In politics as in engineering, subtleties count. Just as you can’t make a workable machine based on approximate measurements, because nothing will fit, you can’t function effectively with sloppy terminology and blurred distinctions, because nothing will make sense. Unfortunately, Quebec has recently witnessed an epidemic of slackness and Orwellian absurdity that has inflamed tensions and darkened the collective mood, within the Jewish community and beyond. Misleaders take note: sponsorship is not censorship, and oppression is not freedom.
In November, the decision my Montreal’s Federation CJA to disinvite harsh anti-Israel critics from Le Mood, the festival of Jewish learning it sponsors, triggered a predictable – but hypocritical – outcry. The speakers violated the mainstream Jewish consensus by rejecting Israel’s right to exist and associating with organizations that spread the lie connecting Israel to the discredited South African apartheid regime. Inevitably, their supporters yelled “censorship.”
Pulling sponsorship isn’t censorship. In open societies like Canada, it’s hard to censor – meaning ban – speech. Governments shouldn’t suppress speech; that would be censorship. But why should a communal organization underwrite, sponsor or pay for speakers who reject the community’s consensus values? Do feminists host male chauvinists at their conferences, or do gays host opponents of gay marriage so that everyone learns all points of view?
Moreover, cries of suppression are hard to believe when Israel’s ideological enemies make their case in so many forums – on campus, in the blogosphere and through the media. Federation CJA sponsors, underwrites and pays for a much broader and diverse range of speakers than many other communities do. Hopefully, in the future, the many people who represent the Jewish community will beware inviting Israel-haters to communal events to avoid the messiness of disinviting them. But Federation CJA was justified in defending its core values and refusing to bankroll Israel-haters.
At the same time, we’ve recently seen a growing distortion in the debate over the Parti Québécois’ authoritarian charter of values, which should be called the charter that devalues diversity. This initiative concerns possible government actions where the bias should favour maximizing freedom and individual autonomy.
In their desperate attempt to justify this unjustifiable assault on freedom, individualism and religious liberty, separatist extremists are committing acts of historical hijacking. In their Nov. 18 letter to the New York Times, Quebec’s minister for democratic institutions, Bernard Drainville, and its minister responsible for the Montreal region and international affairs, Jean-Francois Lisée, invoked one of America’s patron saints of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, to rationalize the Quebec government’s current onslaught against religious freedom.
Demonstrating shocking ignorance of Jefferson and America’s liberal democratic philosophy, the two mentioned Jefferson’s commitment to building a “wall of separation between church and state” to support the Parti Québécois’ proposed ban on public employees wearing “conspicuous religious symbols on the job,” in a province where even librarians and doctors would be defined as public employees.
What they missed is that America’s founders wanted separation of church and state to protect church from state. Jefferson defended liberty and individualism throughout his career, including religious freedom. Invoking Jefferson to justify this illiberal, authoritarian law is like invoking Albert Einstein to support medical quackery.
I invite the two ministers – along with the Jewish community’s “Le Mood” critics – to enroll in one of my U.S. history courses at McGill University to learn who Jefferson was, what the United States stands for, and what freedom and tolerance, pluralism and autonomy, truly are.
While studying, they’ll learn that Quebec is now demonstrating a classic pathology. Demagogic politicians started this initiative to win votes among those more motivated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment than anti-Semitic sentiment per se. But we’re seeing a monster being unleashed. In stirring fears of the “other,” we’re seeing difference demeaned, individuals menaced and true oppression looming.
These political demagogues are to blame for every act of harassment, physical or verbal, directed against any hijab-, sheitel-, kippah- or turban-wearer. In an act of cynicism and shortsightedness, leaders played to the worst instincts of their most extreme supporters, thus validating ugly behaviour from the top. Leaders in a democracy are supposed to appeal to our better angels. We let dictators do the kind of damage now being done to Quebec’s delicate social fabric.
We need a coalition of conscience throughout Canada – but led by our French Canadian brothers and sisters – to stand strong and denounce this, in the name of democracy, pluralism and not that word I hate, tolerance, but rather real, respectful acceptance of each other’s freedom to be different.