The many liberties that make North America history’s greatest experiment in mass democracy and freedom should not be taken for granted. Our comfortable lives in the United States and Canada often spawn a dangerous complacency. Canadian Jews in particular must be vigilant about championing the freedom agenda, especially with the ugly authoritarianism overtaking Quebec
Of course, this isn’t a specifically Jewish issue. This is an all-Canada issue and a broader human rights issue. But therein lies its power. American Jews, in particular, have been extremely effective in advancing all-American issues that benefit American Jews. This alliance of altruism and interest has historically been best expressed in the American Jewish alliance with the Democratic Party and liberalism itself.
As refugees from eastern Europe (mostly), American Jews were traumatized by czarist oppression. In fighting for human rights, they were fighting for Jewish rights – and it worked, facilitating Jewish communal growth and individual Jewish prosperity. Especially after president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought Jews into his Democratic Party coalition of the “Forgotten Man,” American Jews became so devoted to progressive ideals, they often confused Judaism and liberalism. Many now seem more committed to liberalism than Judaism itself.
Today, the situation is touchier. Most American Jews are so integrated, assimilated and acculturated that they lack the insecurity or recent memory of oppression that motivated their parents or grandparents. But, most dismaying, liberalism itself has changed. The 1960s spawned an identity politics that often sacrifices true liberalism’s universal ideals to protect certain groups – and Jews these days are rarely considered one of the groups.
The civil war within the left can be illustrated by looking at the proposed charter of Quebec values. Once upon a time, such an affront to freedom and diversity, squelching free religious expression for anyone on a government payroll, would offend everyone on the left. And it certainly is offensive to traditional liberals who believe in universal freedoms and erring on the side of liberty. But there are those today on the radical, politically correct left, in Canada and elsewhere, who would salute this charter as a necessary bulwark against organized religion and as a form of collective affirmative action, using government to protect Quebec values. Identity politics, in America, Canada, and elsewhere, championing those deemed oppressed even over core ideals, encourages a PC view that ignores Palestinian terrorism and Israeli democracy to condemn Israel and Zionism.
While Canadian Jews also tended to be pro-rights and left-leaning, the dynamic north of the border was and is different. One reason why Canadian Jews now must mobilize is because Canadian ideology views the whole questions of rights differently than most Americans do. Canada is more collectivist. Canadian rights are granted to Canadians by the government and are not inherent as they are to Americans. That’s why a provincial legislature can pass legislation overriding core freedoms, “notwithstanding” the rights granted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Americans find language laws, language police and restrictions on what religious people wear unfathomable, because they believe their rights belong to them and aren’t issued by the government. All Canadians, but particularly Canadian Jews, should hop aboard that freedom train and trigger a broader debate in Canada about what liberty in this extraordinary democracy is all about.
The charter of Quebec values debacle proves this debate’s importance. Even if the charter, imposed by a minority government of mediocrities, fails, the damage has been done. Quebec has become a laughingstock among the world’s democracies, which is an unfortunate PR blow.
Even more important, such proposals have a chilling effect, even if they fail. The fact that any kippah-wearer, or hijab-wearer or turban-wearer in Quebec today has felt diminished, inhibited, threatened, or even outraged by the legislation is an imposition on them and their community. It’s simply immoral, in a diverse, multicultural democracy, for such proposals to be advanced by the rulers in charge. Note that Israel, which is pilloried in the international community for all sorts of alleged offences, has no such legislation against its Muslim citizens – and, as far as I know, has never contemplated it.
This issue is not only one of self-interest, it’s a core value. The Torah itself urges us to “proclaim liberty throughout the land.” We understand that proclaiming sometimes isn’t enough. You have to fight for your rights, too.