Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Historian, and Journalist

Religious discrimination within the Jewish community a problem that needs to stop

A recent human rights case in Montreal, Quebec’s Jewish community shows that discrimination among Jews within the community is a problem that needs to be addressed especially with rising anti-Semitism. Fortunately, for the victim who was wrongfully prevented and then terminated from work because of his level of observance, legal bodies are siding in his favor indicating that treatment is wrong and goes against the law. In other situations, the victims do not come forward, and the silent discrimination among Jews in the community grows with some of its local leaders the worst offenders because of their elevated positions. This discrimination needs to stop, crying anti-Semitism becomes hypocritical if we continue to treat members of our own religion and community with the same contempt.

The most notorious case of internal Jewish discrimination is that of Robert Zilberg. Zilberg, a Jew was a hairstylist at Spa Orazen now Spa Liv Zen on Queen Mary Rd. in Montreal. The Jewish owner of the spa discriminated against Zilberg because he was far more secular them himself. Owner Iris Gressy is observant, and although he keeps his business open on Shabbat, he does not work and neither does he want his employees to work. Gressy forced his Jewish employees not to work on Saturday and keep quiet on the reason why, when Zilberg talked he was fired.

In November, Zilberg told the Canadian Jewish News, “When I as a Jew am discriminated against by another Jew, to the point of losing my job, income and dignity, that is completely intolerable. There is no excuse for discrimination based on religion, even if that person is of the same faith.” Zilberg’s statement can universally be applied in any case of Jews discriminating against fellow Jews.

After an investigation, the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission determined that the spa owner should pay $20,000 in damages. The commission set a deadline to pay the damages in October 2015. Since Gressy refused to be involved in the investigation and passed the deadline, the case moved to be heard before Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal. The hearing in the case has now been delayed awaiting a trial date at the tribunal.

The case appears sensational because Jews discriminating against fellow Jews is a rather taboo subject especially in the Diaspora and North America, where for the most part the local Jewish community wants to appear as united and inclusive. Unfortunately, Zilberg’s case is hardly the exception, and it happens by the hands of community leaders, Jewish organizations, educators, and even rabbis, who should behave a higher standard as examples to community. Instead their personal actions make them appear like hypocrites in the disparity between their public and private personas.

It is well documented that there is a prejudice among Jews of different levels of observance In Israel according to the recent Pew Research Center survey on religion in Israel. The majority of the Jewish population in Israel 81 percent are 40 percent are Hiloni (“secular”), 23 percent consider themselves Masorti (“traditional”) and consist of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, 10 percent consider themselves Dati (“religious” or Modern Orthodox), and only 8 percent are Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”). Usually, Dati and Haredi Jews share the same points of views on issues as do Masorti and Hiloni Jews. The survey also finds, “The movement among Jewish subgroups in Israel is generally in the direction of lower observance.”

Among the four Jewish religious groups, Pew pointed out the “stark” differences, with secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox living in “separate social worlds,” but also politically and the role religion should play in government. A Pew indicated out there are differences with “public policy questions, including marriage, divorce, religious conversion, military conscription, gender segregation and public transportation.”

So extreme are the two groups’ viewpoints and animosity that secular Jews would prefer their children marry a Christian than an ultra-Orthodox Jew. As Pew points out, “In fact, the survey finds that secular Jews in Israel are more uncomfortable with the notion that a child of theirs might someday marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew than they are with the prospect of their child marrying a Christian.” Pew noted that the two religious groups at the far end of the observance spectrum, Haredim and Hilonim rarely interact socially if they do not have to, having few friends outside their religious group. The situation is a little better with Datim and Masortim, still, for the most part, their religious and social circle intertwine.

Although Montreal Jewish leaders might not want to admit it, there are similar divisions among the Jewish community. The main differences are between the denominations and among levels of observance. Although Montreal’s ultra-Orthodox community separates themselves from the rest of the more secular population, the divisions do not end there. Not all of the divisions are based on the level of religious observance reasons, as there is also divisions based on socio-economic status, between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, sometimes the animosity is personal and cannot be clearly defined.

Unlike Zilberg’s case, not all are publicized in the press others are quietly happening behind the scenes where the discrimination cycle keeps going on. Similar to Zilberg’s case is that of a Cote-Saint-Luc rabbi who filed to evict his tenant renting his upper duplex a senior with a chronic health condition and more recently vision problems, essentially for not living up to his religious standards. Behavior like that should not be condoned especially when our religious leaders who are supposed to be examples participate and use their positions as a means to behave like their above it all.

This tenant fulfills all their main legal obligations most importantly paying their rent and on time, still this is not enough for the rabbi. Now he wants to evict this senior because they changed their locks to stop his continual unannounced pop-ins, cannot put their garbage at the side of the garage, and occasionally uses a space heater, the only grounds for his eviction. So on the same day as Jews all over the world were commemorating and honoring Israel’s fallen soldiers on Yom HaZikaron this rabbi went to file an eviction for his Jewish tenant. Like Zilberg’s boss, his behavior would qualify as hindering his tenant’s human right to practice their religion as they want or can. Also based on his behavior and choosing of tenants he discriminates on all grounds.

