Published in The Times of Israel, February 13, 2012
One of the questions we Zionists often ask ourselves is this: Why don’t other minority nationalities around the world who, like us, are struggling for their independent national expression identify more strongly with Israel? Does it always have to be that they tend towards support for the Palestinians?
A refreshing new autobiography by a Quebecois convert to Judaism demonstrates that the answer is no. You can be a nationalist minority searching for self-identity and working for political independence – in this case, the independence of Quebec from Canada – and simultaneously be a passionate Zionist. You can admire the struggle of Israel and the Jewish People and adopt it as a role model for your own battles. Israel can indeed be a light unto the nations.
A Quebec Jew: From Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish Activist by Richard Marceau (Editions du Marais, French and English editions) provides a window into the mindset of a “double minority” person. Marceau is an 11th generation Quebecker from a staunch Roman Catholic family and a former separatist member of parliament. Now he is a Jew by choice.
Marceau’s spiritual odyssey and double conversion to Judaism (first Reform, then Orthodox) is a small part of the book and the less interesting part. The bulk of the text is a fascinating attempt to explain Jews, Israel and Zionism in terms uniquely understandable to Quebeckers, using Quebec cultural references. Marceau tears down stereotypes about Jews and debunks canards about Israel.
“Becoming a Jew,” he writes, “meant becoming a member of a community that an important segment of Quebec society viewed with suspicion and undoubtedly ignorance… In fact, my Zionism made me into a ‘bad Jew’ because according to a portion of the Quebec intellectual class, a good Jew is a Jew who is always critical of Israel, even someone who seeks the destruction of the State of Israel.”
“Yet I was baffled by the fact that Quebeckers and especially sovereignists were so much in favor of the Palestinians. Everything I saw, heard, read and discovered about Israel was light years away from what I thought I knew based on media reports in Quebec. It reminded me of the many misconceptions I had heard about Quebec in the rest of Canada. So many things divorced from reality. Indeed, Quebec is often judged not on what it does but on preconceived ideas – just like Israel!”
Marceau reminds us of the great Quebec separatist premier of the 1970s, Rene Levesque, who often evoked positive comparisons between Israel (and preservation of Jewish culture and traditions), with Quebec (and the preservation of French culture and traditions in North America). “Israel is a national home very similar to the one French Canadians are trying to set up,” Levesque said.
Marceau proceeds to show Quebeckers how Judaism is a civilization which helped bring the concepts of liberty, human rights, minority rights and equality to mankind; and how Israel is an outpost of Western values in the autocratic Middle East. He explains to his readers that double standards have been unfairly applied against the State of Israel – just as they have against Quebec.
Marceau is now a lobbyist and counsel for the Canadian Jewish community (the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs), and has become a good friend of mine. In his forthright book he tackles anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, the Arab lobby, and Red-Green alliances in Quebec. He exposes and shames the Hamas and Hezbollah supporters who surfaced in Montreal and Quebec City in recent years, dissects the infamous Goldstone Report, and offers a spirited and lengthy rebuttal of the charge that Israel is an apartheid regime.
He shows how Israel’s integrationist immigration and absorption polices have built a creative and pluralistic society. He argues that Israel offers a good model of “reasonable accommodation” (an important term in Quebec political debate), and that Quebec can learn from Israel’s bold social policies and struggles how to bridge the gaps between Quebec’s different traditions.
Struggle is a key word in Marceau’s mental world – the world of Quebec and Israel. It is for this reason that he chose the Hebrew name Yisrael, whose Biblical meaning is “He who struggles with God.” He continues to struggle to draw the two societies closer – for the sake of Quebec, for the sake of Israel, and I suspect, for the benefit of his own very pure and brave soul, too.