Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, one of Quebec's most prominent institutions, has fired a strong message to the Quebec government saying it will not play along with any part of the proposed religious dress code in the charter of values.
Lawrence Rosenberg, the new executive director of the Jewish General, says the hospital would not even ask for an exemption under the Parti Québécois's proposed Bill 60, which includes a ban on public-sector workers wearing religious garb, such as skullcaps some Jewish men wear and the headscarf of some Muslim women.
Bill 60, which the minority PQ will have to water down if it is to pass in the legislature, includes an out clause that was tailored to try to appease the hospital. Located in one of Montreal's most diverse neighbourhoods, the Jewish General has observant Muslims and Jews wearing obvious religious symbols working on nearly every ward.
"Since the bill is inherently prejudicial, there is no point in taking advantage of any clause that would grant us temporary, short-term relief," said Dr. Rosenberg in a statement that carried the endorsement of the hospital's board of directors. "This bill is flawed and contrary to Quebec's spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance."
The Jewish General Hospital was built in 1934, partly in response to prejudice Jews faced getting treatment and entering medical professions in Christian institutions. The hospital later opened its doors to everyone.
Jewish leaders have carefully measured their response to the PQ's proposed crackdown on religious symbols in the public service, but the period of caution appears to be ending.
At a weekend ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass where Nazis launched a co-ordinated attack against Jews in Germany and Austria, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, an outspoken Orthodox rabbi warned of the perils of placidly accepting any attack on symbols of faith. He recounted the story of Ben Zion Halberstam, a rabbi who was killed by Nazis in Ukraine in 1941 as he defiantly kept replacing his kippa on his head during a beating. In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Poupko said he does not believe the PQ is anti-Semitic. He also said he was not comparing the charter to Nazi persecution of Jews.
"What I was pointing to is the determination Jews have to maintain their religion in the face of the greatest challenges," Mr. Poupko said. "We've faced greater challenges to our faith than the charter. But make no mistake, the charter is a denial of freedom. The Quebec Human Rights Commission said so."
Mr. Poupko said some Jewish leaders have been very careful in their approach to opposing the charter. "The Jewish community should not be silenced, but this is a complicated political environment and in the end it won't be the Jewish or Muslim communities who are the most influential voices in this debate. The most influential voices will be French Canadians who have spoken out, and who will continue to speak."
Jean-Marc Fournier, the Liberal opposition's house leader in the National Assembly, heard Mr. Poupko speak at the Kristallnacht event, and related the story of Mr. Halberstam in the assembly on Tuesday. Some media critics accused him of playing the Nazi card against the PQ. Mr. Fournier denied he was making any links, saying he just wanted to remind people how important religious symbols can be.