Robert Libman: A community in shock welcomes Legault's words on Israel

Quebec’s minorities often feel like political orphans, but the premier’s unequivocal stance helps dissipate that sense of exclusion.

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“Thank you, Premier Legault”, was the sentiment of many Quebec Jews this week.

When it comes to the highly polarizing issue of the Middle East, politicians too often try to tread carefully and be overly nuanced in their comments. François Legault was anything but in his reaction to the attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists.

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With the National Assembly flag at half-mast, Legault correctly affirmed that “nothing, absolutely nothing can justify the attacks by Hamas terrorists on civilians. … I want to tell all the Montreal Jewish community and those in Israel and the world, I want to tell everyone that the Quebec nation is at your side.”

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He also expressed shock at seeing the pro-Palestinian rallies in Montreal and elsewhere in which demonstrators were celebrating the murder of innocent civilians. “It’s shameful,” he said.

Legault’s words were genuinely appreciated by a community in shock, and significant coming from the premier of a province with a spotty history regarding antisemitism. Not to mention that over the past 50 years, the relationship hasn’t been easy between the Jewish community and nationalist-inclined Quebec governments under the Parti Québécois and Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec.

Since the emergence of the PQ-led separatist movement in the 1970s and subsequent language legislation, tens of thousands of Jews who identified primarily with the anglophone community left Quebec. For those who stayed, many played prominent roles in standing up to nationalism in organizations such as Alliance Quebec, the Equality Party, or as constitutional lawyers involved in challenging laws that dared to tread on minority rights.

More recently, the CAQ’s Bill 96 on language and Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols again sent the community reeling and are being challenged. 

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This tension over the years has led some in the anglophone Jewish community to draw parallels between Quebec nationalism and other regimes or to claim that Quebec is antisemitic. But this blanket characterization, heard often enough, is unfair and does not reflect modern-day Quebec. Yes, there are antisemites and incidents in Quebec as there are in other provinces. Campuses are rife with anti-Israel sentiment, sometimes as a cloak for antisemitism, but it’s the case throughout the world and unfortunately, just as prominent, if not more so at times, on English campuses like McGill and Concordia.

The leaders of some of Quebec’s most nationalist governments — such as PQ founder René Lévesque, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry — held great admiration for the state of Israel and the Jewish community. Lévesque termed Jews weather vanes of discrimination and met with the community many times trying to reassure them about their rights in Quebec.

As the only Jew out of 125 MNAs during my years in the National Assembly, I often heard from members of the PQ caucus — hardline nationalists — about their admiration for what Israel accomplished as a modern democratic state, which some saw as a model for their own nationhood ambitions. Lévesque himself once compared the attempt to protect the French language to the revival of Hebrew as the national language of Israel.

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Like Legault, current PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon was also unequivocal in his condemnation, as were Marc Tanguay, interim leader of the provincial Liberals, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. The NDP federally and Québec solidaire provincially were more nuanced in their remarks.

Members of Quebec’s minority communities often feel like political orphans, federally and provincially, and don’t generally feel included when Legault speaks of the Quebec nation. But for members of the Jewish community this week, Legault’s words certainly dissipated that sentiment of exclusion, at least for the time being.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election.

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