From the start, this rabbi discriminated regarding whom he would rent, and only rented this tenant after asking and believing they were strictly observant and Shomer Shabbat. This tenant does observe the religion, health problems makes it impossible to regularly attend synagogue an issue that that almost immediately resulted in harassment. This included confronting the tenant about how they put out the garbage only two days before Rosh Hashanah where he threatened “not to be nice to them” if they do not do what he says.

This rabbi would continually come into the dwelling unannounced often doing so especially on Friday afternoons before Shabbat, arranging unnecessary repairs at that time. Despite the tenant’s insistence that they not be bothered as they prepare for Shabbat, he continued to do so because he did not consider them observant or worthy enough to prepare for Shabbat. One time his harassment on Friday forced the tenant to go somewhere on Shabbat that was it, they were finished by him. For not living up to his ideal of observance he unrelentingly harassed threatened, insulted, picked on any issue he could just to make the tenants’ lives miserable hoping he could make them move.

This rabbi is now is evicting the tenant uprooting a sick senior putting them through pure misery. He wants to take them away from them their home cause them financial hardship with a move that would cost thousands, finding another suitable dwelling, the upheaval the resettling is too much for one who is sick and older. Most of all the legal fight and making this tenant move could cause this senior irreparable damage to their health and the rabbi knows that and still continues on his mission to cleanse and kosher from people he considers treif in his rental unit. Even if the rental board sides against the rabbi, he made his tenant sicker, cost them financially, emotionally and physically in their fight for what reason, he does not want someone not strictly observant living in the building he owns.

The situation is all the more hypocritical because the rabbi led a local synagogue was an administrator and educator in one of the local schools. During his tenure, he preached to his congregation how to behave and most likely how to behave to fellow Jews, spouted the laws of the religion citing the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah, educated the future generations, but he does not practice what he preaches. Publicly he regularly attends synagogue privately he harasses his Jewish tenants and wants to evict them because they do not live up to his religious standards, using flimsy grounds than sounds like bullying and intimidation rather than legal grounds usually required in such drastic actions.

Cote-Saint-Luc is one of the most densely Jewish populated municipalities in Montreal along with neighboring Hampstead. The suburb has many duplexes, giving any opportunity for class division between landlord and tenant, but the ability for harassment. The rabbi is not the only offender look through the local rental board’s database. One can find many Jewish landlord’s taking their Jewish tenants to the rental board, the difference, however, is the majority are based on the failure of main legal obligations mostly not paying their rent, not eviction and grounds unrelated to the law.

Ironically, this not the first time this rabbi landlord harassed his tenants. For years he did so to his previous tenants also Jewish, and even though they moved nearly two years ago he simultaneously has two files at the rental board one against his previous tenant and his current tenant, and this is bound to not be the last. Like the Canadian Jewish News recounted about Zilberg’s not being “observant in the traditional sense…. he practices Judaism in his own way and feels that should be respected. Certainly, he thinks an employer should not impose religious beliefs.” The same with a landlord, just because one rents a dwelling from a rabbi it does not mean he has a right to impose religious restrictions on his tenants or decide to evict them when they do not behave religiously like he would want.

Still these types of hatred are none-the-less causing divisions when the community needs to be united against rising anti-Semitism. The divisions within the community only add fuel and perpetuate the stereotypes so commonly raised by anti-Semites. As the Canadian Jewish News recounted, Zilberg “still hesitated to testify against a fellow Jew. He continues to worry today that this may be construed by anti-Semites as Jews fighting among themselves.” The problem did not start with Zilberg but his Jewish boss that discriminated against him.

All religious groups in Israel despite their differences according to the Pew survey “three-in-four Israeli Jews (76%) say not only is anti-Semitism common around the world, but it is increasing.” In Canada and the Montreal area anti-Semitism is on the rise. According to Statistics Canada, “58% of all religiously based hate crimes reported in 2012 were perpetrated against Jews, totaling 242 crimes.” The most religious hatred in Canada was towards Jews, while “the most commonly reported offense was uttering threats (46%).” Most recently, vandals in Laval a city just North of Montreal defaced homes and cars with Swastikas. Earlier this year swastikas were painted on cars in the Montreal borough of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. According to reports there were over 100 swastikas painted in Montreal that were removed in the second half of 2015.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre vowed at the first ever-official Yom Hashoah commemoration at the city hall to “eradicate” anti-Semitism in the city. Coderre announced the addition of a hate crimes task force in Montreal’s police to fight anti-Semitic criminal acts in the city. Coderre said he wanted “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, hateful actions and hate speech.” The Jewish community should also listen and make their own vow not to tolerate any discrimination by Jews against Jews within the community.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a librarian, historian, and journalist. She has a BA in History & Art History, an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin "The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South" into a full-length biography.
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