemnation from the French Canadian elite within or outside the government. The public character of these statements suggests a certain knowledge on the speakers’ parts that the climate is not inhospitable to such expression.

Prime Minister René Lévesque, who enjoys the respect of the Jews as an honest and fair political leader, has revealed an almost callous indifference to Jewish sensibilities. In a newspaper article of September 6, 1972, Lévesque, then a commentator for the daily Journal de Montréal, wrote a column in reaction to the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes, in which he said:

. . . the Palestinians have just once more, before the face of the world, sullied their cause, which in itself was and remains a just cause. Brutally dispossessed for a quarter of a century, confined in exile while a whole new generation was born and grew up, driven to despair since the Six-Day War, the Palestinian nation feels itself forgotten, cut off, betrayed. In the face of Israel’s imperial intransigence, the hypocritical collusion of the great powers, and the universal indifference of others, its activists see no other recourse but to the most senseless of extremisms.

While no one would dispute the right of a journalist to defend the Palestinian cause, the expression of that defense at that particular moment of mourning shows quite as much insensitivity to Jewish and Israeli feeling as it does sympathy for the Palestinians. In fact, Lévesque in this column comes close to excusing the massacre of the Israeli athletes.



The Jewish caucuses, then, are stimulated by these and a variety of accompanying concerns: the socialist platform of the Parti Québecois, which has received barely passing mention in the American press (and which is all the more remarkable in a province that has never elected a single socialist member of the legislature) may have consequences for a Jewish community linked historically to the capitalist ethic and a private-enterprise economy; the state implementation of the motto, “maîtres chez nous”—masters in our own house—may undermine the civil liberties as well as the self-governing nature of Jewish community life; the energy situation and faltering economy may invite heavy Arab investment and corresponding Arab political influence; and perhaps most important, the potential exodus of an entire young elite in this time of instability may result in a paralyzing social attrition.

The current situation gives the lie to a favored Quebec expression, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Things have changed. The ethnic and religious pluralism which was so hospitable to Jewish creativity and self-determination seems to be giving way to a unidimensional nationalism that eschews minority distinctiveness. Though the claim has been made that since the November election French Canadians have emerged from the state of “adolescence” to a sense of comfortable maturity, many outside the movement are struck rather by the heightened rhetoric and political posturing that may well mask a confusion of purpose, and a troubled as well as troubling leadership. Some observers feel that the push for separation is already effectively beyond arrest, and will either realize itself politically or erupt in civil strife. Others argue, with centuries of Quebec history as precedent, that the pressure of separatism will ultimately spur a reinvigorated federalism, more sensitive than before to the large French minority and to regional distinctiveness of every kind. In all this the Jews are, as René Lévesque has recently noted, “the weathervane.” Sensitive to the slightest change, they stand poised, waiting to see which way the winds will blow.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).

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