MONTREAL — The president of the Dollard des Ormeaux synagogue where the local Liberal MNA distributed a letter on Yom Kippur that his political opponents charge was a thinly veiled solicitation for funds thinks the matter is being overblown.
Yoni Petel, president of Congregation Or Shalom, part of the Association Sépharade de la Banlieue Ouest de Montréal (ASBOM), told The CJN that he doesn’t find anything inappropriate in what Pierre Marsan wrote.
He also does not believe the congregation did anything wrong in allowing the letters into the synagogue.
The Parti Québécois government is asking the Director-General of Elections to conduct an inquiry. The third-party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) presented a motion against the solicitation of political donations in houses of worship in the National Assembly on Sept. 17.
Marsan’s letter made reference to the “generous contributions” to ASBOM during the previous Liberal government and the help it received to obtain a coveted permit for a subsidized daycare.
“I’m not going to say it’s much ado about nothing… but I think politics is politics, and we are in the crossfire,” Petel said.
He does, however, regret that he didn’t vet the letter before about a dozen of them were placed in a basket near the synagogue’s doors.
“Someone called us from Pierre Marsan’s office and asked if some letters could be dropped in the synagogue. We assumed it was some kind of New Year’s message,” Petel said.
He said the congregation has a good relationship with Marsan, who has been the MNA for Robert Baldwin since 1994, but allowing his letter into the synagogue should not be interpreted as favouritism.
“We are non-partisan, but that does not mean we are closed when our deputy wants to communicate with our members,” he said.
When there are elections, the candidates of all parties are invited to speak at the synagogue, he added.
Or Shalom prohibits any solicitation of money by any outside group, whether political or not, at the synagogue or its adjacent community centre, Petel said.
“It’s for him [Marsan] to answer what he meant, but I do not see any explicit request for funds. If that was the goal, that would be inappropriate. He does not even ask that we vote Liberal, or bring up the charter [of Quebec values], which would have resonated with us,” Petel added.
“He does ask for our members to become Liberal members or to renew their memberships, which maybe costs $5, which could be an indirect solicitation, but other than that, no… I think people are over-reading its contents.”
The letter, he stressed, was on Liberal letterhead and did not contain the names of ASBOM or its leaders. The synagogue, founded 36 years ago, has a membership of 250 to 300 families, he said.
Marsan said after the letter’s existence was reported in the media on Sept. 16 that he was not trying to solicit money from the synagogue members nor had he acted improperly in helping the synagogue get a centre de la petite enfance (CPE). The awarding of the scarce CPE spaces has been a source of controversy.
He does, however, wish he had phrased the letter differently.
“I assume responsibility for the letter,” he stated. “If you ask me if I would have written the letter otherwise today, I would say yes. What is done is done. I must take responsibility.”
But he blames “a sympathizer or a zealous volunteer” for its distribution in the synagogue.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard later tweeted, “With the PLQ [Parti Libéral du Québec], fundraising is conducted in a popular way. Mr. Marsan’s letter was inappropriate, and that will not happen again.”
The letter has taken on significance amid the heated debate over the proposed charter of Quebec values, which has been categorically rejected by Couillard.
The CAQ is staking out a middle ground on the issue.
“There is a consensus in Quebec on separating religion from politics and even the Liberal leader claimed to be in favour of this fundamental principle,” CAQ house leader Gérard Deltell said in a Sept. 16 statement.
He accused Couillard of then hypocritically allowing his party to try to raise money in a house of worship. Moreover, he charged that the Liberal party is trying to play on the fears of the Jewish community over the charter.