The Gate David of Bobov congregation in Mile End has been trying to refurbish its synagogue since at least 2004, and last January a borough council meeting approved the synagogue’s ten-foot expansion into its own back yard. But the project faced such fierce opposition from a group of neighbours led by a former journalist named Pierre Lacerte that the minor renovation was brought to a local referendum. Lacerte mounted an aggressive campaign against the synagogue, and ultimately won the battle, with a ‘no’ vote of 53 per cent. A few times last spring, his propaganda made its way to my own doorstep, which is just around the corner from the synagogue and directly next to the very same YMCA that famously ignited the “reasonable accommodation” debate in 2007.
I can only hope that my neighbourhood will one day move beyond these petty spats. But if that is to happen, we’re going to need journalism that depicts religious communities not as “special interests” or zealots attempting to impose a religious system of governance upon Canada, but simply voters, citizens and members of their own neighbourhood. Though Christina Colizza’s recent feature on the whole debacle (“The secularist and the synagogue” November 3, Page 8) did convey the latter perspective, it also failed to chide people like Lacerte who subscribe to the former. Instead, the author chose to emphasize Lacerte’s “faultlessly good manners,” the fact that he smelled like French cologne, and claimed to speak six languages.
“The writing on [Lacerte’s] blog is red hot with secularist fervour,” writes Colizza to preface Lacerte’s pronouncement that “For more than half a century, the Satmar sect has sacrificed thousands of children on the altar of religious ultraorthodoxy in Quebec.”
Yet the historical tradition with which I would associate that particular quote is not secularism, but rather anti-Semitism.
That’s not an accusation I make lightly. For the past several years I have dismissed the vast majority of such accusations out of hand. At times my response to people who are prone to making them – and who are equally prone to justifying the ongoing atrocities of the Israeli state on the basis of what they call widespread contemporary anti-Semitism – has been rude and abrasive. Jewish identity has been so deliberately and powerfully conflated with the narrative of the Holocaust and the triumphant birth of Israel that these conversations are usually doomed to failure and hurt feelings.
The problem is that the Israel camp has ruthlessly exploited the history of Jewish oppression to tarnish its critics. Lacerte, whose rhetoric often smacks of Jewish conspiracy theory, is in turn exploiting the extent to which we have now been inured to such flippant accusations of anti-Semitism. “That’s the easiest thing to say,” has been his retort to those who have called him anti-Semitic.
Another of Colizza’s interviewees is sympathetic: “This guy is not anti-Semitic; that word is thrown around way too easily.” In other words, it’s a tragic instance of a boy who cried wolf.
I’ll admit here that at times I have experienced a certain visceral fear of a potential rise in widespread anti-Semitism, ridiculous though that may be. Having grown up with so little of the fear-mongering Holocaust obsession that characterizes many Jews’ upbringing, these moments can be dizzying. What triggers them, however, is not people like Lacerte as much as mentions of an Israeli massacre or settlement expansion drifting across the bottom of a TV screen.
That Israel itself has galvanized, and in many ways benefited from, anti-Semitism in recent years is natural; the logic of Zionism is deeply rooted in the assumption that people everywhere will always hate Jews. The dividends the state has reaped for at once provoking anti-Semitism and then sensationalizing it have come in the form of increasing Jewish immigration to Israel.
Lately, I’ve tended to steer clear of news about Israel, lest I sink into a stupor of anger and depression such as I did during Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. It becomes more difficult to ignore when the issue begins to impact my own neighbourhood.
Still, the conversation surrounding Israel/Palestine inevitably puts us in a difficult position with a case such as the Gate David synagogue. Frivolous accusations of anti-Semitism obviously play into pro-Israel rhetoric, yet stopping short of accusing someone such as Lacerte of anti-Semitism can have an equally damaging effect. Coming out of last summer’s dispute, an entire congregation of Jews might understandably feel considerably less welcome in Montreal.