(April 15, 2019 / JNS) A proposal introduced in Quebec last month to ban yarmulkes and other religious clothing has come under fire with one Jewish mayor of a town in the Canadian province equating it to “ethnic cleansing.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also opposed the measure.
“It’s unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” he said.
Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg has refused to heed calls from Trudeau and other politicians to apologize for labeling Bill 21, which was introduced in response to the issue of Muslim women wearing hijabs in Quebec, as “ethnic cleansing.”
Instead, he doubled down on those remarks. “Since the phrase was ethnic cleansing not with a gun but with a law, a more accurate short description is peaceful ethnic cleansing,” Steinberg told the Montreal Gazette.
“It will lead to fewer of them coming to Quebec and to many already here leaving,” he said. “That will lead to a less diverse Quebec society. A law that targets minorities and uses the notwithstanding clause to get away with it is odious and should be condemned in the strongest possible language.”
Jews comprise of 85,105 out of 8.39 million people in Quebec, or slightly more than 1 percent of its population. They consist of 2.4 percent of Montreal’s population, with Hampstead having the highest density of Jews at 75.2 percent of the affluent suburb’s population.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada, condemned the proposal.
“The Jewish community of Quebec supports the religious neutrality of the state and recognizes that secularism has historically protected freedom of religion and conscience,” said CIJA-Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko. “While we welcome the exemption to private schools, we are firmly opposed to any restriction of the freedom of religion of individuals in the name of secularism.”
“Our community believes that the secularism of the state is an institutional duty, and not a personal one. The commitment to secularism does not rest on the outward appearance of individuals,” he continued. “Any legislation that aims to restrict individual freedoms must pass the test of its constitutionality and in this regard, we are troubled by the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause to shield this legislation from a legal challenge.”
Canadian political pundit Neil Macdonald told JNS that based on surveys, most Quebeckers do not favor such a proposal.
“This is all about Muslims and Sikhs, not about Jews or Christians,” he said. “The bill is basically a notice to anyone wearing a headscarf or turban that he or she may as well not apply for a public-service job. And the government is willing to invoke a clause suspending the constitution in order to pass it.”
“It’s worth noting that Quebec’s famously secular society has for decades tolerated the existence of a large crucifix over the chair of the speaker of their provincial legislature,” he continued. “This, argue Quebec nationalists, is a symbol of history, not religion.”
“Sort of the same argument that’s made in the States for the Confederate flag. The government has promised to remove the crucifix when the law passes, without saying where it will be moved to,” he added. “And it is worth noting that the city of Montreal is overlooked by a giant illuminated cross on Mount Royal, courtesy of government. No one seems to think that’s a bad thing.”