Most Jewish Montrealers have stayed put. But the many who have left are already missed.

By Robert Sarner, The Canadian magazine, July 21, 1979

Something had gone askew. For those who gagged at the spectre of a Parti Quebecois victory in the upcoming provincial election, the portents were increasingly bleak in the fall of 1976. Revulsion for Premier Robert Bourassa and his scandal-tainted government proved greater than expected. By the last week of the campaign, polls and pundits showed the once-farfetched prospect of a fiercely nationalist, separatist party at the helm of Quebec to be no longer out of the question. Quebec's 115,000 Jews, more than any of the province's other minorities, were on edge.

On November 14th, 1976, the day before the election, 400 members of Montreal's Jewish community attended a hastily arranged meeting to discuss their concerns. The keynote speaker was millionaire businessman Charles Bronfman, philanthropist and lay leader of the Jewish community. Words, unminced and unsettling, did not elude him. "I see the destruction of my country, the destruction of the Jewish community," he told his audience. "If the PQ forms the next government, it's going to be absolute pure hell... This is a fight. It's war - absolute war... If we turn our backs on the Liberals, it'll be suicide. The moment the PQ gets in, folks, it's done. All over."

Bronfman then spiked his jeremiad with a threat that was to make headlines across the country and send shivers through the Quebec Jewish community. Claiming that "they [the PQ] are a bunch of bastards trying to kill us," he vowed - "if, God forbid, the PQ is elected" - to leave Quebec, taking his house of Seagram Ltd. and the then cellar-dwelling Montreal Expos with him. Coming from a Bronfman, it was indeed tough talk. Tough terrible in the eyes of many Jews, who felt his threat was irresponsible and his remarks inflammatory. Such was the vehemence of the speech that many Jews feared an anti-Semitic backlash. By the time Bronfman publicly apologized two days later, the PQ had been swept into office. The Jews, with their historic fear and visceral mistrust of any nationalistic movement except their own, felt themselves on perilous turf.

Today, two and a half years later, Charles Bronfman, Seagram's and the Expos -who are enjoying their best season ever - are still in Montreal. Neither the "absolute hell" nor the "destruction of the Jewish community" has yet unfolded. Admittedly, during the first few months after the election, the Jewish community was jittery, doubtful about its future. Since then, things have stabilized as the members have rallied even closer to cope with the changes and meet the challenges that all non-Francophone minorities face in the "New" Quebec. In short, most Quebec Jews have stayed put.

However, many (including Bronfman's cousins Edward and Peter) have not. Anxieties still linger, and not all Jews who have left, as Mordecai Richler put it, were fleeing their mothers.

Depending on whom you speak to or what you read, 5,000 (Montreal Star) to an incredible 25,000 (Toronto Globe and Mail) have left Quebec since that November. Exactly how many, only their hairdressers and barbers know for sure. In the past two years, conjecture about the numbers who have left and alarmist reporting about those who remain have been constant.

Typical of the alarmists was the American National Jewish Monthly, which observed balefully last year: "Montreal's Jews feel the dark shadow of the Holocaust hover above them, and their reactions are influenced by the possibility of history repeating itself." The story was written out of Toronto, the preferred destination of Montreal Jewish émigrés, the most hysterical of whom the media search out for their own special distant-early-warning-system. "A great deal of panic-mongering emanates from Toronto," the Canadian Jewish Outlook has noted acidly, "perpetrated by former Montrealers living there. These people are trying to prove how insightful they were in leaving the 'danger zone' in time."

Whatever the real dimension of the defection, it is made more serious by the fact that the greatest number (perhaps half of those who've left) are in their 20s and early 30s - recent university graduates and young professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers, all crucial to any community, particularly to one as self-reliant as the Montreal Jewish community. So go the young and future parents, today's young lions and tomorrow's leaders.

Typical of many who have left is dentist Bernie Balinsky, 29, who foresaw a limited future for himself in the face of continuing political and economic uncertainty. "I had already toyed with the idea of leaving but the election of the PQ was the final straw, the real catalyst," says Balinsky who, with his wife, moved to Toronto in June 1977. "It all happened at a time when I was about to open a practice so I had to think twice about my future. Frankly, I had a lack of confidence in the future of Quebec. I didn't feel it was the type of place where I was going to bring up a family. The language issue was the main thing. I didn't like being told that I have to speak French - I felt like a second-class citizen because of my language. But I didn't feel persecuted - nor did I leave - because I was Jewish."

Alvin Merman, 26, left Montreal for Toronto a year ago after graduating in law from McGill. "Why build a house on quicksand when you can start it somewhere else on solid ground?" Merman asks. "Individually, my being Jewish never came into play in my decision - but seeing a lot of my Jewish friends and peers leaving might have had an effect."

