Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Jean-François Lisée offended Holocaust survivors by choosing Yom ha-Shoah to make a point about the place of religious and political symbols in the national assembly, said Liberal MNA David Birnbaum.
“Survivors are more than perplexed; they are deeply insulted,” Birnbaum said on April 16, when he was officially nominated as party’s candidate in the riding of D’Arcy McGee for the Oct. 1 provincial election.
Birnbaum said he remains baffled by Lisée’s “contorted explanation” of what he meant when he defended wearing a PQ pin on his lapel in the legislature on April 12 by pointing out that Birnbaum had worn a kippah the day before, while tabling a motion observing Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When Speaker Jacques Chagnon told Lisée to remove the pin, because parliamentary rules do not allow MNAs to display partisan materials in the Salon bleu, Lisée protested against this “hierarchy of convictions” that privileges religious symbols over political or social ones.
After Birnbaum accused him of comparing “a 4,000-year symbol of a people” with a modern-day party logo, Lisée attempted to clarify his position.
“We are all real citizens and the rules must be equal for all, including the display of our convictions, whether its religious or political beliefs,” wrote Lisée on his Facebook page.
“The elected representatives, who are rightly elected for their beliefs and values, should have the right to display them, whether religious or political.”
Rather than criticizing, Lisée maintained that he “applauded” Birnbaum for showing his convictions in the legislature.
Lisée denied disrespecting the Holocaust, saying that it was a tragedy that cannot be compared to anything else in history. This was in addition to a statement issued before the kerfuffle, in which he expressed “profound sympathy and our willingness to be with (the Jewish community and survivors), to remember and to make sure that never will happen again.”
Elsewhere, Lisée remarked how “noble” it was for “a non-practising Jew” like Birnbaum to wear a kippah on such an occasion.
Describing himself as “a proud secular Jew” at his nomination, Birnbaum said what he did in the legislature was “not to score political points.” He said he wore a kippah “solemnly,” to honour the victims, including members of his extended family, “cognizant of the fact that if I had done so in Berlin or Strasbourg (during the Holocaust), I would have signed my death warrant.”
Birnbaum, who was first elected in 2014, is the sole Jewish member of the national assembly. A kippah is a rare sight in the legislative chamber. Birnbaum’s predecessor, Lawrence Bergman, who initiated the Holocaust remembrance ceremony in 1999, never did so in his 20 years in office, even though he was the former president of a modern Orthodox synagogue.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitao was less circumspect in his criticism of Lisée, calling his behaviour “really stupid.” Also present at the nomination were Economy Minister and Deputy Premier Dominique Anglade and Kathleen Weil, the minister responsible for relations with English-speaking Quebecers. Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg, Côte-St-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein and Montreal Councillor Marvin Rotrand were also in attendance, as was a cross-section of the Jewish community.
Birnbaum, 62, a one-time director of the Canadian Jewish Congress in Quebec, was elected with 92 per cent of the vote in 2014.
Despite the spat with Lisée, Birnbaum reserved most of his criticism for the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which is currently leading in opinion polls, especially for its opposition to government officials wearing religious symbols.
Survivors are more than perplexed; they are deeply insulted.
– David Birnbaum
Birnbaum recalled that CAQ Leader François Legault had specifically stated in the national assembly in 2016 that he could not envisage a judge wearing a kippah.
Birnbaum said that Legault is “not sure” that the secretariat for relations with anglophones is “a worthy expense of public funds.” He also accused the CAQ of being less inclusive on the question of who is a Quebecer and criticized its plan to limit immigration and impose a “values” test on applicants.
Under the Liberals, Birnbaum said that Quebec has shed the “absurd” feeling that “the English community is a threat, rather than an ally.”
“The Liberals understand we can live together and not worry about this nonsense over burkinis and hijabs,” said Birnbaum.