Was Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre simply trying to shore up his bona fides with Jewish electors when he sprang a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) question on Projet Montréal mayoralty candidate Valérie Plante at their English-language debate on Oct. 23?
Or was he also trying to deflect attention from one of his party’s candidates in Outremont that the chassidic community and others object to because of a history of, what they see as, his unjust criticism and inappropriate references to Chassidim over a number of years?
Coderre is seeking a second term in the Nov. 5 election. Plante, who was elected leader of the main opposition party at city hall in December, is running neck-and-neck with Coderre, according to the most recent polls.
Jean-Marc Corbeil is running for borough councillor in Outremont’s Robert Bourassa district on the Équipe Denis Coderre pour Montréal slate. Corbeil frequently attends borough council meetings and is seen as part of a group of residents who strongly oppose accommodating the Chassidim’s religious needs.
“I can’t read the mayor’s mind, but it certainly gave the impression he was trying to distract from his problems with Jean-Marc Corbeil,” Diane Shea, a member of Friends of Hutchison Street, a community organization that seeks harmonious relations between Chassidim and other citizens, told The CJN.
“It was obviously a cheap ploy for the Jewish vote, as he knows he has lost support with Corbeil as a candidate in Outremont. It is very difficult to understand why he would support such a candidate.”
She said concerns about Lacerte and his supporters were raised with Coderre by some Outremont citizens as far back as June.
Plante herself has called on Coderre to withdraw Corbeil’s candidacy.
“It’s not acceptable in 2017 to have a candidate who is openly anti-Semitic,” Plante told Radio-Canada. Coderre responded by saying that he is satisfied that Corbeil is not anti-Semitic.
Of special concern is Corbeil’s association with Pierre Lacerte, who runs the blog, Accomodements Outremont, through which he denounces the Chassidim’s alleged violations of the law, often in a ridiculing manner.
When three prominent community members tried unsuccessfully to sue him for harassment and defamation, Corbeil testified in Lacerte’s defence.
Corbeil commented on the blog numerous times before running for office, including a 2013 commentary he wrote after the lawsuit was dismissed, which has been circulated on social media by his opponents.
After Lacerte posted a cartoon of the three men who had brought the suit being crucified, Corbeil wrote: “Beautiful crucifixion! Great art!… Bravo Mr. Lacerte, the judge has recognized your integrity, your talent, the truth of your words and, above all, your courage.”
Projet Montréal’s Mindy Pollak, 28, a member of the Chassidic community, is running for re-election in Outremont’s Claude Ryan district against Coderre’s Jeremy Murray and independent Chantal Raymond.
Longtime community spokesperson Alex Werzberger, one of the three plaintiffs against Lacerte, who has supported Coderre, is working to make sure Corbeil does not get elected. “Let’s just say he is no friend of the Jewish community,” said Werzberger.
Corbeil himself has been avoiding questions on the subject from the media.
In his first four years, Coderre has generally endeared himself to the Jewish community, thanks to his firm opposition to anti-Semitism, his commemoration of the Holocaust, the creation of a police hate crimes unit and his support for Israel, to which he led a mission last November.
But among Outremont Chassidim, who represent a sizable voting block, there is disappointment that he has not intervened in some of its disputes with the borough, including last year’s ban on new synagogues on two major streets.
At the end of the Oct. 23 debate, one of only two face-to-face encounters between the leading contenders, Coderre asked Plante if she was ready to denounce BDS, as he has.
Visibly surprised, Plante did not answer directly at first, but instead asked Coderre why he visited Iran last October, where he met with his counterpart in Tehran, given its poor human rights record. She eventually concluded that she does not support BDS.
She later told the media that, “It’s not this question of BDS that is going to lead to peace in the Middle East. It’s not the solution.”