By: Chaim Steinmetz
The Parti Quebecois took an important step at its convention Saturday when it decided that candidates for the PQ can no longer wear visible religious symbols. This new policy helped clarify an issue that has arisen in the PQ’s past roughly……zero times. But the PQ felt it was important to institute this rule as a gesture, to explain how serious they are about their “Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests” (or “Charter of Values”, for short.)
This means that if I wanted to run for the PQ, I could no longer wear my kippah. The PQ feels that public officials shouldn’t display religious symbols, because it would compromise their neutrality. But one wonders, what does neutrality mean? Why not apply neutrality to other forms of expression? Will they allow someone running for the PQ to wear a Habs jersey? Perhaps there’s a diehard former Québec Nordiques fan who roots for the Colorado Avalanche, who will be intimidated by the jersey; and who knows, there may be some hockey fans in Gatineau who root for a non-Quebec team like the Senators? Perhaps the PQ should order candidates not to wear regional baseball caps, with names like Montreal or Herouxville written on them; after all, by showing favoritism to one region, they are losing their neutrality!
Apologists for the Charter of Secular Values will counter that religion is different than sports or regional interests. To them, religion is uniquely divisive, and therefore must be completely hidden in the public sphere. After all, wars are fought over religion. But then again, most wars are motivated by nationalism; does this mean that nationalism isn’t kosher? Should we remove nationalism from the public sphere? (Last I looked, the PQ was a nationalist party).
Actually, experience shows that rather than being divisive, full freedom of expression brings about true tolerance. Just to the south of us is a deeply religious country, the United States. In it people of multiple religions work together, and many of them wear their religious symbols proudly. And yet, despite these shocking displays of kippahs, turbans and hijabs, even in the public service, the United States does a better job than Quebec in ensuring that people of different backgrounds get along with each other. (Not to mention that the U.S. economy has grown much faster than our own as well.) In the American system, the most important cultural values one must learn relate to democracy and civil rights, not clothing styles or religious habits.
While grasping for a rationale for this law, apologists advance another argument. They say that the new Charter of Values is really about promoting the equality of women; they claim the hijab is an instrument of male domination. While the patriarchal structure of deeply religious societies certainly can lead to the oppression women, refusing women with hijabs jobs certainly doesn’t liberate them; and it’s absurd to believe that discriminating against religious women will improve women's rights. And by refusing religious Muslims jobs, you prevent these very women from truly integrating into Quebec society.
Then, of course, there's the Celine Dion argument: “you are in Quebec and we have embraced you and opened our country for you to live in a better world, you have to adapt to our rules”. In other words, if you want to live here, you have to be like us. But please tell me, what is “being like us”? Is there a Quebec uniform I somehow overlooked? I see people dressed in every possible way, business suits and ties to colored hair and piercings. Some people wear tuques; others wear kippahs. What’s the difference? Unless of course, the difference is that by wearing a kippah, you acknowledge that your ancestors lived somewhere other than New France.
Jumping past the labored explanations, it’s obvious that the Charter of Values is a blatant political ploy. It is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Without cause and without reason, it cuts down our right to self expression. The Parti Québecois simply wants to advance their political goals, and hopes that demagoguery will lead them into the promised land of sovereignty; Madame Marois cannot pretend that she doesn’t know that this secular charter will appeal most to xenophobes and racists.
I oppose this charter, not because I'm Jewish, but because I'm a Canadian and a Quebecois. Democracy is founded not just on the rule of the majority, but also on protecting the rights of the minority. The social contract that holds all of us together requires me to respect the PQ government, even if I’d prefer another one, and it requires this government to protect my rights, even if I didn’t vote for them. And one needs to recognize, that democratic rights can be slowly sliced away like salami, until they eventually disappear; just look at what Chavez did in Venezuela, and Putin in Russia. Both of these autocrats used popular support to create near dictatorships. Any country that tolerates a pointless restriction on civil rights is courting danger.
Pauline Marois has now made it clear: as a kippah wearing Jew, I don’t belong in the Parti Quebecois. Well, I’m glad to be excluded. I’d never want to be part of a party that shamelessly undermines rights and courts bigots; I’d never want to be part of a party that will trample on democracy in order to further its political goals.
So, thank you Pauline for excluding me from the Parti Quebecois.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Rabbi of the Tifereth Beth David Synagogue in Cote Saint Luc