Montreals Jews oppose independence for Quebec

For Robert Libman, director of B'nai Brith's Quebec region, the issue comes down to linguistic and cultural differences.

As the majority of Quebec's population is French-speaking, he said, "an independent Quebec will be an entirely French Quebec, and nonfrancophones will not have the same status as francophones."

The Oct. 30 referendum, which represents a serious threat to the unity of the 128-year-old Canadian confederation, will decide the direction that the separatist government of Quebec's Premier Jacques Parizeau will take in the months ahead.

A majority favoring separatism in the referendum would mean that Parizeau and his Parti Quebeçois would take Quebec out of the family of Canadian provinces, after first attempting to negotiate a partnership agreement with the rest of Canada.

In 1980, a similar referendum held by Quebec's then-Premier Rene Levesque was decisively defeated by the province's anti-separatist, pro-federalist voters led by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whose side garnered 60 percent of the vote.

As the latest referendum approaches, opinion polls provide varied results: Some show either side ahead by a small margin, while others show the two options running neck-and-neck.

But the most recent poll shows the anti-separatists gaining momentum and leading by as much as nine points, with the undecided segment standing at about 15 percent.

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

At hearings held last year by the provincial sovereignty commission, the Canadian Jewish Congress joined the organized Greek and Italian communities in arguing that an independent Quebec would be intolerant of racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

The CJC, eager to increase the pro-federalist vote, has purchased ads in the Canadian Jewish press to notify Jewish Quebeçois who have left the province that they are still eligible to vote if they have been outside the province fewer than two years.

"We think people have a duty to exercise their democratic right," Jedwab said. "We think every vote is important."

Equally eager to get out the Jewish vote, the B'nai Brith's Quebec office has set up a telephone hotline for senior citizens and others with referendum-related questions.

"Our operators are answering in English, French and Yiddish," Libman said.

He said at least 98 percent of Quebec's Jews are pro-federalist. Even the community's 10,000 French-speaking Sephardi immigrants from Morocco are said to be overwhelmingly against separation.

"It's not only the Jewish community," Libman added, noting that the English-speaking segments of the province's electorate "have always represented a monolithic block when it comes to this issue."

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.

Politicians within Quebec have warned that there could be a backlash against non-French speakers in the province if the separatists lose by a narrow margin.

Earlier this year, CJC and B'nai Brith officials reacted sharply when Philippe Pare, a member of the separatist Parti Quebeçois 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."

Party leaders reprimanded both politicians, but have been unable to prevent similar sentiments from surfacing in the heat and passion of the debate.

Whatever the result of the Oct. 30 referendum, political uncertainty surrounding the separation issue has transformed the face of the province's Jewish community.

The city of Montreal's 250-year-old Jewish community, which long dominated Canadian Jewish affairs, has experienced significant demographic setbacks since 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.

To a large extent, Montreal's losses have resulted in Jewish population gains in Toronto, located in the neighboring province of Ontario.

The exodus from Quebec — along with major influxes into Toronto of Russian and Israeli Jewish immigrants — is regarded as a major reason that the greater Toronto area's Jewish population, which presently stands at about 175,000, has doubled over the last two decades.

While Quebec's Jews have reason to fear that the province's economy will suffer if the separatists win, their main reason for opposing independence has little to do with economics, Libman asserted.

Instead, he said, "It's the sense of exclusion based on ethnic grounds" that might result from a newly independent Quebec.

In the remaining weeks before the referendum, CJC and B'nai Brith officials, along with others in the Jewish community, plan to issue statements and participate in political rallies, poster campaigns and other activities aimed at furthering the pro-federalist cause.

While they expect federalism to triumph, they admit to feeling some anxiety.

Many Canadians are similarly anxious — including the country's federal politicians, who expect to do little else but debate the separation issue until the referendum is held.