To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Cotler’s article on the present situation of the Jewish population in Quebec [“Quebec’s Jews: Caught in the Middle,” September 1977] . . . is one of the many manifestations of the state of panic of the Anglophone communities in “la belle province” today. The article, however, is biased, sometimes by omission, . . . sometimes by misinterpretation, . . . and sometimes by outright error. This rejoinder will follow the article step by step and attempt to show its faults.
Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler assert that “Quebec’s climate of candid ethnicity had made Montreal . . . an increasingly polyglot, cosmopolitan center hospitable to groups (like the Jews) that could readily maintain their distinctiveness.” The essay then tries to show that the election of the Parti Québécois has changed this atmosphere. It is possible that Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler are recent newcomers to Montreal, or know little of the history of Quebec, for there are numerous examples of past and present discrimination and, to say the least, lack of “hospitality” toward the Jews. A strong anti-Semitic trend, often fostered by the Catholic Church, had been present in the French-Canadian population up to the changes of the 1950’s; undercurrents of this trend remain in the colloquialisms of many French Canadians: “Tu es un vrai juif” (“You are a real Jew”) means that one is very cheap, for instance. . . . The situation has never been as rosy as the two writers pretend. The Catholic Church also used anti-Semitism as a means of maintaining its control over, as well as maintaining the cohesion of, the French populace, “les maudits juifs” (“the damned Jews”) being often linked to “les maudits anglais” (“the damned English”).
French-Canadian nationalism was often in the past a defense by an oppressed majority in a minority situation and it exhibited a very strong reactionary tendency. But the present Parti Québécois, which . . . has a reformist socialist ideology, should not be completely and carelessly identified with past French-Canadian nationalism.
One should also stress that the Francophone Québécois were not the only ones to be anti-Semitic. Anglophones were often more discreet, but nonetheless discriminatory. One still hears the English phrase, “You Jewed me.” . . . In addition, at McGill, the major Anglophone university, a “Jewish quota” existed in the most prestigious departments, and Jews needed better grades than Gentiles to be admitted. . . . Many Jewish students still believe, rightly or wrongly, that they need better grades to be admitted to the most prestigious English universities. . . .
Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler seem to ignore the fact that in public elementary and secondary schools, Jews were treated, for school matters, as Protestant . . . only after a series of court battles, because the Protestant system was very reluctant to accept poor Jewish immigrants, and that Jews were often discriminated against . . . by both the school system and the courts. . . .
Until the last two decades the Quebec government was never very liberal. . . . Quebec has rarely been . . . the haven of political tolerance the authors would have us believe. Politically repressive laws and actions were aimed at destroying left-wing, mostly Anglophone, movements, and especially the trade-union movement in which Jewish workers and intellectuals were often involved. . . .
The authors also claim that “the outward looking, progressive, ‘Quiet Revolution’ [has given] way to the defensive ‘new society.’” But this statement does not take into account the social program of the Parti Québécois, which is much more advanced than the “reforms” of the “Quiet Revolution”; it also ignores the fact that the “Quiet Revolution” failed in many respects, and even increased the domination of big business, as Fournier’s The Quebec Establishment has shown.
The authors also refuse to attempt an explanation of the causes of Jewish bilingualism and, to a certain extent, some of the roots of French-Canadian anti-Semitism. Jews as a group in Quebec became bilingual because they had to. Most of their income derived from the French Canadians, for Jews were often small shopkeepers and small landlords. Thus Jews were often perceived as direct exploiters (the situation of the Jews in Quebec, as a kind of “middleman minority,” is comparable to their situation in black ghettos in the U.S., and I believe that a similar explanation could be given of French-Canadian anti-Semitism as of black anti-Semitism in the U.S.). Jews have become professionals only in the past two decades. . . .
Some assertions in Mrs. Wisse’s and Mr. Cotler’s article are simply false, and, moreover, quite racist. The song of the Parti Québécois, “Demain nous appartient” (“Tomorrow Belongs to Us,” not “to me,” as they state in the article), is not the Nazi party song from Cabaret. Before making such a grave misstatement, the authors could have checked, as I did, with the Parti Québécois headquarters in Montreal. The song was written and composed in 1975 by Stéphane Venne. I do not believe that it bears any resemblance to any song in Cabaret. This kind of defamation is a Nazi tactic, and, even for a good cause, weakens the argument. It implies that the Québécois have Nazi sympathies, denigrates them on the basis of wrong evidence, and gives ammunition to those who believe that Anglophones wish to downgrade the Québécois.
