As Quebec suffers through another dishonest, demagogic provincial election campaign, wherein the Parti Québécois plays its “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” flirtation with separatism and referendums, Quebec’s Jews are panicking, justifiably.
Quebec separatists are playing to the “yahoo vote,” the least enlightened, sophisticated, intolerant voters. Their leaders enjoy riling up the masses, unleashing a xenophobic us-versus-them nationalism. Much of the prejudice is directed at Muslims – Jews are often collateral damage in this truly provincial assault on “the others,” those who dare to differ.
Still, while assessing this want-our-cake-and-eat-it-too movement that is all too often simplistic, spoiled and snivelling, refusing to take responsibility for its words and actions, it’s worth contemplating a mystery whose answer is itself revealing: why don’t Quebec Separatists love Zionists?
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about all separatists. In both Montreal and Jerusalem, I’ve had rich, exciting, inspiring exchanges with Quebec nationalists about the challenges of building a constructive national identity in a modern world. In intense, meaningful, off-the-record conversations, we’ve shared concerns about the me, me, me, my, my, my, hyper-individualist world of the iPad and iPod, which obliterates values, subverts collective solidarity and addicts our young to materialism and immediate gratification. We agree that we all need to have a deeper sense of history than the latest YouTube sensations of singing babies or playful cats. And we rejoice in the anchors, frameworks and ties we gain from being part of a community.
Human beings need to be positioned in three dimensions, both vertically and horizontally: vertically meaning with a proud past, a satisfying present and an appealing future, with a spiritual dimension as an added bonus; and horizontally, meaning connected to one another communally and existentially.
Given that resonance, Quebec separatists and Zionists should be friends. Quebec separatists should turn to Jewish nationalists for reassurance that a distinct language, a particular narrative, a defined sense of community, can be the basis for an enduring national identity, even if you’ve never had your own state. Quebecers should learn from the extraordinary success of the Zionist project – a.k.a. the State of Israel – about the joys and challenges of nation-building and about the process of transitioning from a people without a state to a fully functioning nation-state.
Moreover, for those proud Quebecers who nevertheless pragmatically prefer to live in Canada, they can learn from non-Israeli Jewish Zionists about different skills. Jews are experts at being loyal citizens of many different countries while preserving a distinct identity. For centuries, Jews have created a win-win, benefitting from belonging to a particular community while also functioning in great, thriving liberal democracies such as the United States and Canada.
Yet, despite all these overlapping interests and all these resonances, many Quebec separatists are often intensely anti-Zionist. Why?
Let’s acknowledge Canadian Jews’ own double discomfort with this conversation. Canadian Jews don’t like emphasizing their distinct national identity too much, nor do Canadian Jews, most of whom are federalists, wish to offer Quebec separatists tutorials on nation-building.
But that, of course, isn’t the whole story. For decades, most Quebec separatists have bashed Zionists and Zionism for three main reasons. First, they’ve swallowed the Palestinian propaganda line that universalizes the fight against Israel by demonizing Zionism inaccurately as imperialist, colonialist and racist. Anti-Zionism, the world’s trendiest hatred, has become a central tenet of far-left ideology. Many separatists are happy to join the pile-on. It makes them feel worldly.
Moreover, many separatists’ reading of Zionism has been distorted by their disdain for most Canadian Jews’ federalism. Rather than seeing the complexity of different identities in today’s world – especially modern Jews’ identity – simplistic separatists prefer to place “the Jews” in a box.
And therein lies the third reason. Unfortunately, for too many separatists, the us-versus-them box that they and their leaders construct as a foundation for their movement builds their own sense of “us” by demonizing the Jews and others as “them.”
Nationalism is beautiful when it cultivates solidarity from within, but it turns ugly when it becomes more about demonizing “them” rather than nurturing an “us.” That is Palestinian nationalism’s great weakness and sin, with too many Palestinians dedicated to destroying the Jewish state rather than building their own. And, I regret to conclude, that perhaps in that xenophobic, nihilistic ugliness, we learn the deep dark secret of Quebec separatism, too.