Quebec, Israel and the Jewish community - Speech by Premier of Quebec Bernard Landry

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Quebec, Israel and the Jewish community
May 14 2001

This is an unofficial translation of a speech delivered on May 14 2001 by Bernard Landry at the occasion of a luncheon meeting with the Jewish community of Québec at the Gelber Conference Centre. Read the original here.

Bernard Landry, lawyer, professor and Premier of Quebec from March 2001 to June 2003

Montréal, Monday May 14, 2001

Seul le texte prononcé fait foi.

Mister the Mayor of Montréal,
Mister the Consulate-General of Israël in Montreal,
Mister the Secretary of State for Immigration and Integration,
Mister the President of the Canada-Israel Committee, Québec region,
Madam the President of the CJA Federation,
Mister Stanley Plotnick, former president of the CJA Federation,
Mister Steven Cummings, next president of the CJA Federation,
Mister President of the Sephardic Community of Québec,
Mister President of the B'nai B'rith's International Relations,

Mister Joseph Gabay, new president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Québec section, allow me to underline and greet your election. I dare to believe that your encyclopedic knowledge on biblical matters will be a pledge of wisdom and success in the management of your community's business. Congratulations and Mazal Tov. I am also told that the presidency of the CJA Federation should return in approximately two years to another Sephardi, Sylvain Abitbol. At the speed at which things progress, I fear that, in a few years, the only position left to the Ashkenazim will be the presidency of the Sephardi community.

The Grand rabbin du Québec arrives in paradise. He is welcomed by angels who lead him to his new residence, a beautiful apartment, two bedrooms, perfect sunlight and a renovated kitchen. By the window, he sees a little palace across the street, twenty rooms, ten bathrooms and nine living rooms. The rabbi asks: "Who is the wise man who lives in this superb residence?". The angel answers: "This residence is unoccupied. It is reserved for Bernard Landry, Premier of Quebec." The rabbi enters a terrible anger. "How is it that me, a rabbi, who devoted all his existence to the Torah, gets a small four and half, while him, this non-believer, gets such a beautiful residence? I want to speak to God." The rabbi expresses his complaints to God, shares his surprise and asks for an explanation. And the Almighty God answers him: "You, rabbi, when you spoke of the Torah in the synagogue, everyone was sleeping. But him, Bernard Landry, when he goes to synagogues to speak of sovereignty, everyone starts praying!"

53 years ago, day for day, on May 14 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel. The Jewish people, so rich in history and so poor in geography, was thus resurrected from its ashes to rise to the dignity of a people. The dream of a sovereign Jewish State finally became reality. How could one deny this right to a people who, although dispersed at the four corners of the Earth, everywhere contributed to the conquests of the mind, and the progress of all countries. Leon Trotski, Albert Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Leon Blum, Pierre Mendès France, and I forget many; the Jews have consolidated too many national destinies not to deserve the recognition of their ancestral rights. This State, the Jews owe it to their courage and their perseverance. Faithful to the message of the founding fathers, the Israelis built an exemplary democracy, pushing audacity as to accept within the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, political formations that are openly anti-Zionist. However, in 53 years of existence, this people, who always lived in a state of emergency, has known how to preserve its essence, democracy.

The ardour with which Israel rehabilitated and revived a language several millenia old also deserves all our admiration. As Shimon Peres says with humour, Israel is today the only place in the world where children play in the language of the prophets, the only country where the children teach their mother tongue to their parents. Land of the prophets, Israel has known how to become a land of promises and richness for all those who came to seek refuge in it. Black and White, patients and people in good health, of Russia, of India, or Ethiopia, Vietnamese "boat people" or Muslims of Bosnia: all could discover the meaning of the word "solidarity" by stepping on the soil of this country.

At the official invitation of the State of Israel, I had the privilege to carry out a mission in this country, a mission rich in teachings, but also a dense and intense mission in the field of emotions. No word will be able to translate the emotion felt at the time of the visit of Yad Vashem and the memorial devoted to the martyr of 1.5 million children. Speaking of the condition of survivors, the great thinker and poet Aaron Zeitlin address somewhere all those who left him, his dead father, his dead brother, his dead friends: "You abandoned me, he says to them, you are together without me. As for me, I am alone here and I make words".

I admit to feel today the same feeling, this inexpressible feeling to translate but also to betray with my words this unsoundable suffering of the Jewish people, this experiment of absolute madness. Israel is on this matter the spokesperson or rather "silence-person" not to say the "absence-person" of 6 million victims whose dreams were brutally strangled and of which Israel bares the invaluable and holy burden of their memory.

Plantation of cypress at the edge of Jerusalem... Although any comparison is perilous, force is to note that, between Quebec and Israel, analogies are legion. I will quote only some of them. The famous historian Arnold Toynbee one day wrote: "After a nuclear catastrophe, two peoples will survive, the Chinese by their number, and the French Canadians by their obstinacy." Isn't this fierce will to cross centuries common to both our peoples? One finds, here and there, this indescribable need to become an actor and no longer be a spectator of one's own destiny.

Much like for Quebec, the cultural future of Israel, where more than 500 000 people have a command of Molière's language, remains tied to Europe, to its French and French-speaking component. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, summarized this very special attachment in the first words of his short speech pronounced in French: "The Jews, even after being tragically disappointed by Europe, remained faithful to this European cosmopolitanism, and Israel, their dear recovered homeland, appears to my eyes as the true heart of Europe".

