Both sides wrong

By Beryl Wajsman on October 10, 2011

The excuse used by Mayor William Steinberg to justify the inclusion of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur in existing Hampstead anti-noise by-laws was damaging and wrong-headed. Statutory holidays on which municipal workers don’t work is one thing. But to overlay that with a veneer of religion to satisfy specific groups is quite something else. Freedom of religion, in the words of James Madison, is also freedom from religion. The idea is to live and let live. Allow the broadest possible latitude in which everyone can fend for themselves. Religious strictures should never be imposed by any governmental authority. 

If political authority is going to law to pander to every particularist demand, then where does it stop? We are sure that many of you remember the incident several years ago at the Jewish General Hospital where a truck driver was castigated for eating his own ham sandwich in the hospital’s cafeteria. Well what would happen if Hindus, to whom cows are sacred, insisted that the hospital ban all beef products? Would we not have to give the same consideration to that ethnic groups? After all, Indo-Canadians number over a million – the majority Hindu – and are the second largest ethnic group after Italians in the country. Governing would become impossible. That is why nations like France set  a firewall between  faith and state. Try and satisfy everyone and you achieve chaos. As Jeremy Bentham wrote in the 19th century, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”

Mayor Steinberg also did damage to his own municipality. He has made it a subject for national debate, and not a positive one at that. It is either scorned, ridiculed or is becoming known as the anglo Herouxville, the Quebec town that authored a lay code of conduct that to a great extent was perceived as being aimed directly against Muslims. This inappropriate action has created an image of Hampstead as a modern day shteitel, or East European Jewish village.

The actions in Hampstead and Herouxville do damage to our civil society as well. Herouxville painted an inaccurate picture of modern Quebec. Hampstead created the same inaccurate portrait of the modern Jewish community in Quebec. This nation does not segregate nor separate. Whether provinces or communities. We are one people committed to the broadest principles of all of mankind’s transcendent yearnings for redemption change. Our Jewish citizens have fought and bled and led in all the struggles for that progressive change. From the time in 1837 that Louis-Joseph Papineau gave full emancipation to Quebec’s Jews, twenty years ahead of England, the Jews of Quebec have led in the struggles for labor rights, women’s suffrage, racial equality and cultural equity. Jewish labor leaders stood with Jean Marchand at Lac Megantic in 1952 in the strike that broke the back of Duplessis’ “Grand noirceur.” They stood as candidates and worked as organizers for Jeans Lesage’s “Revolution tranquille” that modernized Quebec. And many could be found working both with Pierre Elliot Trudeau to keep this country together and advance his vision of individual supremacy over collective fiat, and with Rene Levesque to rectify the prejudices that Francophones had suffered for too long.

Mayor Steinberg should be aware that the very word, Jew, is not so much a religious appellation as a national one. It stems from Judea, the ancient name of Israel. Hijacking Jewishness in the name of religion should be anathema. No government has a right to make an assumption or imposition of religiosity.

The Jews of Quebec are arguably the most bilingual, bi-cultural (fully one-third come from countries in the Francophonies), politically engaged, secular and charitable (to Centraide as well as to CJA) as any ethnic community. Above all they pride their individuality and freedom. They will not be constrained. Sadly, the image of Quebec Jews has been tarnished by this inelegant, ungracious and parochial act. It has stirred up a debate about the nature of state and faith that should have been long settled. Sadly too, it has unleashed a fury of response from commentators in the media. Commentators who quite frankly, have used as little intellectual rigour as did Mayor Steinberg. It is one thing to give voice to criticism of this action. It is quite another when radio personalities and columnists encourage people to drive through Hampstead making noise of all manner and in one instance encouraging people to even “fart.” Those commentaries led to emails and blogs suggesting that Jews go back “to where they came from”  and other even more odious suggestions. There is a fine line between criticism of a parochial and narrow-minded administration and inciting physical demonstrations in the streets against a community that never asked for this by-law in the first place. It is enough, particularly in the Francophone media, of the commentary of marginalization and demonization of “les autres.” It is enough with what Sartre called , “the teaching of contempt.” It is enough of exclusiveness and intolerance.

All one can conclude with is one word. Shame! Shame on both sides in this debacle. Both should have known better. This is not , in the words of the great sixties folk anthem “both sides now.” This is both sides wrong.


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