FOR THOSE LOOKING for a sober and readable analysis of the part of Quebec history that concerns the Jewish presence in the province, Jacques Langlais and David Rome's Jews and French Quebecers will go a long way toward neutralizing the sensationalist treatment of the subject found in Mordecai Richler's recent O Canada! O Quebec!
This book is unique both in terms of its modest approach to the Quebec-Jewish relationship and the background of its authors. Jacques Langlais is a Catholic priest and a Quebec nationalist; David Rome is a Zionist and historian. The blending of their disparate viewpoints has produced an insightful reconstruction and analysis of the Jewish fact in Quebec.
Jews are described as having connections with the province from the earliest days of the settlement, when relations between French Quebeckers and Jews were congenial. The situation did not change until after the British conquest on the Plains of Abraham and the imposition of English hegemony.
During the 19th century, however, tensions between the French and the small but growing Jewish community (from 517 in 1871 to about 60,000 at the century's end) began to deteriorate. The authors suggest a number of cogent reasons to explain anti-Jewish hostility among French-Canadians.
After the English conquest, the Catholic Church in Quebec underwent an "ultramontane" phase, that is to say, a period of withdrawal during which it asserted its independence from political control while at the same time imposing its spiritual control over the Quebec masses. As the guarantor of French Quebec's linguistic, cultural, and religious legacies, the Catholic Church assumed an ever more active role in fashioning the ethos of the province.
One of the unpleasant by-products of this situation was the unleashing of anti-Semitic teachings, a considerable store of which the Church had possessed since the Middle Ages. This bias, coupled with the perception that Jews, as wanderers, represented the colonialist's attempt to exploit the resources of the land, resulted in an unpleasant climate for the simple Jewish merchants who were struggling to make a living in the province.
Langlais and Rome show that, despite external pressures, Quebec's Jews managed to create a rich cultural and religious life; by the middle of this century Montreal had become a major centre for Yiddish language and literature, while the Jewish community's educational institutions prospered and expanded. It is nonetheless clear from their book that Quebec Jewry's trajectory has always been defined, at least in part, by the demands of the majority population. Moreover, anglophone Protestants, although more subtle in their animosities than French-Canadians, practised an odious anti-Semitism of their own, especially in the educational sector.
This type of anti-Semitism was mild, however, Compared with the wrathful condemnations of Jews and Judaism that emanated from French-Canadian ecclesiastical, journalistic, and educational sources during the 1930s and 1940s, when a Quebec version of Nazism targeted Jews unceasingly. Langlais and Rome document, with intimidating thoroughness, the way in which these agencies peddled an unbridled hatred of Jews.
The great merit of this concise history of Jews and French Quebeckers is that it presents a balanced view: it shows that if anti-Semitism reached its Canadian apogee in Quebec, it is also in Quebec that the most encouraging efforts at rapprochement have occurred. Interestingly enough, the Catholic Church, having offered its mea culpa to the Jewish community through Vatican 11, has made important strides in effecting more harmonious relationships between Jews and French Quebeckers.
Since the 1970s and the rise to prominence of separatism in Quebec, there has been a hemorrhaging of the Jewish community in Montreal, for reasons that have little to do with anti-Semitism and much to do with economic and political stability. As Langlais and Rome point out, however, the majority of Quebec's Jews, bolstered by the admixture of 20,000 French-speaking Jews from North Africa, are determined to stay the course and remain in Quebec.