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Montreal Gazette: Sukkah battle

This OpEd was published in the Montreal Gazette (here) in response to conflicts yet again in Outremont. In 2011, Outremont councillor Céline Forget lobbied to block the renovation of a Mile End synagogue. She and blogger Pierre Lacerte went door to door in both neighbourhoods for months and rallied enough signatures to call for a referendum. Their organizing paid off and in June, when the votes were counted, declared victory. But as a Hasidic woman said at the time, “they may have won the battle, but we won a community.” And so Friends of Hutchison was born, the very first activist community group to consist of Hasidic and non-Hasidic members.

We founded Friends of Hutchison to combat what we see as a pattern of misinformation, targeting, unfair bylaws and out-and-out harassment. The Hasidim, residents of Outremont for three generations and now 25 per cent of the borough’s population, have never had the luxury of being considered full citizens. Thanks to years of gratuitous bylaws, the punitive scrutinizing of Outremont council, and the “eyes on the ground” provided by Lacerte’s unbelievable blog, the Hasidim are only either “illegal” or “lobbyists.”

Well, Outremont is at it again.

Currently, section 6.1 of bylaw 1177 stipulates that huts for the 10-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot be allowed to stand for a total of 15 days. These temporary, basic structures, called sukkahs, dot the Outremont landscape every fall. The Hasidim eat and sometimes sleep in them.

This law satisfies no one: It is too vague to enforce and it is too strict for the Hasidim. In good faith, the directors of the borough studied the issue and proposed a “seven day before and seven day after” modification, aligning it with CDN-NDG and satisfying the community, which found the existing schedule to be unduly onerous, particularly in years when one of the few days before or after the holiday fell on the sabbath, a time when they would not erect or dismantle a sukkah. The council, including Hasidic councillor Mindy Pollak, were prepared to support this modification.

Predictably, however, Forget threw a wrench in the works with a counterproposal so severe and illogical it seemed designed to bring discord. With Lacerte backing her up and their supporters crowding the public consultation meeting with indignant complaints against the “ugly” structures, the council has been backed into a corner. If they do not vote for the Forget counterproposal of “three days before and three days after,” they will be portrayed as soft on the “Hasidic lobby.”

Over the years, the price for not aligning with this particular negative view of the Hasidim has been high, and very few councillors have been willing to pay it. Ana Nunez, the former councillor who dared to head an intercultural committee that included Hasidim (and myself), can be found throughout Lacerte’s blog, usually in photoshopped collages that are breathtakingly sexist and degrading.

Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars has also felt the sting and, in spite of whatever good intentions she may have had, now just seems to want to stay out of harm’s way.

As for his portrayals of the Hasidim themselves, Lacerte traffics in stereotypical assumptions about Jews: they have undue power and influence over politicians, they are taking over the neighbourhood, kosher products are a secret tax on the rest of us.

At the public meeting on Dec. 1, Outremont council will have to choose between the seven-day proposal that their own directors put forward, and the three-day counterproposal. If their track record is anything to go by, they will once again err on the side of negativity and conflict.

Oy vey, as my neighbours would say.

First posted in the Montreal Gazette.

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