The scourge of virulent anti-Semitism last month shattered our complacency with the slaughter of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This tragedy made us shudder. We had thought the senseless murder of Jews was a thing of the past.
The Pittsburgh attack was similar to those that have occurred in Europe in recent years, some of the worst in the name of radical Islam, and others ostensibly a reaction to the flood of refugee claimants challenging European demographics.
The synagogue massacre recalls the worst of Islamophobic incident here, the attack last January at a mosque in Quebec City, where six were killed and 19 injured.
The Quebec shooter was obsessed by fears of the increasing Muslim presence in Quebec. And both pale in terms of casualties to the horrific act by American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein, who walked into the Cave of Patriarchs Mosque in Hebron in 1994 and slaughtered 29 during Ramadan prayers.
The Pittsburgh massacre should serve as a wake-up call and a reminder of how words — political rhetoric that stigmatizes — can be as dangerous as actions because they seek to play on irrational fears among parts of the population.
Donald Trump’s initial impromptu reaction was inappropriate, showing not an iota of compassion or moral leadership when he parroted the National Rifle Association line, “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him.” Then he spouted a law-and-order line — that the perpetrator should face the death penalty. While he did modify his tone later and visited the synagogue to express sympathy, his initial words reflect the polarized climate he has nurtured, starting with his reaction to the Charlottesville, Virginia rally. Lest we forget, white supremacists who screamed racial and ethnic epithets, such as Jews Will Not Replace Us, resulted in a driver plowing into a group of unarmed protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyter.
Said Trump: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” His words suggested equivalency between peaceful protestors and those spouting racist and hateful slogans. White nationalists can easily conclude he supports them.
The intense media coverage of Trump’s rhetoric and the polarization in the US, including hatred and fear of “the other,” is having a ripple effect here, the extent of which is unknown.
According to recent counts, there are some 71 mosques and 72 synagogues in the greater Montreal area including north and south-shore communities. In the wake of Pittsburgh, all will certainly be re-appraising security arrangements.
While the bigger institutions often have security guards on duty, at least some of the time, none have tightened access to the same extent as in effect in France, Austria, Italy, and other major European countries, where armed guards, permanent police presence, locked doors, and passport checks are standard.
All this brings us to newly-elected Premier François Legault and his promise to legislate to cope with a virtually non-existent “problem” that can only exacerbate tensions – his pledge to restrict the wearing of religious symbols, including the Jewish kippah and Islamic head scarf, by teachers, judges, and police officers, and even override protections in the Charter or Rights and Freedoms and invoke the rarely-used notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution if the Supreme Court of Canada ever ruled against it.
Teachers in public schools are there to teach the core curriculum, which includes a survey of major world religions, and to impart the values of our society, no matter what symbols they may wear. Judges rule on whether laws have been transgressed, no matter what they may believe in their private lives. Similarly, police are there to enforce compliance with our laws with or without a turban, kippah, or hijab on their heads.
Preventing any Quebecer from access to these jobs because they are wearing religious symbols, which they feel is an expression of profound faith, is clearly discriminatory. It will have its greatest impact on Muslim women, which is a strange way to promote their acceptance and integration.
Legault has made mistakes during the campaign such as threatening to expel immigrants who fail French and values tests after three years; he later apologized for not knowing this is beyond Quebec’s power to carry out. It is time for him to come clean on the proposed ban on religious symbols and let a non-existent problem continue to be a non-existent problem. Delaying legislative action on this issue until the Spring only increases uncertainly and tension.
Fanning fear and anger toward “the other” can only poison inter-communal relations.