Debate Magazine

Growing up as a Jew in Montreal

Posted on the 11 April 2015 by Mikelumish @IsraelThrives
Mike Bell

{This is a guest post and was received via email.  The opinions expressed are entirely those of the writer.  -  Editor's note.}
MontrealHearing of the experience of growing up as a Jew in Paris is disturbing. I want to share my positive experiences of growing up elsewhere, i.e., in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada - and why I think that it's different. But first let's start with the bad, which
really isn't so bad, when you consider the endings.
I'll start with the one physical anti-Semitic incident I did
experience, shocking because it stands out for how unusual it was.
I was in high school, and was outside a Jewish institution with a
friend. Some yobs drove by, called us Jews, got out, and sprayed
us with water pistols. It felt like it might escalate. My friend
threw some juice that he was drinking on them, and I threw a rock
at their car, with the promise of more (I must have been a lot
braver/stupider back then!). They drove off and never came back.
Just for the record, these were English-speaking "white trash" yobs
of some sort. From the look of them, I couldn't imagine that they'd
have any Middle Eastern connection whatsoever.
Although I look Jewish, I don't sound Jewish in French. This
statement will make sense to people from Montreal, but for the rest
of you, you'll just have to take it at face value. As a result, I
often hear what people really think. There is "old school"
anti-Semitism in Quebec. It's not all that rare to hear anti-Semitic
commentary when people are sure that they're talking to one of "their
own". On a couple of occasions, I've arranged for the issuer of the
comments to find out that I'm Jewish, in some subtle way. They're
inevitably embarassed and shame-faced. What I'm getting at is that
while people might say these things, they won't say (or act) upon
them openly. They know that it isn't acceptable in the broader
society. As strange as it might sound to say this, it doesn't bother
me very much that people have such views as long as they have no
desire or opportunity to act upon them.
Interestingly, I have never, EVER, had any hostile reaction to being
Jewish from an Arab or Muslim person, physical or verbal. I have
heard anti-Israel commentary from those sources (but more on that
later), but never anti-Semitism as such, or personal affront. Never.
Not once. Surprising as it might seem, I'd say that the arrival of
many Muslims in Montreal has probably lowered the overall level of
anti-Semitism, as the "yobs" have another group to focus on instead.
In other words, rather than the yobs and Arab/Muslim anti-Semites
joining forces like in France, the feeling that I get is that it's
more of a case of the Jews and the Arab/Muslims joining forces
against the yobs! A key example of this was seen when the Quebec
government tried to ban religious symbols of dress among public /
parapublic employees, French-style. An image that stays in my head is
of one demonstration where hijabis, hassids and someone waiving an
Israeli flag were all demonstrating against the common ennemy of
intolerance. Whatever else the Quebec government of the day achieved,
they brought this crowd together... Incidentally, they lost the next
election in great part because of this issue, and their proposed
restrictions are history.
I think that we have a society that is generally more tolerant of
difference than Europe is, but at the same time more intolerant of
extremism. There's nothing like the Front National around here.
Let's go back to elementary school. Every so often, there would be
school-offered hot dogs, for some event or other. I remember the
teachers assuring us that they would be 100% beef, not pork, so that
"everyone" could eat them (there weren't many Hindus back then). In
retrospect, the message was subtle, and probably unintentional: we'll
meet you 1/3 of the way. You get beef, but not Halal/Kosher beef.
We'll make some adjustment for you, but not change everything. If you
want more, you're going overboard and so no free hot dog for you, I
suppose.  Looking back on it, I think that the willingness to make
some - but not total - adjustment was important. Europe seems to
be very binary in these things. Incidentally, the vast majority of
the Muslims I know today, including people who pray five times per
day, are willing to eat non-Halal beef. To this day, I think that
the sensitive thing to do is to offer "no pork" and "vegetarian"
options at any large gathering. I'm happy to make what is known as
"reasonable accomodations", and I expect the same in return. The
emphasis is on the "reasonable".
There is a short strip of stores in Montreal where can be found a
Halal butcher, a Judaica store and a storefront fundamentalist
church. Somehow, everybody goes about their business. Muslims attend
the Jewish hospital for the Kosher food. It's fairly common to find
female staff wearing a veil. Nobody - other than the previous Quebec
government - seems to really care. The parts of Quebec where people
do care are the parts with almost no immigrants! Other parts of
Canada seem similar, but with even less tension. In Toronto,
synagogues often have large JNF fundraising or Israel Bonds signs
outside. I've never seen one of them be vandalised. Moncton's
synagogue is on the corner of a street named after its former Rabbi.