At the symbolic level, our flags have the same colour, and the flower of lily was for a long time one of the most used Jewish symbols. This identification of the people of Israel to the lily flower is attested over a period of at least one millennium, that is to say up until the destruction of the Second Temple (70 of our era). The lily appeared on the first coins struck under Jewish sovereignty, that is to say in 4th century BC, and was a symbol of the political autonomy of Judaea in relation to the great empires. Today, the one shekel Israeli coin (40 cents) shows exactly this symbol. Immigration also deeply transformed the face of our two societies, and the francization efforts of Quebec can be compared to the Israeli ulpanims where Hebrew is taught to newcomers. Another example, with comparable populations numerically speaking, a somewhat equivalent GNP, our two States differentiate themselves on their continent by the importance they give the knowledge economy.

Dear friends, the friendship I feel for Israel authorizes me not to dissimulate my concerns. In the region, again, history stutters. Israelis and Palestinians assist in impotence to the course of a topicality which escapes the influence of wisdom and that of their interests. However, these two peoples, so similarly beaten by history, must in spite of everything take the road of dialogue. These peace negotiations have made more blood than ink run. The Israelis obtained what they did not want, attacks, and the Palestinians did not obtain what they wanted, a State.

The Israelis, by their tenacity, have known how to preserve the existence of Israel. They must today defend the essence of it. The greatness of a country is not a function of its surface. The greatness of a people is not measured by its demography. I always believed that Zionism cannot be calculated in square kilometres. Rather I continue to believe in the formula of former Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin: "It is necessary to make war to war by never giving peace to the enemies of peace". Pessimism is neither a solution nor an ambition. This peace of the braves should not become a fool's bargain. I remain convinced that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to draw from their resources so that peace wins, a peace which will allow them to live side by side without one necessarily taking the place of the other.

Mesdames et Messieurs, faithful to the topic of my short speech, I wish to say a few words on the relations which unites the Jewish and non-Jewish Quebecers. I will do it without concealing either the need that I feel to say a word on my interrogations concerning your apprehensions vis-a-vis the projet de société (social project) put forward by my political formation. Between the compartmentalized solitudes of the Canadian mosaic and the standardization of the American melting pot, the conditions are set today to initiate the construction of a model unique to us.

At the institutional level, in the sector of health, the Jewish General Hospital, in addition to its fully-deserved reputation of excellence, is today the admiral ship of the bringing closer of Jewish and non-Jewish Quebecers. 40% of doctors and 60% of patients are non-Jews. The hospital is undoubtedly the most conclusive example of the contribution of the community to the wellbeing of the whole community. This institution incarnates, in this century which begins, the values of reception, sharing and solidarity which animate your community. The new Jewish community campus also translates your deep desire to inscribe the Quebec Jewish community in perenniality. It symbolizes for the whole of Quebecers a commonplace of exchange and sharing with all the Jews of Quebec, a land rightly perceived by your ancestors as a space of liberty and conviviality. The conclusions of the 2000 Report on anti-semitic incidents of the B'nai B'rith's Human Rights League confirm this perception: "The worst forms of racism known in Canada are ascribable to Neo-Nazi groups, to those who speak of white supremacy or to the revisionists from outside the province. The majority of the heinous groups present in Quebec are not French-speaking."

Let us underline in the passing that it is in Quebec that one finds the greatest number of Jewish schools subsidized by the State. On a more personal level, we can also talk about the role of the Jewish entrepreneurs in the economic development of Quebec, (Steinberg and the agroalimentary industry).

Jacob Isaac Segal, Léonard Cohen and Naïm Kattan, in prose or verse, sang the beauties of the metropolis. Did we not hear, at Saidye Bronfman's theatre, Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law) of Michel Tremblay speaking Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic? And what to say of Pierre Anctil, cantor of the dialogue of cultures, who speaks Yiddish as easily as French. Pierre Lasry, during an interview granted to Élias Levy, was right to affirm: "All Quebecers have Marrano origins. Mathematically, we can prove it. My book demystifies the chimerical idea of the tightly-knitted Jew and tightly-knitted Goy. A tightly-knitted Quebecer, that does not exist!" This dialogue bears fruits, and a multitude of organizations contribute to building bridges. Remarkable achievements were accomplished and let us hope for the conquest of new summits. And yet...

At the political level, we all feel a certain crispation within the Jewish community. This community is not monolithic. It is naturally and fortunately rich of its diversity. One finds in it orthodox and not-practising, rich and the poor, young and old, francophones, anglophones and allophones. How then can we explain this quasi-unanimous behaviour of the community at the political level? Sovereignty, you will say to me. It is to forget that 20% of pequists are not sovereignists and that 10% of liberals are sovereignists. The Parti Québécois does not hold the monopoly of Sovereignty.

In France, in Great Britain, in the United States, the Jews vote mainly for the Socialists, the members of the Labour Party or the Democrats. Why is a social-democrat formation like the Parti Québécois unable to reach the 20% of the Jewish community who lives below the poverty line? This question and well as others remain unanswered today.

Dear friends, is it needed to specify that this questioning does not deteriorate in any way my determination to be at your side to ensure the perenniality, in Quebec territory, of your marvellous community. This wish, I also address it to the State of Israel in hoping, just like you, that the sun of peace finally radiates on all the region.

See also

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