The authors also fail to mention the fact that the Quebec government has given its minorities many more facilities in the last decades than the governments of other Canadian provinces. In the field of education, a provincial matter, the Quebec government subsidizes private ethnic or religious schools to a greater degree, and in a much more liberal way, than the other provinces, with the possible exception of Newfoundland. That the language of instruction, except for the specific language of the ethnic group for religious studies, now has to be French comes from the adoption of Bill 101 last August. This bill makes French the only official language of the province, and corresponds to the legislation and practices of the other provinces, which have made English the only language of social life, de facto or de jure. Only in the last decade has the Canadian federal government attempted to give French equal status with English (French and English are the two official languages of the country), but in fact many of the provincial and local governments have actively discriminated against French. What Quebec is now doing is in line with the activities of the rest of Canada. . . .
Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler assume that the Francophone and the Anglophone Jewish communities of Montreal form one community. . . . My assertion is that, as with other ethnic groups divided along language lines, the two communities are socially quite separate and communicate little. . . . It is doubtful that Francophone Jews, who do not have the same language for everyday life, or the same private schools, or the same places of worship, are very close to Anglophone Jews.
In a situation as sensitive as the present one, omission and prejudiced errors have an extremely damaging effect. As evidence of bad faith, they show a certain insensitivity and may create, for outsiders, a detrimental image of the Jewish community.
Director, FCAC Minority Education Research Project
To the Editor:
. . . Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Cotler must know that if the Jewish community of Montreal is “perhaps the most vigorous of North America,” it is because of the benevolence and tolerance of the whole population. The Jews prospered in Montreal in spite of the fact that they turned their back on our people and chose to align themselves with the dominant Wasp group, thus adding to the forces eroding our identity right in the middle of our French province.
But this situation could not go on forever, unless the French Canadians chose to disappear like all the other ethnic minorities of North America. Right or wrong, we believe that the leaders of the satellite minorities who gravitated around the Wasps of Quebec were sure that we would eventually resign ourselves to cultural genocide. But we did not, thus upsetting their plans. Our language is our color.
When the authors say that the Jewish schools in Quebec must continue to Anglicize the children of the French-speaking North African Jews in order to create “an integrated community of its two subgroups,” and that “the Quebec Jews regard English as a cultural gateway essential to Jewish self-expression,” in order not to be isolated from continental Jewry, they must know that this is absolutely unacceptable to French Canadians. It is no more palatable than if Chicanos refused to learn English under the pretense that they needed to communicate with their kin south of the border. They also know (but do not say) that English is taught in French schools. The members of René Lévesque’s government are all fully bilingual, as is the whole population of Montreal and most of the educated people in the province of Quebec.
Does the federal government of the United States give grants to Jewish schools as our Quebec government does? Moreover, the English-speaking minority of Quebec (including the Jews) enjoys a complete set of separate educational institutions from grade school to university, with four universities for 20 per cent of the population, while the remaining 80 per cent of the population also have four universities. They also possess a full network of other community institutions such as newspapers, television and radio stations, libraries, hospitals, museums, concert halls, etc., not to mention owning 90 per cent of the economy of the province. Furthermore, up till now the English-speaking minority had the power to impose its language on the majority, which, of course, it did. . . .
Our two authors, professors at McGill University (a colonial British bastion if ever there was one), expect the “French-Canadian elite” to dissociate itself from all that is said by the lunatic leftist groups here. But whatever the leaders of the Teachers’ Union declared about Zionism and racism will not be “repudiated” by anybody. For the time being, this organization has been captured by a Maoist fringe group, and it is up to the members of the organization to get rid of them. This will happen sooner or later because they oppose the independence movement. . . . The Quebec government and the population in general cannot be held responsible for the pronouncements of all small anarchist groups which attract a handful of our young people.
If Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler already hear Nazi boots on the sidewalks of Montreal, that is really their personal problem. They are unable to cite a single declaration or a single action by the Lévesque government against the Jews. . . . There is no justification for the authors’ fears that the Parti Quèbécois will become a Nazi movement—its Jewish members will certainly have their say in that evolution.
I am not a member of the Parti Québécois, but I am really surprised and saddened by this groundless and unwarranted attack. It can only appear to us as a move to vilify our national-liberation movement in foreign countries. I do not think it will help to maintain the entente cordiale between the Jewish community of Montreal and the new government of Quebec.
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Cotler describe my song, “Demain nous appartient,” as a “French version of ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me,’ the Nazi party song from Cabaret. . . .” It seems to me that the record should be set straight: five mistakes in two lines of text would seem a few too many.
- The song included in the sound track of Cabaret is not a Nazi party song. It was written for the film by John Kander and Fred Ebb in 1972.
- My song, for anyone who is not tone-deaf, bears no resemblance to the Cabaret song, and it is obviously not a “French version” of it, as the authors state, nor is it a take-off.
- No English translation of my song has ever been permitted, and no French translation of the song from Cabaret has ever been permitted. A so-called “version” would be an infringement of Canadian and American copyright laws. I certainly would not commit such an infringement: I happen to be president of the Composers, Authors, and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC).
