News Analysis: Jewish Quebecers Hail Vote but Are Stung by Remarks
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News Analysis: Jewish Quebecers Hail Vote but Are Stung by Remarks

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The war is over, but the battle is just beginning. This was the consensus among members of Montreal’s Jewish community – and among many in the province at large – as the eyes of the entire world were focused on the outcome of a Quebec referendum to determine whether to remain a part of Canada.

The slender margin of victory for the anti-separatists – some 50,000 votes out of an estimated total of 4.67 million ballots cast – was hardly a ringing endorsement for keeping Quebec a part of the 128-year-old Canadian federation.

The closeness of the vote indicated that the separation issue was certain to remain on the politically charged landscape here for some time to come.

Further amplifying the drama and tension that has gripped the province in recent days, the separatists’ loss prompted the premier of Quebec, separatist leader Jacques Parizeau, to resign a day after the referendum was held.

The voting left a feeling of deep divisions here – particularly after Parizeau blamed the province’s ethnic voters for the separatists’ loss.

Parizeau stunned everyone, including many French Quebecers, during a speech late Monday night. In conceding that the separatists had lost, he sounded a distinctly combative note that included a blatant message of revenge.

The separatists, said Parizeau, had been “beaten by money and the ethnic vote.”

“We will reap our revenge in our own country,” he added, promising that the day would come when his forces would triumph.

Some observers felt that Parizeau knew exactly what he was doing in his intemperate remarks – that he wanted to prompt uneasy ethnic voters to move out of Quebec so that he could hold another referendum some two to five years from now when they were safely gone.

Jewish organizations, which had labored hard to get out the anti-separatist vote among the region’s 101,000 predominantly English-speaking Jews and hailed the outcome, were particularly stung by Parizeau’s comments.

B’nai Brith Canada expressed “outrage’ at the premier’s anti-ethnic remark.

“Parizeau’s disdain for minority communities is extremely harmful,” Frank Dimant, the organization’s executive vice president, said in a statement.

Jack Silverstone, national executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, was equally critical.

“To differentiate between classes of voters as Parizeau did is reprehensible and racist,” Silverstone said.

Some Quebec politicians also voiced criticism.

Parizeau’s comments were “a speech by a demagogue and a fascist,” said federal politician Marc Lalonde, who added that the speech was “a disgrace to Quebec.”

On Tuesday evening, as some had expected he would do if the separatists lost the referendum, Parizeau resigned the Quebec premiership, saying he would step down at the end of the fall parliamentary session in December.

He also said he would step down as leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois.

Parizeau also referred to the comments he made in Monday’s concession speech, saying, “I used words that were too strong last night.”

But far from apologizing, he reiterated his stand that, no matter what words he chose, the fact remained that ethnic groups had voted overwhelmingly against secession.

Reacting to Parizeau’s resignation speech, Silverstone said, “It’s unfortunate that at the end of a long and important career, Mr. Parizeau didn’t display the moral courage to make right the terrible error” he made in Monday night’s concession speech.

“He regrettably will be remembered for that rather than anything else,” Silverstone added.

Parizeau’s concession speech was not the first occasion that the issue of race and ethnicity surfaced in connection with the referendum.

On more than one occasion, the debate over separation has taken on a racial tinge, given the sharp differences over the issue between Quebec’s English- and French-speaking populations.

Earlier this year, Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith officials reacted sharply when Philippe Pare, a member of the separatist Parti Quebecois in the Canadian Parliament, urged ethnic minorities to step aside and let “old-stock Quebecers” decide the fate of the province.

Another leading separatist, Pierre Bourgault, was applauded in Quebec City last year for saying that the overwhelming support of non-French speakers for federalism was “a straight racist vote.”

The organized Jewish community, which is 80 percent English-speaking, was heavily involved in the campaign against the separatist option.

And by all accounts, Quebec’s Jews – who are predominantly of European background and include one of the highest percentages of Holocaust survivors in North America – provided an overwhelmingly anti-separatist vote.

Likewise, the community’s 10,000 French-speaking Sephardi immigrants from Morocco also voted in large proportion against separation, according to Jewish officials.

For example, the largest Jewish voting district, D’Arcy McGee, which includes a portion of Montreal along with other communities, voted 97-3 against separation.

Although not all the district is comprised of Jewish voters, the result provides a representative sense of Jewish sentiment.

Had the separatists won, the leaders of Quebec would have been able to embark on a secessionist course after first attempting to negotiate a partnership agreement with the rest of Canada.

But in a vote that was too close to call right to the bitter end, preliminary official results indicated that the federalists won with 50.56 percent of the vote, while the separatists garnered 49.44 percent.

The referendum attracted a record turnout of more than 93 percent of eligible voters, surpassing the 85.6 percent turnout for an similar referendum in 1980.

The anti-separatists won the earlier referendum by a far wider margin, with 60 percent of the vote.

The closer vote this time around was attributed by many observers to the charismatic campaigning style of Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the federal separatist Bloc Quebecois, and to the lackluster campaign mounted by the federalists.

Both Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith Canada issued statements supporting the results of Monday’s referendum.

“It is essential that we act with dignity and openness in the course of the next months,” said CJC National President Goldie Hershon. “Our collective behavior will ensure that the choice made by Quebecers constitutes the start of a new era for Quebec within Canada, an era full of hope and of important accomplishments.”

“We have just come through a difficult time,” B’nai Brith’s National President Brian Morris said in a joint statement with Dimant.

“We need time for the wounds to heal. It is important for all Canadians to assess these results calmly and determine what to do next.”

As Quebec prepares to face a future that may include further tension – and perhaps another referendum in a few years – many young Jewish adults question whether there is a future for them here.

“My friends and I will stay here at least short-learn to finish our educations,” said 20-year-old McGill University management student Ronnie Shemesh, an active member of Hillel.

“But we will look carefully at what the government will be doing. If they keep governing like they have been, we may have to reconsider.”

Shemesh added, however, that patience was needed and that a migration of young Jewish adults, if it happens, will not be a quick one.

Montreal’s 250-year-old Jewish community, which long dominated Canadian Jewish affairs, already began experiencing significant demographic setbacks after Quebec elected its first separatist-inclined provincial government in 1976.

A steady exodus of Jewish singles and young families from Montreal has resulted in a net loss of at least 30,000 of the city’s Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom went to Toronto, in the neighboring province of Ontario.

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