I've never seen any security guards around any of these places.
I often wait for a bus outside an "extremist" mosque in Montreal.
I've yet to see anyone behaving in a yobbish way. Amusingly, there is
a Chabad center not far away from it. I've yet to hear of them having
problems with each other. As far as I can tell, they happily ignore
each others' existence. I've heard of worse ways to fix such problems.
Flying El-Al out of Toronto is pretty much like flying with any
other airline, save that El-Al has extra personnel at the check-in
desks for questioning passengers, as they seem to do everywhere.
Amusingly, the check-in desk is just around the corner from the
Saudia one. There isn't anyone with machine guns around.
While it isn't rare to hear Arabs/Muslims criticising Israel, I
wouldn't say that it's any more extreme than what I hear from other
people. Curiously the pushback to it often comes from a surprising
source: other Arabs, typically Christian Lebanese, some of whom
have great admiration for Israel. Indeed, I've had a couple of
experiences where I've found myself telling some that while Israel
is a much better place than the rest of the neighbourhood, it isn't
as perfect as they imagine. There's one in particular that I jokingly
refer to as the "Israeli Consul". He'd have no difficulty getting
along with Liberman, but would be a little too Zionist for Tel Aviv.
I could see Bennett telling him to tone it down. He's quite happy
to share these views in public and with Muslims around, by the way.
Needless to say, he doesn't get broad agreement, but they get along
anyway. Similarly, I've heard religious Muslims heavily criticising
the Saudi Arabians for being extremists. Obviously, I agree. One
of my most bizarre experiences has been hearing a Muslim asking me
about Israel (he knows I'm Jewish and have visited) and what it's
like there. He told me that he thinks that people's rights are
better respected in Israel than in Arab countries and was wondering
if it's true. Somehow, he figured out the truth, despite being from
North Africa. I pointed out that even the Muslim Brotherhood (viz.
the Islamic Movement) fares better in Israel than in Egypt these
days. What I've also seen, many times, is many individual Muslims
becoming less religious and less traditional over time. Veils
giving way to hats. People starting to drink alcohol. Daughters
moving in with boyfriends. In short, the same trends that happened
with much of the Jewish community over the last hundred years.
So the big question to my mind is, WHY? Why do we have fewer
"problems" here? Granted, we're not perfect (just like Israel isn't),
but it's a much better situation than Europe, and as far as I can
tell, nearly everyone wants to keep things the way that they are.
There's a minority of people who want to join ISIS, surely, but they
do not dominate the discourse and would generally be perceived as
mental defectives.
Here is my analysis:
1) We have a long history of "living together". Canada has never been
a uni-ethnic country. Nobody cares that much about the natives in
reality (who have it MUCH worse than Arabs in Israel, incidentally),
so let's leave them out of the analysis. Largely because of the risk
of the American revolution spreading north, the British had to come
to an understanding with the French population, rather than a
merciless crushing as they had done in the past. A compromise was
reached. Neither side was overjoyed, and that hasn't changed, but it
has remained liveable. So there's a tradition that varies from the
"all or nothing" of places like France, which have historically
crushed minority populations (Corsica would be the most obvious
example). Bad as things are in the UK, they have more of a tradition
of dealing with such things - and immigrants also fare better.
2) We don't really mean it with multiculturalism beyond anglo and
franco. In practice, we welcome any delicious food that you bring
with you and that's pretty much where it stops. Our food was really
bad, and even a reprobate racist would agree that immigration has
improved this! We'll tolerate any funny way you want to dress or
odd things that you want to put on your head - we don't really care
either way. We'll make some reasonable accomodation for your dietary
restrictions, much as we do for those with allergies. You're of
course welcome to pray in the non-denominational chapel, like
everyone else. But move beyond this, and you hit a bit of a brick
wall.
3) We DO mean it with multi-"ethnicism", multi-"religionism" or
multi-"racism" - terms that I just made up. By and large, if you
want to be like us, we don't really care what you look like or to
what God you like to pray. We'll even vote you into office. And not
just in left-wing socialist parties. The right-wingers will happily
have you too. They've got room for anyone who agrees with them. Unlike
the left-wingers, they tend to really mean it, too. It's downright
heartwarming to see, sometimes.
