In the midst of the High Holidays, two Jewish organizations have positioned themselves on opposite sides of the controversy over a Parti Québécois candidate.
B’nai Brith Canada is standing behind its demand that PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée turf Michelle Blanc, who is running in the Montreal riding of Mercier in the Oct. 1 provincial election, accusing her of anti-Semitism and racism.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has defended Blanc, with whom it has had an amicable relationship over a number of years and rejects the idea that she feels animosity toward Jews.
The uproar began after Lisée publicized a private letter dated Sept. 7, in which B’nai Brith demanded that Blanc’s candidacy be withdrawn and gave him until Sept. 12 to respond.
The letter charged that Blanc has “publicly expressed … anti-Semitic, racist and prejudicial sentiments for more than 10 years, including during the current electoral campaign.”
It cited an article that she posted on her personal website in 2007, in which she “ridiculed and collectively caricatured” members of the Outremont Hasidic community.
“It would be so much easier for them and for me that they truly disappear from my sight, just as they seem to do the impossible – disappear me from theirs,” she reportedly wrote.
B’nai Brith tracked down the post after someone told the organization that in 2011, she tweeted, “S—, I forgot to celebrate Hitler’s birthday last week!”
By Sept. 13, Blanc had not only refused to apologize, but said that she did not need to, telling the media that CIJA has “already defended me.”
Blanc has since reportedly been instructed by Lisée, who continues to defend her, to say nothing more publicly about the matter.
David Ouellette, CIJA’s director of research and public affairs, initially said that he doesn’t “believe for a second that Michelle Blanc harbours anti-Semitic feelings,” and that CIJA thinks her “generalizations” about the Hasidic community were “regrettable,” but a remark about Hitler was an attempt at black humour.
Yet as questions about her suitability for public office continued to swirl, CIJA added some nuance to its position.
“While we stand by our previous comments, we strongly believe it is advisable for Michelle Blanc to express regret for the pain she generated by her comments,” said CIJA’s Quebec co-chair, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who added that the organization has had a good relationship with her since they collaborated on LGBTQ issues.
“If all you knew about her was an isolated tweet from 11 years ago, you could reasonably question her (views). But tweets are not exactly the surest barometer of someone’s views,” he said.
“It’s not fair to judge anybody by isolated comments. We have had a long and sustained relationship with her. We have always found her to be embracing of pluralism in Quebec and receptive to our concerns and values. We consider her a friend.”
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, before the controversy erupted, Blanc tweeted new year’s greetings “to all my friends in the Jewish community.”
Lisée decried B’nai Brith’s letter as “intimidation” and an unacceptable “ultimatum,” and upheld Blanc’s right to criticize a religion, while downplaying her tweet. He dismissed B’nai Brith as a “marginal” organization.
Yet B’nai Brith regional director Harvey Levine said his organization stands by that letter “100 per cent.”
It’s not fair to judge anybody by isolated comments.
– Rabbi Reuben Poupko
“Ms. Blanc has shown a disturbing pattern of racism and intolerance and it was our responsibility as a human rights organization to respond,” he said.
However, B’nai Brith had no intention of going public with its concerns until Lisée had responded and was surprised when he went public. The Sept. 12 deadline had been included, Levine said, to allow the organization time to consider Lisée’s answer between the holidays.
B’nai Brith and CIJA agree that Lisée has mishandled the situation.
“We’re apolitical and are not trying to undermine any political party,” said Levine, dismissing Lisée’s contention that the letter was timed to inflict damage in advance of the first leaders’ debate on Sept. 13.
Rabbi Poupko said that, “It’s clear Lisée is looking to advance himself by looking like he is standing up to the anglophones and Jews.”
For his part, Lisée issued an official statement saying that the PQ respects B’nai Brith’s right to object to Blanc’s remarks, but not what it perceives as an attempt to suppress free speech.
“Because for our part, we will not cease ever to defend with force and constancy freedom of conscience, freedom to practise one’s religion, as well as the freedom of citizens to criticize religions, atheism or all other social phenomena,” read the statement.
No one has to like Jews, but keep it to yourself.
– Alex Werzberger
“We reckon that your attempt to liken criticism of a religious practice or the behaviour of certain members of a community to ‘racism’ reveals a wish to stifle debate and freedom of expression.”
Lisée’s special adviser on diversity, Evelyne Abitbol, also entered the fray.
Identifying herself as the great-granddaughter of a chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Abitbol charged that the letter was a “grenade that B’nai Brith wants to throw on the PQ campaign,” in a post on her Facebook page. She criticized the “militant organization” for using words like “anti-Semitism” and “racism” to “mount a shock political operation.”
Abitbol said that Blanc’s 2007 article was meant to express her “annoyance” that some Hasidim appear to ignore her existence on the street. Abitbol said she herself has been regarded the same way by Hasidim and accepts that that is their way. But, she argued, it is not racist to criticize such conduct, if it makes people uncomfortable.
Yet the Hasidic community is not buying it. Abraham Ekstein, speaking for the Communauté juive hassidique du Québec, stated that the organization is “distressed and deeply saddened to see again our communities involved … in controversy,” especially in a holy period when a detailed response is not possible.
“Let’s hope that wisdom will guide us, in order to prevail upon us constructive dialogue that is for the greater good of Quebec.”
Another longtime spokesperson, Alex Werzberger, was more blunt. He is convinced that Blanc “hates Jews” and is also “very stupid.”
“No one has to like Jews, but keep it to yourself,” he said.
Werzberger noted that, with the change in the electoral boundary, Mercier is now home to about 800 Jewish voters. The redrawn riding includes the Mile End district, which used to be in Outremont riding.
Mercier was held from 2008 by Amir Khadir of the Québec solidaire, who has left politics.