Every year as the Jewish high holidays approach, local TV is apt as usual, to show scenes of bearded Jewish orthodox men, replete in black hats and robes, trundling their large families off to synagogue to usher in the New Year.
This stereo typical depiction of Jews, presented by well-meaning, but misinformed television editors, is a misrepresentation that has been harmful to the reputation of mainstream Jews of Quebec, who have as much in common with the ultra-religious Jews known collectively as the 'Haredim", as Christians have with the polygamists in Bountiful, British Columbia or the Amish in Pennsylvania.
Although the Haredim consist of many ultra-orthodox religious Jewish sects, it is common among secular Jews in Quebec to refer to all of them as 'Hasids.'
Because of the large amount of publicity (mostly negative) generated by the Hasids, most Quebeckers are under the impression they are representative of Quebec Jews and that is unfortunate.
The various ultra-religious sects make up less than 10% of Quebec Jewry and less than 4% of Jews worldwide, yet for most Quebeckers, the Hasids and their lifestyle are what they think of, when asked to describe Jews.
Jews have had a long and successful history in Quebec and are the most integrated and bilingual of all the minorities. Most Quebeckers would be surprised to learn that most Jews speak French, rather than English at home.
Mainstream Jews, like their Christian brothers and sisters practice various degrees of orthodoxy, but enjoy and support the secular nature of Quebec society and the separation of church from state.
The various Hasidic groups living in Quebec migrated to Canada after World War II. Their view of Judaism is fundamentalist and literal. They live in tightly knit communities and practice their faith far away and apart from the regular Jewish community.
Their religious leader (the ‘Rebbe’) is revered and ascribed a god-like status. Hasids view God’s word and that of the 'Rebbe', as supreme and literal and believe firmly that religious law trumps laws imposed by the state.
Similar to other religious cults, Hasids live in a parallel, yet separate world. They socialize and marry exclusively within their community and work in jobs that keep them as far away from society as possible. Children are tightly controlled and undergo a thorough indoctrination in segregated religious schools and are kept apart from outside influences. Life for Hasids is centered around a complicated set of rules and standards in which daily prayer and the study of religious texts is fundamental and veneration of the spiritual leader is exaggerated.
Hasids are serene and confident, believing in their infallible faith and convinced absolutely (like other cults) that everyone outside their faith is not only wrong, but irrelevant.
Unlike most other cults, Hasids prefer to live in urban areas, carving out enclaves that invariably bring them into conflict with their neighbours. Most of these problems arise from the opening of synagogues and religious schools in direct violation of zoning laws. When faced with local opposition, Hasids employ a sophisticated barrage of legal tactics, which includes escalating disputes into cases of religious persecution, financed by wealthy members of their community.
As in Montreal’s Outremont district or in the Laurentian community of Val-Morin, those who are opposed to the Hasids open disregard of civil authority are painted as racists and the fallout and negative sentiment that the conflict engenders, tarnishes the entire Quebec Jewish community.
Employing expensive legal talent, like Montreal’s Julius Grey, (a lawyer who never met a law, rule or regulation that couldn't be challenged under the guise of religious freedom), the Hasids engage in an expensive and painful war of legal attrition, one that invariably leads to extreme ill will.
Aside from their total disregard to zoning ordinances, Hasids tend to ignore other rules and regulations that they find inconvenient, all the while pretending that they are cooperative and respectful citizens.
Recently it was revealed that certain congregations of the Hasidic community in Montreal have been operating schools in direct violation of provincial educational standards and have been doing so since 1952! The schools pursue a religious syllabus that dates back to Tsarist Russia and is so overloaded with religious study that other subjects are hardly taught at all. The teaching of the French language is deemed unnecessary and it's omission serves to underline the contempt Hasids hold for the 'goyim', (a Yiddish pejorative for the non-Jewish world.) Of the hundreds of minorities in Quebec, Hasids rank at the bottom in their inability to speak the language of the majority.
When a permit was rightly denied by police last May, to hold an outdoor bonfire in celebration of a religious holiday in a schoolyard, the Belz congregation of Outremont went ahead with it anyway, packing hundreds of celebrants into a schoolyard and lighting a huge fire in densly populated neighbourhood.
