Public Opinion Sinks Proposal on Subsidies for Quebec Day Schools

By Sheldon Gordon

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.

MONTREAL — In a humiliating reversal for Montreal’s 90,000-member Jewish community, Quebec’s provincial government has retreated from plans to subsidize the province’s Jewish day schools fully, following accusations that the ruling Liberal Party was simply trying to reward the Jewish community for its financial contributions.

Quebec already provides the most generous benefits in Canada for its 15 Jewish day schools. The province pays 60% of the private schools’ expenses to cover the secular part of their curriculum, which is set by the provincial ministry of education. Quebec Premier Jean Charest proposed last month to boost the subsidy to 100%, which would cost an additional $8 million annually if all Jewish day schools signed up.

A public opinion survey found that 90% of Quebecers opposed the funding increase, at a time when budgetary constraints have strained the public school system and the province’s French-speaking majority is concerned with eliminating vestiges of religious influence — Catholic and Protestant — from the system.

A review of comments posted to Radio-Canada’s French-language Web site showed that all the respondents were infuriated with the plan, except for two Jewish contributors. Most critics blasted the government and called for Quebec’s school system to become more secular. However, a minority made bigoted attacks on the Jewish community.

“We’re disappointed that amongst some of the commentary there were innuendo and comments that we would have preferred not to see,” said Danyael Cantor, executive vice president of Montreal Federation CJA, the funding body for Quebec’s Jewish social service institutions. “The level of public response to this was not anticipated.”

Calling the controversy “a major setback between the Jewish community and the [French-speaking] majority,” Jack Jedwab, former executive director of the Quebec Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress noted, “It has brought out latent ill feeling toward the Jewish community.” But he cautioned against interpreting the backlash as motivated primarily by antisemitism.

Tensions around the funding proposal were exacerbated by Quebec’s political polarization. The Jewish community votes overwhelmingly for the Liberal Party, which supports keeping Quebec in Canada, leaving it with no leverage over the opposition Parti Québécois, which advocates Quebec’s secession.

Parti Québécois leader Bernard Landry was quick to cite media reports that the subsidy hike was payback for Jewish donations to the Liberals. The French-language daily La Presse reported that Premier Charest had lauded Revenue Minister Lawrence Bergman last month for his fund-raising efforts in the Jewish community, noting that one event had added $600,000 to the party’s coffers. Charest denied the story. Bergman, the only Jewish member of the Quebec legislature, declined media interviews.

Landry demanded that Quebec Jews spurn the subsidy in order to provide an “elegant conclusion” to the controversy. “It was politically expedient for him to comment in the way that he did,” said Cantor, who noted that when the Parti Québécois was in power, it initiated full subsidies for two Greek day schools.

Some community observers believe the funding increase for Jewish schools was doomed because Jewish leaders had discreetly marketed the plan to the government without a corresponding effort to persuade the public. “There was a certain naiveté in thinking that you can put a project out there and, by doing it in a low-key way, avoid a reaction,” Jedwab said.

When the backlash began to build, the Charest government initially defended the plan as a way to promote understanding between the Jewish minority and the non-Jewish, French-speaking majority, since some of the funding increase would have underwritten exchanges between schools in the two communities. The education minister even insisted that Quebec Jewry was a cultural community rather than a religious community.

But portraying the funding hike as a means of cross-cultural rapprochement appeared disingenuous to most Quebecers. Even though the extra money would have been earmarked largely for school upgrading rather than for a reduction in parents’ tuition fees, the public apparently viewed the plan as a naked cash grab. Many Quebecers insisted that the best way to promote cross-cultural understanding is to bolster a secular public school system rather than further subsidize the “ghettoization” of the Jewish community.

Despite the public’s ridicule of the plan’s stated rationale, Jewish leaders continue to insist that their objective really was to promote rapprochement. “This is a noble idea,” said Charles Levy, executive director of the Association of Jewish Day Schools. “Funding or no funding, it will have to be done.”

Cantor added, “Our motives were pure.”



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