Like many Jews at this time of year, I’ve been busy preparing for Passover. There’s the usual cleaning, wondering what we will eat (I’ve threatened chicken and mashed potatoes every night) and keeping the household peaceful with my children off from school.
Because I live in Quebec, however, this year’s Passover preparations have had a whole new dimension. The Hagaddah tells us that “In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us…”
This year, the Jews of Quebec saw just how true this could be. Over the last year and a half, after the Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected into office, the primary legislative concern in the province appeared to be the creation and passing of a Charter of Values. While the term Charter of Values sounds positive, the real meaning was legislation to suppress religious freedom. The values being promoted were a combination of forced secularism and xenophobia, as certain Christian symbols were being redefined as Quebec heritage.
In the course of my life, I’ve had a few run-ins with anti-Semitism, but until this year, I don’t think I every worried that the society in which I was living might turn against me and my people. The most publicized issue of the Charter was the ban on religious symbols such as kippot/yarmulka and scarves. The ban was meant to affect only those who worked for the government, but as the government oversees the medical system, the educational system (and the religious schools do receive some government grants for secular studies that make their tuition more affordable) and a host of other industries that one might expect to be independent…it would have affected a large swath of the population.
With each passing week, it seemed as if the xenophobes we’re gaining power. Other political parties seemed frightened to fully criticize the Charter, afraid to look weak to the Charter’s supporters. The newspapers began reporting incidents of harassment to individuals in religious garb (granted the majority of these incidents involved Muslim women in hijabs). Only weeks before the election, I even heard that the Premiere had said that private business would also be allowed to fire employees who wore religious symbols.
Some Jews chose to move. Many of us held our breath, prayed hard and checked our passports, silently hoping that we weren’t following in the footsteps of the pre-war European Jews who thought that the Nazis were a fluke. After all, a surprising number of people appeared to support this Charter.
Thank God, this past Monday, the PQ was overwhelmingly defeated in a provincial election. There were several reasons that the PQ was ousted from power, and I cannot say for certain that this was a vote against the Charter rather than a reaction to bad economic policy and calls for separation. However, the very fact that the Liberals are now in power means that the province can move forward and away from xenophobia. The threat has been alleviated.
On Monday evening, my husband came home from voting to find me cleaning out the cupboard and getting ready for Passover. He left shortly thereafter to post better directions to the polling booth, so that no vote would be missed, and left again after dinner to drive some neighbors to the voting station.
That night, as the results began to come in, I could not help but think about the fact that this important vote took place a week before Passover. It was a moment (albeit minor in the scope of Jewish history) of redemption for the province’s Jews. Had the PQ won, I knew several people who were thinking of leaving. Had the Charter passed, it is hard to say what would have happened to the Jewish community. And it would have been a shame if the Jews left Quebec, where Jews have lived since 1700s. The modern Jewish community is a vibrant combination of Jews from all walks of life and of incredibly diverse backgrounds.
Following the election, Jews throughout Quebec thanked God for the results and rejoiced over the change of government. Next week, when we sit at our seders and recite Hallel, the Psalms that praise God, we will all, no doubt, have in mind a special sense of gratitude.