Anti-Semitism definition raised at city hall Yom Ha-Shoah commemoration

MONTREAL – Montreal was urged to adopt a widely recognized definition of anti-Semitism during a virtual Yom ha-Shoah commemoration the city hosted in conjunction with B’nai Brith Canada.

Opposition leader Lionel Perez and Israeli Consul General David Levy spoke in support of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition during the event, led by Mayor Valérie Plante.

“If we are going to fight anti-Semitism, we have to first define it…Without a definition we are doomed to go around in circles,”’ said Perez, who was unsuccessful in getting the Plante administration to entertain a motion endorsing the IHRA definition in March, and last year.

Levy appealed to all municipal and provincial jurisdictions to adopt the definition, as many cities and countries around the world have done. Anti-Semitism cannot be permitted to “hide behind the freedom of expression,” he said.

Plante, who spoke first at the commemoration, stressed the “collective duty” to denounce anti-Semitism, noting that Jews are the most targeted group in Canada in terms of reported incidents. She singled out the painting of swastikas on 

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in January as particularly upsetting and “an attack on all Montrealers.”

Holocaust remembrance is crucial, she said, to avoid the danger of racism and intolerance.

“We honour the memory of the six million Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust and salute the courage of the survivors. Montreal is in solidarity with the Jewish communities of the world. Let’s never allow such a horror to happen again,’’ she stated.

Six memorial candles were lit by the participants in their separate locations. As they did so, they recited the names of the murdered, their ages and where they died. Plante was joined in this solemn ritual by Perez, Levy, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn, Rabbi Alan Bright of Shaare Zedek Congregation, and Rabbi Malkiel Abdellak of Congregation Sépharade Or Hahayim.

Also witnessing were Outremont borough councillor Mindy Pollak, all four of whose grandparents were survivors, and Montreal executive committee member Magda Popeanu, while B’nai Brith Quebec council member Ya’acov Bauer recited the “El Malei Rachamim.”

Rabbi Bright commented that “genocide does not come out of nowhere; it starts with hate speech. Words can destroy…That’s why adopting a definition of hate speech is so important.”

Mostyn warned against the rise in Holocaust denial and distortion. “Misinformation is a deadly weapon perpetrated on those who do not know any better. Passivity in the face of hatred has real world consequences.”

The event included a short video testimony by Montreal survivor Marguerite Quddus, who recalled as a young child in Paris seeing French police take away her father from their home in the middle of the night, never to hear from him again.

The previous evening, the community-wide Yom ha-Shoah commemoration organized by the Montreal Holocaust Museum was held virtually for the second year due to the pandemic. This event normally draws about 1,200 people to 

Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem.

It was the first time there was no live testimony by a survivor. 

Earlier videos made by Leo Kliot, Gilbert Uzan, Muguette Myers, Lily Toth, Pinchas Blitt, and the late Ursula Feist were screened.

Their children and grandchildren reflected on how their parents’ experiences influenced their lives. As commemoration co-chair Ruth Najman noted, “We felt different from children whose parents were born in Canada.”

Survivors reacted in divergent ways, and that affected how they raised their children.

Anthony Feist said his German-born parents, especially his father, moved away from their Jewish identity and he grew up with no observance, not even a bar mitzvah, while Irit Uzan said she was shielded from contact with non-Jews.

Premier François Legault and Liberal leader Dominique Anglade were among the many elected officials offering recorded messages of solidarity.

Diplomats also took part, including German ambassador Sabine Sparwasser and Polish ambassador Andrzej Kurnicki, as did representatives of various communities, including lawyer Azim Hussain, who is Muslim, and Mehmet Tohti, an Ottawa-based Uyghur activist.

A musical performance was pre-recorded in the museum’s memorial hall where the walls are engraved with the names of concentration camps and ghettos. Violinist and artistic director Alexandre Da Costa led string musicians of the Symphonic Orchestra of Longueuil in selections from the score of “Schindler’s List” and Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Plante is being pressed by another opposition councillor, independent Marvin Rotrand, to name a park in the new Westbury condominium complex located in his Snowdon district for author Elie Wiesel.

Rotrand, the son of survivors, first proposed the idea two years ago that the city name “an appropriate public place” after Wiesel in time for the fifth anniversary of his death: July 2, 2021. The city council passed a motion in support in the fall of 2019, and he will be asking the administration at the April 19 council meeting whether it will follow through.

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