Montreal Gazette

From Bloc MP to Jewish activist

RICHARD MARCEAU’S conversion to Judaism put him on an unusual journey to a new and quite different political awakening

- RICHARD MARCEAU Richard Marceau is a lawyer who served as the Bloc Québécois MP for Charlesbou­rg from 1997 to 2006. He is currently senior counsel for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Ottawa.

It used to be that only my wife knew how unusual I was. I now hear it from others all the time. But I guess that’s what happens when you convert to Judaism from Catholicis­m, from Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish community activist.

My journey has been an unlikely one – but no more unlikely than the story of the Jewish people. For a nation that survived thousands of years of persecutio­n and endless flight, the establishm­ent of the modern state of Israel in the ancestral land of the Jewish people less than 70 years ago is nothing less than extraordin­ary.

In many ways, my own spiritual journey began in Israel.

I first visited it in 2000, expecting to see little more than war, religion and tension. What I ended up discoverin­g was something very different: a country defined not by conflict, but by cohesion, openness and liberalism. In the same streets where I saw the occasional soldier or Orthodox Israeli stood gay bars and peace activists. In short, I had discovered a vibrant, pluralisti­c democracy that, despite being in one of the world’s most dangerous regions, upholds the same values that Canadians and Quebecers cherish.

Returning home, I quickly discerned the gap between impression and reality among mainstream Quebec society when it comes to the Middle East. Few knew the story of Israel, the sacrifices its people had made for peace, and the inspiring example of national self-determinat­ion that it set for all peoples. Perhaps this is only natural, given that 98 per cent of Quebec’s Jewish community lives on the island of Montreal. For the majority of Quebecers who live elsewhere, interactio­n with Jews is limited or non-existent.

Where infor mation is lacking, misinforma­tion abounds. Many Quebecers see Quebec Jews as rich, unilingual anglophone­s – even as immigrants disconnect­ed from the Quebec nation. Most Quebecers aren’t aware that 20 per cent of the Quebec Jewish community lives below the poverty line, that French is the mother tongue of 25 per cent of Quebec Jews, and that two-thirds are fluent in French. And most would be surprised to hear that the Montreal Jewish community turns 250 years old in 2012, and that it has made (and continues to make) a very significan­t contributi­on to Quebec’s developmen­t. Of course, that contributi­on would never be possible had Quebec not been an open, tolerant and welcoming place for Jews to live and prosper.

If Jews are largely abstract to most Quebecers, Israel is even more distant – and thus generaliza­tions, half-truths and distortion­s are inevitable when it comes to the Middle East. I came home from Israel a committed Zionist, and decided to work in my own modest capacity to increase knowledge and understand­ing of Israel in Quebec. I have since strived to challenge the absolutist mentality that influences many observers of the conflict, and reject at- tempts to look at it as a zerosum game. Instead, I prefer to emphasize solutions that will secure a future for Israelis and Palestinia­ns alike.

As someone who has always been committed to peace, I am entirely comfortabl­e calling myself a pro-palestinia­n Zionist. For me, being supportive of Israel doesn’t come at the expense of support for the Palestinia­ns’ legitimate national aspiration­s.

Activism aside, I soon discovered that israel had opened the door to much more than just a political awakening. Though raised in a practising Catholic family in the middleclas­s suburbs of Quebec City, I found that my faith had essentiall­y lapsed. My need for purpose and spirituali­ty, however, was very much alive. My wife, Lori, who is not particular­ly religious, is a proud Jew by birth. My trip to Israel, combined with her commitment to the Jewish people, connected me to a people, a nation and a faith that I grew to love.

I began exploring Judaism, and what I found – a faith that insisted on reason, debate, universal moral principles and peoplehood – led me to a new passion. In 2004, I converted through the Reform movement (and later through the Orthodox movement). Coming from a pure laine Quebec background, I knew I had bridged two worlds in joining the Jewish people. But I see no contradict­ion in the two. In fact, as a committed Jew, I am proud to contribute to Quebec society just as Quebec Jews have done for generation­s.

This is one of the reasons I wrote my recent book, A Quebec jew:from blocquébéc­o is MP to Jewish Activist – my own contributi­on on behalf of Jewry to Quebec (and broader Canadian) society. In so doing, I hope to provide a window into the extraordin­ary world of Israel and the Jewish people, through the lens of my own unusual journey.

If the book is a fraction as fascinatin­g, moving and downright exciting as the experience itself was, it should make for a great read.

 ?? RICHARD MARCEAU ?? Richard Marceau takes a break while enjoying sightseein­g on the Golan Heights during a recent visit to Israel.
RICHARD MARCEAU Richard Marceau takes a break while enjoying sightseein­g on the Golan Heights during a recent visit to Israel.

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