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  • The Challenge of Jewish Difference in Québec
  • Stephanie Tara Schwartz (bio)

In May 2015, a group of gender studies and Jewish studies scholars were invited to Milwaukee to participate in a conference called "Grammars of Coherence and Difference: Jewish Studies through the Lens of Gender Studies." The goal of the conference was to explore whether gender studies methodologies might be useful for theorizing Jewishness. The conference organizers proposed the term "Jewish difference" to refer to the relationship between the constructed poles of Jew/non-Jew, in the way that "gender difference" explores the relationship between the presumed categories of "man" and "woman." Jewish difference and gender difference in these cases are predicated on the relationship between terms set as binaries, based on the philosophical principle of defining a concept as a thing with a coherent identity in relation to that which it opposes. In thinking about the complexity of Jewishness in the context of the ongoing exploration of what it means to be Québécois, I wish to propose an alternative entry point for exploring "Jewish difference." Gilles Deleuze's philosophy of difference inverts the hierarchical prioritization of identity over difference, urging us to see difference—a philosophical concept—as defined in-itself rather than "conceived of as an empirical relationship between two terms which each has a prior identity of its own."1 Following this philosophy, I use the term "Jewish difference" as a concept that insists upon its own internal complexities and variability, taking into account intra-Jewish differences that are simultaneously being negotiated with definitions of what is or is not Jewish.

A discussion of three media events in Québec will help illustrate the usefulness for theorizing Jewish difference in this way. The first is an interview in the 1977 film 20 ans après (20 Years Later), in which the Moroccan Jewish filmmaker Jacques Bensimon talks to the director of the Allied Jewish Community Services of Montréal about the Francophone Sephardic community's desire to have a separate community center.2 The second is the 2014 interactive documentary Toi, moi et la charte (You, Me and the Charter), that invites users to explore competing opinions on Québec's Charter of Values, including one Francophone Jewish woman's support for the controversial proposed bill. The third is Life Outside of Blackness, a 2016 feature on three generations of Ethiopian Jewish women in Montréal, that was produced as part of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's (CBC) Montréal journalism series called "Real Talk [End Page 33] on Race." An analysis of these media events points to the challenges of language, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender in defining Jewishness in Québec and the need to understand Jewishness as a theoretically open concept, following Deleuze's philosophy of difference.

Jewish Difference in Québec before the 1960s: Jews as "Honourary Protestants"

Jewish difference conceived as an inherently complex and variable concept is most appropriate for understanding the struggles that Québec Jews have faced in their efforts to define themselves on an individual and a communal level in this Canadian province. Québec distinguishes itself from other provinces in Canada because it continues to fight for recognition as a distinct society with a French-speaking majority and a unique culture and civil law tradition.3 In this context, Montréal Jews have historically been conceived as a "third solitude," an institutionally complete community with a unique culture heavily influenced by the mass migration of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews between the 1890s and 1950s, and "wedged between the economically dominant English-Protestant minority and the disenfranchised French-Canadian majority" of the city.4

Jews had not been permitted to settle in France's Catholic colony of New France, but after the British conquest of New France in 1760, a handful of Jewish merchants who worked as purveyors to the British Army settled in the British-controlled Province of Québec. In 1768, Jewish settlers (most of whom were of Ashkenazi background) established Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation), conforming to the Sephardic style of prayer prominent in the American Jewish culture they had participated in before moving to Québec.5 By...