- “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is certainly not translated into French as “Demain nous appartient” (“Tomorrow Belongs to Us”).
- Since copyright laws throughout the world do not apply to the title of a work but only to its substance, anyone with even a minimal knowledge of musical matters would not make comparisons on the basis of titles alone.
May I express, finally, my concern and astonishment over this matter and over the article as a whole. I would have expected . . . a more serious treatment of the grave matters that the people of Quebec must solve in the years ahead.
To the Editor:
. . . Contrary to Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Coder’s assertions, the Quebec of yesterday did not bask in “a climate of candid ethnicity . . . hospitable to groups (like the Jews). . . .” Nor was Quebec an outpost of “cultural pluralism.” A prerequisite of cultural pluralism . . . is a common language which leads to mutual understanding and respect among different ethnic groups. Quebec, of course, lacked a common language of communication; it was an enclave of distinct ethnic groups which feared and hence shunned one another. Quebec has long been a land of cultural “solitudes.” In the 1960’s, the bitterness engendered by this ethnic tension inspired members of the French group to engage in incidents of kidnapping, bomb-throwing, and rioting.
How did the Jews fit into all this? There were, admittedly, few violent acts directed against them. Nonetheless, the Nazi movement of the 1930’s won a larger following in Quebec than anywhere else in North America. . . . Relations between the Jewish community and the Anglo-Protestant community in Quebec were also strained. . . .
Largely in response to the climate of ethnic exclusivism, Quebec’s Jews built a community that was, as the authors phrase it, “more vigorous than any other in North America.” But life was not all roses for Quebec Jews. Neither Jews nor, for that matter, Anglo-Protestants have ever, for instance, played a significant role in Quebec’s public life. While Toronto, which has a Jewish population that is smaller than Montreal’s, has had its Jewish mayors, Montreal Jews have had to settle for the occasional alderman. Indeed, Quebec Jews with political ambitions—David Lewis and Stuart Smith come to mind—were forced to leave Quebec in order to participate in public life. Quebec Jews, moreover, have never been as much a part of cultural life in their place of residence as American Jews have been in America.
If Quebec Jewry’s past is not rosy, then its future is not as bleak as Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler imply. They fault René Lévesque, and French Quebecers in general, for a “callous indifference to Jewish sensibilities. . . .” But . . . French Quebec has had little prior experience in dealing with other ethnic groups; unlike the rest of North America, it has never had to carry the burden of accepting immigrants into its fold, and is thus naturally “insensitive.” A more pertinent question that deserves to be addressed is, how can Quebec Jewry initiate the process of sensitizing French Quebec to its concerns?
To be sure, Quebec is not without its leftist elements which, as the authors state, threaten the Jewish community by supporting Palestinian terrorism and attacking economic freedom. But surely these radicals are in the minority. And it is the task of Quebec’s Jews to give their support to more responsible elements in Quebec—French Quebec business in particular—which are ready to expose the dangerous nature of leftist illusions.
Although Quebec Jewry has no guarantee of success in its efforts to sensitize French Quebec to its concerns and to integrate into a new Quebec whose lingua franca will be French, the attempt must be made. For the majority of Quebec Jewry cannot travel as lightly as those “talented young professionals” to whom the authors refer. . . . And those Quebec Jews who choose to labor for the survival of their vigorous community . . . are not, in the formulation offered by Mrs. Wisse and Mr. Cotler, “standing poised, waiting to see which way the wind will blow.” Rather, they are actively trying to influence the course of their community’s history.
Allan Kagedan Kage
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Cotler write:
Our correspondents suggest, in varying degree, that our treatment of Quebec’s Jews prior to the victory of the Parti Québécois in November 1976 was incomplete and not sufficiently critical, while that of the post-election period remained incomplete and was unduly harsh. But if things were never as good as some have made them out to be, or as bad as they are now sometimes perceived to be, that is somewhat beside the point. For we did not set out to write a historical analysis or a comparative political tract. Since the two of us differ between ourselves as to both the nature of the political reality and its long-range impact on Quebec and Quebec Jewry, we would hardly have undertaken a joint effort on these subjects. Our intention was to convey a sense of the mood resulting from, if not shaped by, what commentators have called Quebec’s “earthquake.”
If, as some Québécois have said, the question is not so much what does Quebec want, but what does Quebec feel, the same question can be asked of Quebec’s Jews. Clearly, the attitudes and feelings in the Jewish community are not monolithic, but anyone who has attended the various public airings of private anxieties cannot be indifferent to the individual and collective angst that now finds expression. This sense of anxiety—depreciated by the correspondents—was the central motif of our article. And indeed, some statements of Raoul Roy and Michel Laferrière may contribute, however inadvertently, to stimulating it further.
