Montreal’s Jewish community is one of the most famous and successful in North America. Its history rings with names like Cohen, Richler, Bronfman and Safdie. But in the past few weeks, it has been shaken to its core.
First came Oct. 7, which is being called the worst day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. The shock was profound. Many Montreal Jews have family and friends in Israel. Some have lived, gone to school or served in the military there. A Montreal man, Alexandre Look, was among the hundreds killed in the Hamas-led surprise attack.
Then came a second blow: a series of fierce protests against Israel and an accompanying wave of antisemitism. In the five weeks after Oct. 7, Montreal police counted 104 reported hate crimes and hate incidents directed at Jews and another 30 against the Arab-Muslim community.
Someone fired shots at two Jewish schools at night. One of the schools was hit by bullets a second time three days later. Someone tried to firebomb a synagogue and a Jewish organization. Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized and trolled online.
Protesters have been crowding the streets of the city, denouncing what some of them describe as the “genocide” Israel is committing in the Gaza Strip. One radical imam who spoke to demonstrators in Arabic called on Allah to deal with the “Zionist aggressors” and kill “the enemies of the people of Gaza – don’t spare any of them.”
A leading local rabbi, Reuben Poupko of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, told me that “these are things that we have never seen before in Montreal.”
Since Oct. 7, “a lot of masks have been removed.” The haters seem to feel unrestrained, unashamed. It is as if the events of this fall, which began with a murderous attack on Israelis, have emboldened them.
He says he gets many calls every day about kids being bullied at school, workers being harassed by colleagues, university students getting singled out because they back Israel. “There are a thousand fires burning all the time.”
To gauge Jewish Montreal’s state of mind, I went to Côte Saint-Luc, a postwar suburb where about three-quarters of the residents are Jews. At the Cavendish Mall, a local gathering spot, I met Lea Iluz, a 31-year-old mortgage broker shopping at the dollar store. Her five-year-old son goes to one of the schools that was shot at. Her cousin is a hostage in Gaza and her husband’s cousin was killed in the Hamas massacre at a music festival, yet she thinks she would feel safer being in Israel right now. There, she knows she would be surrounded by friends. Here, where she grew up, “I don’t know who is to my left or to my right. People hate me just because I was born Jewish, and that’s so stupid. I’ve never done anything to them.”
But she also said something good had come of it all: “I’ve never seen the Jewish community so strong and united. And we’re very proud to be Jewish. That’s never going to change.”
At Deli Boyz, a kosher delicatessen, Emmanuel Darmond, 43, said business was slow because kids aren’t let out of school for lunch anymore. His own kids are scared to go to school some days.
“It’s tough, it’s tough. You see police cars roaming around Côte Saint-Luc like it’s the end of the world.” He said he could never have imagined such a thing happening in Montreal, not in his “wildest dreams.”
At the tables next to the deli, groups of old men were gathered for their daily chat. They were happy to talk to me, but not to give their full names – not these days.
One of them told me the community is so on edge that some people have taken the mezuzahs off their doors. The little cases hold parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. They identify a Jewish household.
Another man, aged 93, survived the Nazi death camps, moved to Canada and went into the jewellery business. He had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Now this.
Rabbi Poupko notes that antisemitism is a shape-shifting form of prejudice, coming for Jews whether they are rich or poor, powerful or weak. Whether they assimilate or stay apart. That it should come for them in the city of Montreal, where they have lived for so long and have given so much, is a bitter pill – even for a people accustomed to eating bitterness.