A proposed law that would ban all religious attire from the public sector has Jews in Quebec on edge.
One rabbi has found a clever way to fight the dreaded kippah ban: he stamped his head covering with the blue-and-white Fleur-de-lys — the province’s flag.
“I think protests are great,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath said in an interview with the Forward. “But I thought this would be a great way to make a positive statement. They want to ban the kippah? Let’s put a kippah on our heads!”
Bill 60, named the Charter of Quebec Values and put forward by the nationalist Parti Quebecois, would establish what it has called religious neutrality by banning “conspicuous” and “overt” religious symbols like hijabs, kippahs and turbans, from the public sector.
In Quebec, this includes civil servants, daycare workers, judges, doctors, nurses, and police officers, among others.
Bernath, who works at Chabad in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighborhood, first came up with the idea right after the proposal was announced, when a photoshopped picture of a Fleur-de-lys kippah that he posted on Facebook went viral.
“People kept asking me ‘Are you going to make it?’” Bernath said. Though he had the will, finding the proper fabric was a real challenge.
“I wanted it to be made in Quebec,” he stressed. Ultimately, he found a local kippah-maker and the label reads “Fabrique au Quebec” (made in Quebec).
Bernath’s kippah can be found at qkippah.com for $10. Though the website warns of its limited edition — only 400 have been made so far — the yarmulke has already found a niche of devoted customers. According to Bernath, he sold 100 yesterday, and only has about 80 left.
“I bought 60 and distributed them to my congregation, Rabbi Schachar Orenstein of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue told the Canadian Jewish News. “Many doctors at the Jewish [General Hospital] are wearing them. If I had the budget, I would purchase for the entire hospital staff,” he added. In November, the Montreal Jewish General Hospital said it would defy the Charter, considered “patently discriminatory.”
But for Bernath, the biggest surprise has been the amount of support he has gotten from non-Jews in the community. Because most of the kippahs are purchased online, he is able to keep track of the names of the owners. A lot of them, he said, are not Jewish.
“The uniqueness in Montreal is that everyone lives together,” he said.
To remind Quebec Premier Pauline Marois — who spearheads the push for the Charter — of that legacy, Bernath has sent her a kippah of her own, signed “Happy Hanukkah from the Jewish community!”
The timing is no coincidence. “It’s Hanukkah all over again in a way,” Bernath explained. “In the times of Hanukkah, that’s basically what the Syrian-Greeks said to the Jews. [They were] trying to make everyone into the Syrian-Greeks and that’s what [Marois] is trying to do.”
As many of you have heard, Tania Longpre, the [Parti Quebecois] candidate in the riding of Viau, stated that the word “Jewish” should be removed from the “Jewish General Hospital” and that circumcision should be outlawed.
In a hastily typed response, here is a letter that I sent directly to Mme. Longpre. I think the response matches the comments:
In 1738, a young Catholic man named Jacques La Fargue came to New France. Jacques La Fargue turned out to be Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman who had disguised herself to come to the new world. When she refused to convert, she was sent back to France. Jews were officially allowed to settle in New France beginning in 1760, over 250 years ago. But Esther Brandeau’s were the first Jewish footsteps in what we today call Quebec.
I wonder what Esther Brandeau would make of the current controversy over the Parti Quebecois (PQ) government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values. The ads in the Montreal metro proclaim, in two starkly-opposing posters: “Church. Synagogue. Mosque. These are sacred,” and, “Religious neutrality of the state. Equality of men and women. These are also sacred.” The self-proclaimed goals of the Charter are to set clear rules on religious accommodations; affirm Quebec values; and establish the religious neutrality of the state. The most controversial aspect of the proposal is the limitation of the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols.” Namely, any employees of the state — which, in Quebec, includes not only public servants but teachers, professors, daycare workers, and doctors — cannot wear a hijab; a turban; a kippah; or a large crucifix. Small religious symbols are acceptable, though exact measurements are not provided. The crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, along with the iconic cross on top of Mount Royal, are exempted as expressions of Quebec’s Catholic heritage.
It would be easy to look at this proposal and laugh; it would be equally easy to cry. But the reality is much more complex. The minority PQ government is trying to rally its base as it comes towards an election with a crumbling infrastructure and a weak economy. It is by no means certain that the government will garner enough votes to pass this legislation, and there is significant opposition among both French-speaking and English-speaking Quebecers. On a deeper level, those outside Quebec may not understand the existential concerns of a French-speaking majority who comprise less than two percent of the population of North America as a whole. Alone in an English-speaking continent, Quebec has a distinct language and culture. For that society to dissolve in the sea of internationalism would be a profound loss.
You may have heard that if Quebec’s government has its way, we’ll be seeing far fewer yarmulkes on the province’s streets. We certainly would be seeing none of them on the heads of people working or receiving services at government offices, and public schools, daycare centers and hospitals.
The governing Parti Québécois party’s proposed “charter of values” —effectively, a legal ban on religious symbols in the pubic sector— has been met with condemnation from many political leaders, including Jewish ones, in the province that includes Montreal.
Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, wrote in the Huffington Post that “the so-called ‘charter of values’ reportedly being contemplated by our provincial government would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades.”
Cotler charged the PQ, led by Pauline Marois, with misinterpreting the separation of church and state principle and of planning to deny religious freedom, a right guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He went to so far as to sugges that PQ founder René Lévesque is rolling in his grave.
Lionel Perez adopts a slightly more diplomatic tone, but he essentially sides with Cotler. Perez, a 43-year-old attorney and entrepreneur, is the interim mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal’s largest and most diverse borough, with residents from more than 100 different cultural communities. He is also a kippa-wearing religiously observant Jew and has a very personal stake in all of this.
In an opinion piece in the French-language Le Devoir, Perez wrote that he does not oppose a secular charter per se, but that he is arguing for an inclusive secularism. “The goal of an inclusive secularism is aiming to build a genuinely plural public space, to build a society that avoids marginalizing or traps our citizens in a single mold, depriving them of the right to their moral or religious choice,” he wrote.
“I believe that values of tolerance, respect for others and moral autonomy are equally as fundamental as Quebec secularism.”
With the fact that Montreal accepts over 90 percent of all immigrants to Quebec in mind, Perez is presenting a motion to the city’s government asking it to speak up against what the provincial government is proposing.
“Obviously there is a lot of concern. Any time you have any kind of legislation that indicates any kind of separation, it causes for concern,” Perez told CTV News about his constituents’ reaction to the proposed charter.
With his election last Friday, Michael Applebaum has become not only the first non-native French speaker in a century to hold the post. He is also the first-ever Jewish mayor of the second-largest French speaking country in the world.
“It’s definitely a proud day,” Leo Kolber, a businessman, philanthropist, former Canadian senator and lifelong Montrealer, said about Applebaum’s swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 19.
Applebaum, 49, was chosen by a two-vote margin by city councilors after he ran as an independent calling for transparency in government, following the resignation of former mayor Gérald Tremblay. Tremblay resigned earlier this month as a result of revelations made by the Charbonneau Commission exposing widespread corruption among Montreal officials, contractors and members of organized crime.
As Montreal mayor, Applebaum must step down as borough mayor of Cote des Neiges/Notre Dame de Grace, one if the city’s most heavily populated boroughs, and one with a high concentration of Jewish residents. His interim post will last only until municipal elections scheduled for November 3, 2013. Applebaum has stated that he will not seek re-election.
“I see very clearly what people are saying on the street,” Applebaum told The Montreal Gazette. “I am very much a goal-oriented person and I think we have an opportunity,” Applebaum said. “I personally have an opportunity to really make a difference.”