Hasids, full-well in the knowledge that the practice is illegal, run a daily unlicensed bus service to Brooklyn, picking up and depositing passengers without any regulatory oversight.
When confronted, Hasids pooh-pooh the problems and put forth the notion that they are cooperative and amenable to compromise.
It is patently untrue.
To understand the Hasids propensity to circumvent the law, it's important to understand how Hasids themselves practice their own religion, which is bound by overly harsh restrictions and rules that make modern life difficult.
The Hasids have developed certain strategies that allow them to violate the spirit of the religious edicts while remaining technically in compliance.
One of the most important religious rule is the sanctity of the Sabbath, where no work can be performed. The rule is so draconian that Hasids may not use any machine or electrical device or for that matter, even turn on a light. They may not even tear toilet paper! In order to get around the problem they will leave lights on and tear the toilet paper into pieces the night before. For religious services in the synagogue a non-Jew known by the derogatory term "Shabbos Goy"(Sabbath Gentile) is employed to do all that they may not. (open the lights, turn on the heat, shovel snow, etc.etc.)
When a religious holiday demands that the Hasids remain in their homes, a string is run all around the neighbourhood thus discerning a boundary that is declared a common home! Weird strategies are concocted to circumvent many other rules and recently a Sabbath cell phone has come on the market! To Hasids, a rule, a regulation or a law is just something to get around, it's no big deal!
In Israel, the Hasidic minority exploits the fact that they hold the balance of political power by imposing extreme religious standards on the largely secular Jewish majority. They regularly interfere in all manner of national affairs.
It is not uncommon to see violent outbursts by these ultra-orthodox, when their religious hold on Israeli society is challenged.
Read a frightening account by an ABC news reporter about her harrowing experience in a Hasidic neighbourhood. So much for benign piety.
Stores that sell non-kosher food are routinely stoned, buses that don’t provide separate seating for men and women are attacked and those who disrespect the sabbath in religious neighbourhoods put their personal safety at risk.
Exemption from army service and special subsidies for Hasids are just a few of the special privileges demanded and received for their political support. The general public is not amused and the majority of Israelis hold them in utter contempt.
So much for peaceful co-existence.
The conflict between the Hasids and secular Israelis has risen to an alarming level as the secular Jews are now demanding that Hasids refrain from moving into secular neighbourhoods. They fear quite correctly that with the arrival of the Hasids, demands for religious obedience will follow. Graffiti, like the one depicted here on the right, is starting to appear onto buildings in these neighbourhoods. The message is clear- "NOT AMONG US"
Read an unsettling account of the 'war' between religious fanatics and the secular state of Israel, it will dispel any notion that you may have that it is all just a 'misunderstanding'.
These problems are unlikely to appear in Quebec, the Haredi community's small numbers preclude it. They do however serve to underline that the problems between the Hasids and the community at large have nothing to do with antisemitism or racism, the problems occur because of the refusal by the Hasids to accept the rules and regulations of a secularist state.
The whole divisive religious accommodation debate that rocked Quebec these last years, was largely (but not exclusively) triggered by incidents whereby Hasids demanded 'special' treatment.
Hasidic demands for female doctors for female patients and the demand for the installation of curtains in windows of a certain gym (so that neighbouring Hasids would not be offended by scantily clothed women) rightly offend the sensibilities of all Quebeckers.
The Montreal Police are so intimidated, that they sent out a notice advising female police officers to defer to their male counterparts when dealing with the Hasidic community.
In Quebec, Hasids exploit the fact that the Christian majority is reluctant to challenge their excesses because of the fear of being branded anti-Semitic.
It is unlikely that Hasids will come into compliance with Quebec educational edicts without a fight, one which will again tarnish the reputation of mainstream Jews.
It is an open question whether Hasids can successfully live in Quebec society within the bounds of secular law.
So far, the governments reaction to the community's open disobedience of the law has been to avoid the problem by caving in shamefully.
Mainstream Jews should not remain silent, because as long as Hasids flaunt the law, make unfair and unrealistic demands, secular Quebec Jews will suffer the consequences.