Jews, of course, have not been the only ones to leave the province. Their departure is part of a larger brain drain of Quebec professionals - mostly Anglophone -that began after the October Crisis in 1970 and accelerated in the wake of the PQ election as the country's economic power continued its westward shift. This strikes a particularly ominous chord in a community already composed of disproportionately more older people and fewer young people than Quebec society as a whole.

"Unfortunately, with the loss of so many young Jews, you have a Jewish community in Montreal that's hanging on. There's no longer the same vibrancy," says Laura Schwartzbein, chairman of a national unity group and mother of three children in their 20s who no longer live in Quebec. "From what I can tell, a lot of Jews have left," says Monica Breger, 24, a Montreal secretary who has seen many of her friends leave in the last two years. "It's gotten to the point of joking about who's left this week. You sometimes get the impression that you're staying on a sinking ship." Neither Breger nor Schwartzbein, however, plans to leave it.

The loss of such a serious number of the child-producing generation from a community in which 20% (compared with 12% for the rest of Quebec) are over 60 has raised the spectre of a community even more geriatric in nature. Fewer young will be responsible for more old. In view of the traditionally low Jewish birth rate, the concern is aggravated by the fact that the community is now attracting fewer Jews from outside the province - a source that accounted for much of the community's past growth.

Jews in Quebec, though neither the largest nor the most disfranchised group, are the province's most prominent ethnic minority. Particularly in Montreal, home to more than 99% of Quebec's Jews and capital city of the "two solitudes," the Jews are often seen as the "third solitude." And a telling one. "In many ways since 1976 the Jews have come to be seen as a bellwether of how things are going in Quebec," says Myer Bick, national executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee. "Ever non-francophone minority is unhappy these days, but the Jews are the most audible and the most organized." Rene Levesque has called the Jews a "weathervane." And it was Levesque, too, who trenchantly remarked: "Any democracy is eventually judged by how it treats its minorities."

The Jewish community in Montreal has always been more organized and closer-knit - and until recently, larger - than its Toronto counterpart (now 115,000 strong). It's the country's oldest - Canada's first synagogue was founded in Montreal in 1768 - and for the time being still the most vigorous. It's a model diaspora community with cultural, health, welfare and education facilities that are considered second to none on the continent. Not only is it fiercely proud of its internal structure - served by more than 600 Jewish organizations - but Montreal's Jewish community also has a stronger identification with both city and province than Toronto's does. It delights in the distinct cultural pizzazz of Quebec, and is temperamentally more in tune with French Quebeckers than with English. According to the most recent census (1971), it was the most bilingual of all non-francophone groups in Quebec.

Montreal Jews, however, are not the monolithic society they are often perceived to be. There are Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews who differ in their adherence to traditional religious customs. There are wealthy Jews and poor Jews: indeed, approximately one-fifth of the community lives below the poverty line established by Statistics Canada. Anglophone Jews make up the majority, but a large and recent minority are francophones who have arrived from North Africa in the last 20 years. Although Jews have been in Quebec since the 18th century, the community owes most of its size and character to the three main waves of immigrants in the past 90 years. In those cases (Czarist Russia, Nazi Europe and Moroccan independence/Arab nationalism), Jews fled oppression and persecution. It makes for a community still haunted by living memories of past nationalist movements.

In an increasingly mobile society, moving from city to city is generally taken for granted. But Montreal Jews are not very mobile in an emotional sense. To many, Montreal still represents a promised land, the place where they put down roots after having been uprooted elsewhere. For Jews to leave in any numbers, or even contemplate going, a profound malaise must be at work

But Jews are born worriers. History has given them reason to be. Underlying all else at the moment is the concern over Quebec's destiny, political and economic. As a group that has felt the lash of WASP discrimination in Quebec, the Jews have been particularly sympathetic to French-Canadian aspirations. Most, however, strongly oppose separation. There's concern that if Quebec goes independent and its economy goes kaput, the Jews could be the traditional scapegoat. There's concern over future socialist legislation by the PQ and how it will affect a community historically linked with the capitalist ethic and the free-enterprise system. There's concern that in hiring and job advancement a premium will be placed on being Quebecois in the narrowest sense of the term. There's concern over certain Quebec labor leaders - among the first to support Third World causes - who in the past have denounced Zionism as racist and championed the Palestinian cause. These fears, no matter how exaggerated, are very real; and fears breed.

Certainly, on the basis of numbers alone, the fears seem to be ungrounded. Indicators suggest a limited outflow, not a severe hemorrhaging. Enrolment this past year in Montreal's Jewish day schools - which approximately 6,000 or a third of all Jewish children attend - stayed about the same. Membership at the Montreal YM-YWHA seems to have stabilized, after a peek of 22,000 in 1976, at just under 20,000. While attendance at a few Montreal synagogues has diminished slightly, at least one - the Beth Tikvah congregation - has had to expand its premises due to constant growth of its congregation. Quebec circulation of the Canadian Jewish News, currently at more than 21,000 copies a week, has shrunk by fewer than 400 subscriptions over the past two years. As part of a major study undertaken last fall involving 657 heads of Jewish households, the Jewish Community Research Institute found that more than 86% expressed little or no intention of leaving; it could not establish how many Jews have already left.