Mr. Laferrière characterizes our article as one of the “many manifestations of the state of panic” in the Anglophone community today. One might argue that if there are “many manifestations,” this suggests something about an apprehended reality which is not necessarily mollified when it is dismissed as panic. Quebec Jews might be well advised to be engagé rather than enragé or immobilisé, but a greater sensitivity to their anxiety on the part of Mr. Laferrière and others—a sensitivity they rightly wish extended to French-Canadian aspirations—would be helpful in changing the atmosphere.
Mr. Laferrière faults us for ignoring the history of anti-Semitism in Quebec, while elsewhere, somewhat contradictorily, he imputes a “Jewish” bias to our treatment of French Canadians. Indeed, we intentionally excluded reference to a phenomenon with which we are hardly unfamiliar, as we did not wish to have adverse inferences drawn regarding French Canadians generally, preferring to note for the record that “there has never been any institutionalized . . . anti-Semitism in Quebec.” It is not we but he who “carelessly identifies” nationalism with the matter of anti-Semitism by discussing both simultaneously. (Incidentally, we are both native Quebecers who grew up in the province, not “recent arrivals” as Mr. Laferrière seems to assume.)
This is not to say that there are no remembrances of the past among Jews, including of those issues alluded to by Mr. Laferrière and Allan Kagedan Kage. When these remembrances are grafted on to memories of the European past, and serve as a prism through which present events are filtered, perceptions are generated which, whether or not they are grounded in reality, have a “reality” of their own.
This is precisely the context in which the response to the singing of the song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Us,” must be viewed and understood. We were describing a felt anxiety—particularly among Jews—at the party’s emotionally charged victory celebration. We did not intend to suggest, nor did we suggest, that the Parti Québécois is “Nazi-like” in its policies, platforms, or pronouncements. It is a fact, as Mr. Venne justifiably emphasizes, that the song sung in celebration that evening was not the song of Nazi youth in Cabaret; but it is also a fact that many viewers—by no means only Jews—perceived it as such, and that some of the media, however mistakenly, so characterized it that evening and have so characterized it since. As for the difference in pronoun, “Tomorrow Belongs to Us” may appear more threatening still to those who feel threatened because excluded.
Mr. Laferrière asserts, as if he were responding to our analysis, that “Francophone Québécois were not the only ones to be anti-Semitic. Anglophones were often more discreet, but nonetheless discriminatory.” We neither made the first assertion nor denied the second. On the contrary, we wrote that the Jews shared “the Englishman’s tongue but more of the Frenchman’s perspective,” and that the Jewish poet recognized this “deeper bond with the French-Canadian ‘provincial,’ like himself a singer of some distant ballad.” Jews responded to French-Canadian nationalism not as a threat but as a model of cultural solidarity. No less important, they could do so because of their constitutionally protected minority rights. The perceived exclusivism of the Parti Québécois and its insensitivity to those rights, however “progressive” the rhetoric in which the party couches its appeal, seems legitimate cause for concern.
Finally, in perhaps the most disturbing innuendo of all, Mr. Laferrière indicts us for “refus[ing] to attempt an explanation of the causes of Jewish bilingualism and, to a certain extent, some of the roots of French-Canadian anti-Semitism,” alleging that “Jews became bilingual because they had to.” If Mr. Laferrière is saying that Jews became bilingual because they were acting in accordance with, and pursuant to, the public law of the land, then they were doing what good citizens do in any society. If, however, he is implying that Jews became bilingual in order to exploit French Canadians, and that this exploitation is the cause of French-Canadian anti-Semitism, then he is himself repeating one of the tired clichés of anti-Semitism, as unworthy of his own cause as it is demeaning to the Jews.
Unfortunately, between Mr. Roy’s assertion that the Jews aligned themselves with the “Wasps of Quebec,” certain that the French Canadians would resign themselves to cultural genocide, and Mr. Laferrière’s suggestion that the high degree of bilingualism among Jews is an expression of their instinct for exploitation, the prospects are not encouraging for the “entente cordiale”—and more—that we would all wish.
The crucial point of our article was unfortunately overlooked: the concern of Quebec’s Jews is not with the objectives of Bill 101—making French the common language of Quebec society—but with the means chosen to achieve it; not with Francization—which Jews have begun to undertake—but with the coercive nature of Francization; not with French-Canadian nationalism per se, but with its “homogenizing” nature; not with the reformist orientation of the government, but with its sometimes insensitive zeal, and intolerence of opposing views. In effect, Quebec Jews intend to guide themselves by the motto of the rabbinic sage Hillel who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am but for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” If Quebec Jews appear to be preoccupied with the first of these questions at the expense of the second, it is because they sense a separatist government taking the lead in that direction.