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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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Zionism and moderate Quebec nationalism

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Richard Levy


English-speaking Jews in Quebec have a unique vantage point to positively view the moderate versions of two kinds of nationalism: Quebec nationalism and Jewish nationalism (Zionism).

As part of the minority language community, we bear the brunt of protective language laws, the most visible offshoot of Quebec nationalism. As proud Zionists, we resent the sustained criticism of the Jewish state within the United Nations and by “progressives” who denounce the Law of Return and other “deviations” from an illusory ideal democracy.

But how is that we wince at the claims by even moderate Quebec nationalists (not secessionists) that their culture requires special protection but passionately champion Jewish nationalism and its immigration preferences and associated special measures?

CJN columnist Gil Troy, in “What the PQ’s Bill 14 teaches us about Israel (March 21), gives one answer, arguing that the two nationalisms are very different. Where Quebec nationalism is “negative” and its language laws “oppressive,” Jewish nationalism is “positive.” Its laws promote Judaism rather than demote other faiths and ethnicities. He uses this contrast as the kickoff to a vigorous and articulate denunciation of the demonization of the Jewish state.

I wish to advocate for another, and I believe more coherent approach to Quebec nationalism: that as Jews in Quebec whose main language is English, we should embrace the reasonable face of Quebec nationalism (not the current Parti Québécois provocations), just as we embrace Zionism. I know that with debate currently swirling around Bill 14, this may not be the best time to make this case. There is wide agreement, which I share, that Bill 14 is repugnant. It takes away the right of many municipalities to communicate in English, blocks the doors of English schools to the children of soldiers and extends “francization” rules to smaller businesses.

We also have in common that we chose to stay in Montreal after 1976, raise families and cherish the rich life of our Jewish community. Where opinion differs is whether Bill 14 is a wrong turn from a decent path (Bill 101) or just an extension of that same miserable road. Many sincerely believe the latter. They loudly sound the bells for complete freedom of choice, as it existed before the first language law. But, many others respect the linguistic balance that has been achieved, moving from grudging to full acceptance. And they ironically exclaim: Ne touchez pas à la loi 101.

Peter Blaikie and Julius Grey, lawyers with long human-rights records, recently wrote in the Gazette that Bill 14 is needlessly oppressive because Bill 101, which they support, had already done what was needed. Blaikie vividly recalled the time when English was the language of business in Quebec and the top executives were all English speaking.

Some of us, thrilled that a state with a Jewish majority had finally become a reality, also empathized with the anxiety of the French majority in Quebec, who saw generations of immigrants choosing English schools and their children joining the ranks of the English minority. We understood the argument that this was an anomaly – even as we knew why this had happened. Everywhere else in the world, the majority language group is the “receiving” community; immigrants bolster them, not the minority. So we do not see the two nationalisms – in their moderate version – at opposite poles.

There are other similarities, which Troy may not be aware of. He calls the notwithstanding clause  – Article 33 of the Canadian Charter – “ridiculous” and is highly critical of Quebec’s resort to it. But a fair comparison between Quebec and Israel should include the fact that Israel does not have a charter of rights. It has a series of Basic Laws, which do not appear to include many of our rights, such as freedoms of expression and assembly.

Moreover, these laws also contain notwithstanding clauses. And, unlike the Canadian charter, they include exceptions. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty includes this: “There shall be no violation of rights under this Basic Law except by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required or by regulation enacted by virtue of express authorization in such law." The Basic Law protecting freedom of occupation and profession includes the same exception. It also has this notwithstanding clause:  “A provision of a law that violates freedom of occupation shall be of effect… if it has been included in a law passed by a majority of the members of the Knesset, which expressly states that it shall be of effect, notwithstanding the provisions of this Basic Law.” 

Troy also contrasts the Israeli liberal approach to multiple language street signs with that of Quebec, saying, “The English language is banned.” He may not be aware of this similarity: the Israeli Transport Minister has announced that signs on all major roads in Israel, east Jerusalem and possibly parts of the West Bank would be “standardized,” converting English and Arabic place-names into straight transliterations of the Hebrew name.  Jerusalem, “al Quds” in Arabic, becomes Hebraized to “Yerushalayim”; Nazareth, “al Nasra” in Arabic, to “Natzrat”; Jaffa to “Yafo.”

To be clear, I am not saying that Quebec nationalism and Jewish nationalism are equivalent. We already have enough false moral equivalencies. I am saying that it would be fair-minded and coherent for a Quebec English-speaking Jew who embraces Zionism to view moderate Quebec nationalism and the current Law 101 in a positive light.

Richard Levy is a Montreal lawyer and chair of the speakers committee of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University- Montreal.

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