Montreal will defy its hateful fringes

By Allan Nadler, January 27, 2011

Last Sunday, on accepting the Golden Globes' Best Actor Award for his role in Barney's Version, Paul Giamatti oozed out a tribute to the city in which it was filmed, "an incredible, beautiful city, Montreal, which I dream about…"

It was thrilling to hear these words about my hometown. Montrealers are, according to all polls, the most liberal, secular and "tolerant" of all Canadians. I just love the place; but as with all love, there comes pain.

So, the very morning after the Globes, I awoke to the distressing news that, at almost the same at which Giamatti was praising Montreal, co-ordinated attacks were being perpetrated against four of the city's shuls, and a yeshivah. Windows were shattered and antisemitic graffiti sprayed on these sacred sites. Such organised attacks on Jewish institutions have been increasing at an alarming rate over the past decade. And, unlike the pettier expressions of animosity against Jews in Quebec's past, this time they have been the work not of French Catholics, but of young members of the city's exploding Muslim population.

While Quebec has a long history of overt antisemitism, French Quebecois antisemitism has declined dramatically. None of the fears that a nationalist revolution evoked in a community composed heavily of European Holocaust survivors came to pass. Quite the contrary: upon attaining power in 1976, the separatist Parti Quebecois was highly supportive of cultural minority communities, including Jewish ones.

Not that secularised Quebec society has no problems with its religious minorities. Aside from rising evidence of an underclass of Muslim extremists, the most vexing social challenge now facing Quebec is how far its laws should extend to tolerate religious practices that grate against its proud secularism. The Assemblée Nationale is currently voting on how far to accommodate Muslim women covering their hair and faces in the public sphere.

This French-style laicité has also generated occasional tensions within the local Chasidic community. Five years ago, renovations to the YMCA in the heavily Chasidic neighbourhood of Outremont resulted in pubescent bokhers getting views of scantily dressed French shiksas performing aerobics through the windows of their yeshivah. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby the windows of the exercise room were glazed, at the expense of the Satmar community. Thanks to this knack for problem-solving - and despite the violence emanating from the city's Muslim fringes - Montreal, for all its challenges, is the city about which I, and Paul Giamatti, dream.

Allan Nadler is Professor of Religion, and Director of the Jewish Studies Programme at Drew University, New Jersey

Last updated: 11:25am, January 27 2011