4) There's pressure to conform for economic reasons. You want to make
a big show of praying five times per day (Muslims) or of minimising
contact with the opposite sex to a bare minimum (ultra-Orthodox Jews)?
Sure, but don't expect that most jobs will be open to you (in
reality). You'll suffer economically. And you'll know the reason. So
will your kids, who may choose not to do the same.
5) We select immigrants. We've taken in a fairly reasonable number
over the years, but it's actually fairly difficult to be selected,
and if you don't have a reasonable education and work experience
or some business know-how, you probably don't have a chance. Chances
are that you were at least middle class in your society of origin.
And you know what? Middle class people have a fair bit in common
worldwide. That's the big open secret of successful immigration.
Geographically, we're fairly hard to get to, and airlines are fined
for inadmissible passengers. In short, that means that even if you're
a refugee, that you probably at least qualified for a visitor or
student visa at some point. There are exceptions, but they're not the
norm. And the norm is what's important - not the occasional exceptions.
Europe, on the other hand, seems to have immigration mostly from the
lower classes. It's politically incorrect to say it, but I think that
it's a HUGE part of the problem.
6) There is repression, and it's sometimes necessary. It's sad to
say, but for some people, nothing else works. You really think that
beating your daughter is the way to make her behave? Some people
try it.  Some even get away with it. But we're not going to care
less because the victim is "ethnic". A couple of trips to jail, and
you'll either lose your taste for it, or leave the country. You
think beating random Jews (or Muslims, or whoever) up is fun? The
police will come down on you like a tonne of bricks. You're better
off picking fights in bars, which may well get ignored. You want
to develop a taste of the Islamic State? The Harper government isn't
going to find it funny. Expect to have problems.
7) Finally, and specifically on the anti-Semitism issue, I think
that there's a huge unspoken factor. Anti-Semitism just isn't very
popular in the "host" society. If you go around spouting hatred
against Jews, you're going to hear about it. From your friends. From
your colleagues. You'll be a liability. Soon, you'll shut up, out of
your own self-interest. You might even start thinking differently
some day, when you discover that Jews will generally be nice and
helpful to you. But in the mean-time, it will be those of your
countrymen (or co-religionists) who feel otherwise who speak the
loudest. And, like most people, you'll likely go with the flow. And
the flow isn't to be an anti-Semite - if nothing else, it'll make you
re-evaluate your views when you meet your first Jews. You'll turn
instead to making fun of the American government, the Harper
government, or the Quebec government instead. There's lots of
material to work with, and it gets a better reception.
I'm afraid that what has happened in places like France is that
Arab/Muslim immigrants have integrated just TOO well. The underlying
"flow" of the society has anti-Semitism, and it has mixed in with
Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism to continue or become extremism. In Canada,
I've often found that immigrants are the most loyal of Canadians,
the ones who will most vehemently defend the prevailing norms of
society. Maybe the same is true elsewhere - and that's a scary
thought. If their first contact with old-stock French people confirms
their anti-Semitism, the worst can be expected, because Arab/Muslim
societies aren't in a good place to start with with respect to Jews.
(As an aside, for all its problems, I think that Israel is closer
to Canada in dealing with minorities than it is to Europe. It has
had much recent and successful experience with immigration. It's
easy to point to Ethiopians and show that they're relatively
disadvantaged. But look how far they've come in a short time. Give
it another generation... Israelis are quite loud (even obnoxious!)
about what they think, and so the problems that do exist are more
apparent. Integrating the Arab minority to the broader society has
been much less successful, and the reasons are obvious, BUT I think
that this is changing. A few years ago, I was speaking with an
Israeli Arab (in Toronto) who had left about 40 years before. It
was an eye-opening experience in terms of the progress that has
happened since. Educational achievement among Arabs in Israel is
improving rapidly. There is greater economic integration. Israeli
Arabs have a better opinion of Jews than most Arabs elsewhere [1],
which says a lot. I think that in fact, the situation of Arabs in
Israel may be better than the situation of Arabs in Europe.  At the
same time, I wouldn't give Israel all the credit. I think the fact
that a cross-section of Arab society remained after 1948, surely
has a lot to do with it.)
[1] Poll: 90% of ME views Jews unfavorably - But Pew poll finds only
35% of Israeli Arabs express bad opinion of Jews.

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