MONTREAL — The community’s commemoration of Kristallnacht’s 75th anniversary waded into controversy Sunday when its final speaker – a well-known Orthodox rabbi – drew an analogy between Jews being forced to take off their kippot under Nazism and under the Parti Québécois government’s Bill 60, the proposed charter of Quebec values.
In the audience were Quebec Immigration and Cultural Communities Minister Diane de Courcy, Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, as well as municipal politicians and community and diplomatic figures.
“For reasons we will never understand, Jewish symbols were found to be provocative [in Nazi Germany],” Rabbi Reuben Poupko said to hundreds of people crowded into Gelber Conference Centre.
Referring to a rabbi killed by the Nazis for refusing to take off his kippah, Rabbi Poupko said, “To those who would sit in the back rooms of political offices and make calculations about short-term political gains made upon the altar of social harmony, we would remind them that this kippah has met more daunting challenges in the past – and we haven’t taken it off.”
He asked Quebec government politicians, “What right do you have to discuss it, let alone prohibit it? Quebec identity is not so fragile that it is threatened by a kippah, a head scarf or an oversized crucifix.”
The bill, introduced Nov. 7, would prohibit all provincial and municipal public and para-public employees from wearing “religious objects that overtly indicate a religious affiliation” or otherwise express their beliefs. It has been widely criticized, especially by religious groups.
The comments by Rabbi Poupko, spiritual leader at Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, drew enthusiastic applause, despite earlier admonitions to the audience by Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre organizers to refrain from clapping.
And despite coming at the end of the program, the remarks seemed to overshadow what until then was a conventionally solemn program underscoring a milestone anniversary of the horrific events that shattered thousands of Jewish lives on Nov. 9-10, 1938 and foreshadowed the Holocaust.
The evening included video testimonies by four Kristallnacht survivors – Leo Dortort, Ursula Feist, Charlotte Lintzel, and Willie Glaser – as well as musical interludes, an insightful analysis of Kristallnacht by guest speaker Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto, and remarks by Israeli Consul General Joel Lion, who, like others, spoke of the need to remember Kristallnacht and to fight anti-Semitism.
“There is a very, very small fire burning here,” the diplomat said in his comments, which alluded to the charter’s kippah ban in a more oblique way than Rabbi Poupko did later. “We have to make sure it does not grow.”
Based on the reception he received, many in the audience seemed pleased by Rabbi Poupko’s remarks, but not all applauded, and at least one attendee who preferred not to be identified said he was “appalled.”
“As a child of parents who miraculously survived Auschwitz, I was appalled by the inappropriate references to the Quebec charter,” he said, especially the “apparent comparison” between a possible Quebec law and anything Nazi-like.
“Even though the Quebec bill may be odious, this type of comparison is outrageous, irresponsible demagoguery,” he said.
“Quebec and Canada is not Nazi Germany, not now, never was and never will be,” he said.