Montreal’s Jewish and Muslim communities see fragile peace in tatters
The city’s deep-rooted Jewish community is beset by a staggering surge in hate-crime incidents
Eta Yudin’s office normally looks out toward the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, a cherished part of Montreal’s Jewish cultural scene and home to one of the world’s few Yiddish theatre companies.
Now, however, her view is partly obscured by a four-storey banner. On it are more than 100 faces: young, old, infants, parents. In white block letters, on a red background, it reads: “KIDNAPPÉS PAR LE HAMAS.”
In both English and French, it pleads: “Help us bring them home.”
It is a supersized version of posters that have adorned lampposts and bus shelters around the world. They have also been ripped down and defaced, a symptom of rising animosity brought on by the Israel-Hamas war. “I mean, look at those faces,” she said, gesturing out her window. “What is the statement they’re trying to make? That Jewish lives don’t matter? That these hostages don’t count?”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, where Yudin is the Quebec vice-president, has been warning about a disturbing rise in antisemitism for years. But since Oct. 7 — when more than 1,200 Israelis were massacred by Hamas, spurring an Israeli military operation that has claimed more than 11,000 Palestinian lives — things have grown particularly tense.
A rash of suspected hate crimes have hit the Jewish community
here. Last week, a pair of Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Congregation Beth Tikvah synagogue and a neighbouring Jewish community organization.
Days later, shots were fired at two Jewish schools in this city. One of those schools was hit by gunfire again early Sunday morning.
“I do think there are those who are seeking to use a foreign conflict to agitate and to foment hatred against the Jewish community,” Yudin said. Police, thus far, have not released information about who may have committed these attacks.
The Service de police de la Ville de Montreal said there have been 48 reported hate crime incidents targeting the Jewish community in just the past month. The city’s police service said they had identified a total of 72 hate crimes across all faiths and identifiable groups, for the entire year of 2022.
It’s a staggering rise, and leaves Jews in Montreal worried that they are the canary in the coal mine for a new wave of antisemitic hate.
Montreal has the second highest number of Jewish residents of any city in Canada, after Toronto. Its Jewish history and character is weaved into the fabric of the city. So, too, is tension.
While antisemitism was rife in Canada before, during, and after the Second World War, no politician put that hate into action more than Maurice Duplessis, Quebec’s longest-serving premier. He hounded left-wing Jewish organizations, deeming them subversive, and invented conspiracy theories alleging a vast “International Zionist Brotherhood” was pulling the strings in Quebec. While he crusaded against allowing Jewish refugees from Europe, scores of émigrés arrived just the same, settling in neighbourhoods like Côte-desNeiges and Dollard-des-Ormeaux — where the recent firebombings and shootings took place.
Even after the quiet revolution dismantled Duplessis’ political legacy, cementing Quebec as both secular and francophone, Montreal’s Jewish community, historically religious and anglophone, never quite fit. The Quebec government’s recent moves to reduce state services in English and forbid many public sector workers from wearing religious symbols on the job — including the kippah — have added to a feeling of unease for all religious minorities in Quebec, including Jews.
Montreal also has a long history of activism critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. When Benjamin Netanyahu, between terms as prime minister, arrived in Montreal in 2002 to deliver remarks at Concordia, hundreds of protesters tried to prevent him from entering the building. The ensuing riots led to classes being cancelled, windows smashed and a handful of students arrested.
Memories of the Concordia riots returned this week, when fresh scuffles broke out. Jewish students set up a table to share information about the 239 Israeli hostages still being held captive in the Gaza Strip. Other students, brandishing their own posters bearing photos of Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes, surrounded the table. Police were ultimately called to break up the fighting.
A day later, speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally at McGill University, a student who had been at Concordia boasted “we terrified them” to a chorus of cheers.
Many in the Jewish community are taking stock of these incidents, cataloguing them as evidence of rising animosity.
