Moravian Morals for Montreal

By Allan Nadler
Friday, August 31, 2012

When Montreal police entered the home of Amir Khadir, a member of Quebec’s parliament, they found a curiously revealing objet d’art: a parody of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, with Khadir, in the position of Lady Liberty, standing triumphantly over the corpse of Quebec premier Jean Charest.

It’s no surprise that the adulterated artwork resonated with the grandiose pol.  The sole parliamentary representative of the far-Left Québec Solidaire party, the Iranian-born Khadir has compared his political struggles against Quebec’s ruling government to those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Along with his daughter, he is an iconic leader of the student protests presently rocking the city of Montreal.

The protests, now more than six months old, aim to overturn a $256 annual raise in Quebec university tuitions over the next seven years, which would bring the cost of a degree in the Canadian province to just over $3,831 by 2019.  It would still be the cheapest college education anywhere in North America.  But that hasn’t stopped the protestors from resorting to just about every manner of criminal activity, straying far from the peaceful civil disobedience to which student leaders have repeatedly committed themselves. Business and bank windows have been smashed; police cars overturned by masked protesters and set on fire; police pelted with bottles and rocks; Montreal’s Metro paralyzed by smoke bombs; access to college premises blocked by masked students; and classes repeatedly disrupted by menacing protesters who have resorted to throwing chairs and desks at both professors and students.

Khadir, meanwhile, is a veteran anti-Zionist who supports divestment by Quebec of any interests in Israel.  Before the tuition protests, his most consistent activity as a public servant was leading weekly boycott vigils outside a privately-owned shoe store that sells Israeli sandals.  An anti-Israel theme has somehow attached itself to the student movement as well, as it accrues support from a hothouse variety of anti-establishment, far-Left, and anarchist groups sympathetic to the cause: keffiyehs are common attire among demonstrators; Palestinian flags too are regular features; and protestors have directed Nazi salutes at police officers.  Those Sieg Heils brought condemnations from B’nai B’rith Canada and the Canadian Jewish News, both of which had hitherto avoided weighing in on the tuition imbroglio.

Most disturbing to residents of Montreal has been the increasing volume of the nightly protests. In late May, they took a cacophonous turn from occasional drummer-led marches to a city-wide pots and pans protest against legislation requiring protesters to inform police of the route of their demonstrations in advance and enforcing fines against unlawful behavior at the demonstrations.

These ructions have taken a toll on all of Montreal’s residents and placed an enormous financial burden on the city.  No one has been immune—including those who simply want to enjoy a quiet evening downtown.  My own work was repeatedly disrupted by the nightly noise on the streets below my apartment. I was trying to complete a review of a densely scholarly book on an obscure and distant topic—Michael Miller’s Rabbis and Revolution, an erudite history of the Jews of 19th-century Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic).  But one evening, while I was studying this book about the smallest and least understood Jewish community in all of Europe, the loud street protests had a counterintuitive effect: They helped me to appreciate just how edifying the 19th-century experiences of Jews in one province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire might be in taking stock of the troubling situation today in the province of Quebec—and how relevant history is to the present.

I had just finished reading the tragic, inspiring story of Carl Heinrich Spitzer when the police helicopters began buzzing overhead, a sound I had learned to connect with some precision to the imminent arrival of the raucous student hoards at the streets below.  Spitzer was a young Moravian Jewish student who was murdered, along with four others, by Austrian soldiers who fired live rounds into a student demonstration in Vienna on March 13th, 1848.  Those students were agitating not against modest hikes in tuition, but for such fundamental freedoms as a free press, a constitution, and liberation from the yoke of an oppressive monarchy.

In Quebec, by contrast, the “issue” being championed by Khadir’s comrades—who have dubbed him and his daughter “martyrs”—is a very modest fee hike for students currently paying the lowest tuitions in North America for first-rate educations at such august academic institutions as McGill and l’Université de Montréal.

As I continued to ponder the story of Moravian Jewry in the age of Enlightenment and modern nationalism, more moral lessons for Montreal kept presenting themselves.  Among the many parallels between the unique situation of the 19th-century Moravian Jewish communities and that of Montreal today, none is more striking than their analogously ambiguous and uncomfortable postures vis-à-vis the larger two ethnic groups in their respective societies.  In the decades following the 1848 uprising against the ruling Hapsburgs, long-simmering tensions between the powerful German-speaking Austrian minority and the indigenous Czech majority exploded.  The struggle for independence by the latter group was realized only following the First World War, with Moravia integration into the newly created Czechoslovakian state.  While the Jews of Bohemia had long allied themselves with the Czechs, Moravian Jews tended, understandably enough, to be sympathetic to the “enlightened despots” of Austria who had pioneered the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, beginning in 1782 with Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance.  As Miller writes, “Although Czech speakers constituted approximately 70 percent of Moravia’s population in the second half of the 19th century, Moravia’s Jews consistently sided with—and cast their lot with—the German-speaking minority.”