"I'm very chipper and optimistic about things in Quebec, as I think a lot of other Jews are," says Paul Kaiser, 43, a bilingual chartered accountant. "I'm confident of the democratic traditions instilled in Quebec that make it far less ripe for oppression and dictatorship than Europe. I admit I have some concern due to our past, but I'm not going to be influenced by a spreading of paranoia or by some ghosts in the closet.

"As long as my individual rights aren't trampled upon, I'll stay," adds Kaiser, who came as a child to Montreal in 1943 from Nazi-occupied France.

Robert Levy, 39, executive director of the Communaute Sepharade du Quebec, is quite familiar with nationalism, having lived through the struggle for independence in his native Morocco. So far this time around, he sees no cause for alarm. Levy left Morocco 16 years ago and spent seven years in Paris before coming to Quebec in 1971. "Here in Montreal, I feel almost invited to be Jewish," says Levy, speaking in French, the first language for almost all of the 20,000 Sephardic Jews in Montreal. "Whereas in France, for example, you feel almost ashamed or compelled to hide your Jewishness. I felt less confident, less comfortable as Jew in France than I do here in Quebec." Like other francophone Jews, Levy hasn't experienced the trauma nor had to make any of the adjustments that many of his Anglophone brethren have as a result of Bill 101. "What's important is not necessarily to preserve the English language," says Levy, "but rather to preserve the traditional Jewish values and culture."

As executive assistant for the past two and a half years to Bernard Landry, Quebec's minister of state for Economic Development, David Levine, 30, is the most highly placed Jew in the PQ government and one of a handful in the party. "Jews are going through an adjustment period," he says, "but I think it's a great myth that they're leaving in serious numbers. The issue is being used as a tool by [opposition] politicians and the media."

Levine, who was born in Montreal and couldn't speak a word of French until 1973, expresses amazement that the Jewish community should believe its identity is exclusively tied to the English language. "I'm not a francophone, nor for that matter an Anglophone," says Levine. "I'm a Jew whose language is Hebrew and who lives in Quebec and therefore I work in French. For me, it's not a matter of trading in one culture for another - which is the way some Anglophones see it."

Michael Yarosky, 36, is often referred to as the Jewish community's radar in Quebec City, its eyes and ears in the provincial capital. As head of the Montreal-based Jewish Community Research Institute, the two-year study project completed last month, he spent half his time in Quebec City as the community's political listening post. The rest was spent reporting back to leaders of the Montreal community.

Yarosky says Jews tend to forget that decades ago, when they came to Quebec from Russia and Eastern Europe, they had everything going against them. They were poor, uneducated, unaware of Quebec's socioeconomic system and illiterate in English and French. Despite these obstacles they did well. "Yet now, with far more going for them, many Jews are wondering whether they can make it. Personally, I can't see any reason why Jews can't make it today. I certainly don't see anything happening in Quebec that has to be responded to by an exodus of Jews."

Yarosky adds that he's seen not a shred of evidence to indicate that the present PQ government is anti-Semitic. "If I was able to see that this government was either covertly or overtly anti-Jewish, I would be the first person to counsel Jews to get out. At the same time I see nothing wrong with people leaving Quebec if they don't feel ready to deal with the social and linguistic changes. Why, if they're not prepared to adapt, should they stay and be miserable?"

Clearly, most Quebec Jews are not miserable. Nor are they sitting on the panic button, living with their suitcases packed. Like most Quebeckers, Jews are now anxiously awaiting the referendum. For a community whose overwhelming support of federalism is no secret, the emergence on the provincial scene of a strong federalist leader in the person of Liberal leader Claude Ryan - coupled with the poor showing of the PQ in recent Quebec by-elections - has had an uplifting effect. Although some forecast a massive exodus of Jews in the event of separation, others are more pragmatic, less pessimistic. "There's always going to be a strong Jewish community in Montreal," says Alan Rose, national executive vice-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "I feel that most Jews, like other Quebeckers, will say, 'If Quebec becomes uncivilized, I'll go.'"

For his part, Charles Bronfman is no longer the messenger of doom - at least, not publicly. He has been conspicuously silent on his personal plans and has held back any updated forecasts on Quebec Jewry ever since his brief career in prophecy was shot to pieces. Consistent with his public reticence on the subject, he refused to be interviewed by The Canadian. Having had to eat his words once, he no doubt would prefer to avoid further indigestion.

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