Many point to a prayer uttered to a cheering crowd at an anti-war rally last month. Adil Charkaoui, an educator who has long been accused of employing extremist rhetoric, told the crowd in Arabic: “Allah, take charge of the Zionist aggressors. Allah, take care of the enemies of the people of Gaza. Allah, count them all, then exterminate them. And spare none of them.” After being denounced by Premier François Legault and various Jewish groups, Charkaoui took to Twitter to claim he was filing a lawsuit against his critics, while admitting “it’s true” that he said “a prayer calling for the elimination and destruction of the Zionist aggressors.”
Thousands of Montrealers have taken to the streets to call for a ceasefire and end to the war in Gaza — which have been generally peaceful and some of which were organized by Jewish groups. But protests that have targeted the Israeli consulate, which sits in a residential neighbourhood, have contributed to the feeling that the community is being targeted. Henry Topas, the Quebec regional director for B’nai Brith Canada relayed how one family was sitting shiva, mourning the loss of a family member, when demonstrators arrived to protest outside the Israeli consulate next door. “People couldn’t come comfort the mourners because they couldn’t get in and out. Or they felt that there was too much threat.”
But comments like Charkaoui’s — as well as duelling interpretations of protest chants, and photos posted to social media of pro-Hamas signs and flags — have only added to the anxiety.
“Where is the line — between free speech and hate speech and incitement to murder?” asked Topas, who is also a cantor at Congregation Beth Tikvah. A similar banner, bearing the faces of those kidnapped, sits across from the westend mall where his offices are.
“Is it going to take a murder?” Topas wonders. “Is it going to take a death for somebody to say: ‘OK, enough. That’s enough.’ ”
The past six weeks of anxiety, grief, and tension have had a negative impact on Montreal’s Muslim and Arab communities, too. Montreal police have received 25 reports of hate crimes targeting Arabs or Muslims since Oct. 7. Like the Jewish community, they have faced years of rising vitriol and violence. Painful memories of a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 have not faded.
Despite tensions brought on by Quebec’s ban on religious symbols and a growing skepticism around immigration, Montreal Arab communities have grown massively in the past two decades: Many have settled in Côte-des-Neiges and Dollard-des-Ormeaux, becoming easy neighbours to the long-standing Jewish community. In absolute numbers, Montreal is home to more people of Middle Eastern descent than Toronto.
The Jewish and Muslim communities have often made common cause, working together in court to contest Quebec’s religious symbols ban. Each has been vocal about hate crimes targeting the other.
But the war has frayed such bonds. Topas laments that there has not been the same feeling of solidarity between the communities since Oct. 7.
Sameer Zuberi is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Pierrefonds-Dollard. He’s seen how these divisions have split communities in his riding in two.
“Incidents of hate, intimidation, violence — these must be called out together,” Zuberi told the Star. The synagogue fire bombing took place in his riding, which he has denounced. He says Muslims in his riding have also faced rising harassment: His sister-in-law was met with multiple obscene gestures while dropping her kids off to school recently. Others have received threats from passing cars.
For two communities struggling through the grief, anger, and helplessness of watching this conflict from afar, the harassment, hate speech and violent attacks have only made the conflict feel closer to home.
Social media has contributed to that feeling in a major way, taking instances of conflict in Montreal and launching them into virality. One video, of a Concordia student locked in a shouting match with a Jewish classmate, claimed to show her hurling an antisemitic slur. The student has responded to say she actually uttered a different curse word with no antisemitic connotations. But it has made little differ
ence: The video and its original interpretation have been seen millions of times around the world.
Zuberi and others have reported that Montrealers sharing pro-Palestinian information online, or attending pro-ceasefire rallies, have been reprimanded by their employers. Students have been warned that their future career prospects will be harmed by joining the movement. The Liberal MP said that all of this has had a chilling effect on constructive dialogue and debate and made locals feel even more ill-at-ease.
Topas is hopeful that better education can make a difference. He’s volunteered his time to do Holocaust education in local schools — his organization has been calling on Quebec to make such instruction mandatory in schools, especially in earlier grades.
With the conflict in Gaza still raging, with hate rising on the streets of Montreal, and with everyone on edge — unsure of where the lines of acceptable speech lie — there’s little hope that the temperature will drop in the short term.
“The way it’s been the last few weeks is not the way anyone wants to live,” Yudin said.
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