Replace German with English, and Czech with French, and these divisions provide a precise summary of the cultural orientation and political posture of Montreal Jewry for most of its history, particularly since the French sovereigntist Parti Québécois assumed power in 1976.  Since their arrival from Romania and Russia in the late 19th century, the Jews of this city have been a minority within the once powerful and financially dominant Anglo-Protestant Quebec minority.  Miller’s explanation for Moravian Jews’ identification with the minority German culture applies even more powerfully to the historical experience of Quebec’s Jews within the context of English-speaking North America:

German had become the lingua franca of Central Europe’s Jews, who tended to view it as a supra-national language of culture, enlightenment, and commerce, not as a “national” idiom.

By the time Bohemian-Moravian nationalism had been realized in the 1918 creation of Czechoslovakia, it was in many respects too late for the development of a community of “Jewish Moravians.”  Like the Jews of Quebec during the separatist tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s who threw in their lot with the province’s economically powerful English minority, Moravia’s Jews, who found themselves caught in the struggle between mutually exclusive Czech and German national movements, identified with the latter.

These difficult political calculations have had sad consequences for both Moravian and Montreal Jews—not least among them, the severe depletion of their communities.  Like Moravian Jewry, which suffered a steady attrition after the 1848 revolution, the Jewish population of Montreal has declined from a peak of 120,000 in 1967 to under 80,000 today, despite the influx of some 30,000 French-speaking North African Jews during this period.  Today it is largely alienated from and indifferent to the majority’s culture and political aspirations.

As the positive interwar experience of Czechoslovakia’s Jews attests, Czech nationalism turned out to be strongly philo-Semitic.  Similarly, the sovereigntist or “separatist” movement in Quebec was, at least in its nascent stages, surprisingly friendly toward the province’s Jewish population.  But when René Lévesque was elected as Quebec’s first separatist premier in 1976, hysteria took hold of the Jewish community; mass migration, mostly to Toronto, ensued.  As it turned out, Premier Lévesque was consistently benevolent toward Quebecois Jewry, and his government was more supportive of Jewish communal and educational institutions than any other in the province’s—indeed in all of Canada’s—history.  (The same held true for Levesque’s immediate successor, the distinguished jurist, Lucien Bouchard.)

The Jews’ overwhelming opposition to Quebec’s national aspirations struck me back then, especially as a Zionist, as a serious miscalculation, a sentiment now reinforced by my recently discovered analogies with the Moravian Jewish experience.  Recently, as they have for decades, Quebecois youth in the tens of thousands poured into parks and public venues to celebrate La Fête Nationale, Quebec's equivalent of its southern neighbor’s Fourth of July.  As in past years, I was struck by how similar these proudly nationalist young men and women appeared—with Quebec's blue and white flags draped over their shoulders—to Jewish and Israeli kids celebrating Israel’s independence with their own blue and white flags.  I have resigned myself to the looks of astonishment on the faces of my fellow Montreal Jews at this observation of an analogy that seems to me so self-evident.

That said, second-guessing the past is a fool’s errand, and “backshadowing history” is a form of scholarly malpractice.  Nationalist movements, regardless of how initially benign, inevitably unleash ugly and xenophobic forces beyond the control of their often enlightened founders.  Quebec today, facing a provincial election on September 4, is haunted by demons never imagined, let alone intended, by such noble early separatist leaders as Lévesque and Bouchard.

A resurgent Parti Québécois is reviving the old language wars of the 1970s despite the vast changes effected by Lévesque’s no-nonsense language legislation, which successfully transformed Quebec, especially the once Anglo-dominated city of Montreal, into an unambiguously French society that properly reflects the ethnic culture of almost 80 percent of its residents (not so unlike the manner in which the founders of Israel waged cultural and legislative wars against Yiddish in the new Jewish state).  Worse, the Parti Québécois’ current leader, Pauline Marois, has engaged in ugly demagoguery against all non-Francophone ethnic minorities by proposing a witches’ brew of racist legislation, baldly meant to revive the bitterness that has long simmered within Quebec’s nationalist fringe.

It is impossible to know how much traction Marois’ neo-fascistic rhetoric would have if Anglophones had not fought, then fled, the Quebec of René Lévesque.  What is certain is that the hostility of non-Francophone Quebecois—not least, Quebec’s Jews—to the aspirations of the French majority kept such historical resentments and latent racism alive.  Madame Marois is counting on those resentments and racism in her repulsive bid for power.  In this, she manipulates the ugliest possible manifestation of Quebec’s favorite dictum, Je me souviens

Allan Nadler is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Studies at Drew University, and has recently been appointed rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal, Quebec. 

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