Frontlines

A strange bid for autonomy

David Thomas November 5 1979
Frontlines

A strange bid for autonomy

David Thomas November 5 1979

A strange bid for autonomy

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

David Thomas

Like determined hummingbirds, television news crews dove toward the strikers who recently barred the gate to a General Motors plant near Montreal, methodically extracting with their lenses and microphones the perishable essence of the day’s excitement—20th-century town criers at work. Not far away, a tight community of Hasidic Jews would remain oblivious to the news: without television, radio or newspapers, the 600 Hasidim, belonging to a sect called Tasher, have made ignorance of the world around them a precept of their piety. Until recently, their own presence at Boisbriand, just north of Montreal, was discreet, unknown to the multitudes for whom television, not the Talmud, is the arbiter of thought and behavior.

Now the Tasher sect’s insulation has been rent—slashed, ironically, by its own scheme to reinforce its independence. Early this year, the Hasidim began flattering and cajoling Quebec’s Parti Québécois government in an appeal for full municipal status and the power to turn their religious rules into bylaws. When the Quebec government appeared sympathetic to the plan, in plunged the cameras, mikes and notebooks for what, at first, looked like a bright, good story of human harmony.

Here was Quebec’s government, obsessed with the primacy of French language and culture, hand in hand with a Yiddish-speaking enclave where, according to tradition rooted in the history of Eastern European Jewry, married women must shave their heads and boys and girls must never touch until they are paired for marriage by matchmakers. A community where divorce is rare because, in the words of its paramedic and ambulance driver, Israel Lowen: “We can never feel we picked the wrong person—we didn’t have a choice.”

Then, slowly, doubts emerged about the wisdom of granting temporal authority to a ghetto. Most recently, some government officials have become suspicious of the sect’s intermediary with the outside world, a Liverpudlian accountant and non-practising rabbi named Philip Klein, who wears pinstripe suits below his yarmulke and speaks with an accent and vocabulary reminiscent of early-Beatles dockside. Evidence of Klein’s wheeling and dealing has made some suspicious that the rabbi’s plans for Boisbriand may have as much—or more—to do with the profit motive as with entrenching a religious enclave.

Klein came to the Tasher village after the 1976 provincial election, summoned from England by the sect’s Grand Rabbi, Ferencz Lowy. The Grand Rabbi’s community had grown and needed an administrator who could handle the sect’s temporal affairs. Lowy inherited the title of Grand Rabbi while in Auschwitz—where his father was slain by the Nazis. After emigrating to Canada, Lowy built a following in the Montreal suburb of Outremont. In 1963, he bought an expanse of farmland north of Montreal in the municipality of Boisbriand. The community began with just his yeshiva and a handful of houses around the rabbinical college. As the numbers of staff and followers increased, modest bungalows, schools and then a kosher slaughterhouse were built, and the community acquired the autonomy and look of improvisation suggestive of northern native settlements.

Upon arriving in this small community, Klein quickly proved his worth. After the November ’76 elections, when most Quebec Jews were apprehensive about their future in the province, Klein built, with government financing, 78 units of housing in modern, rent-subsidized blocks in Boisbriand. Grateful for Ottawa’s assistance, Klein named one of the new streets Rue André Ouellet, after the former federal Liberal minister of urban affairs.

Klein then went after provincial rent subsidies, asking the province to bend its regulations by making the Hasidic community eligible. In thanks, the community would name a street in honor of PQ Municipal Affairs Minister Guy Tardif. The minister did bend the rules, but refused to allow his name to be posted on street signs. Says an aide: “It would have been politically gross.” Undaunted, Klein suggested the Hasidim might designate a “November 15 Park” in commemoration of the PQ’s electoral victory. At the same time, he was lobbying for government support of the community’s bid to have its own town similar to Hasidic municipalities in New York state.

Klein explains his approach: “It’s politics, which is perfectly legitimate for any pressure group. We are international in some ways but, certainly, we support the country in which we are. But, you know, with all due respect, it depends on what the government does for us back.”

The mayor and councillors of the surrounding municipality of Boisbriand were not opposed to the idea: it would mean the settling of an old tax dispute with the Hasidim and an end to the always delicate, though friendly, relations with the sect. The provincial government, unfairly burdened with a reputation for anti-Semitism, saw in the plan a way to demonstrate its tolerance, and Klein knew how to make that demonstration work well for both the PQ and his sect. In July he told Toronto’s Globe and Mail: “This is the best government Jews have ever had in Quebec.” Then, to make sure the message reached its mark, Klein gave a copy of the story to one of Tardifs officials. And last January the Grand Rabbi himself wrote the municipal affairs minister with tantalizing wishes for the New Year: “I pray that the Almighty will help and guide you on the road you have chosen.”

Another act sure to please the government was a decision by Tasher parents to teach their young girls only French and Yiddish, the community’s principal language. No English would be learned. Explains Klein: “The mothers decided that the girls’ school should teach secular studies in French only, so that they would be able to go out shopping.”

The Quebec government was quick to appreciate the public relations value of this unusually chummy community of Jews. So it included the story of the sect’s appeal for municipal status in the Aug. 6 edition of Quebec Update, an official newsletter for American business leaders published in New York City. “It will be the first time the Hasidic Jews have formed their own municipality in Canada, thus enabling them to pass laws and regulations in keeping with their own traditions,” said the report. “Boisbriand voters will be asked to approve the plan this autumn and then a bill will be introduced in the Quebec National Assembly to set up the town.”

The government bulletin caught the attention of a pair of U.S. investors who, according to Klein, offered to give the new municipality an economic base by constructing an aluminum recycling plant which originally had been planned for Ontario. Klein began dealing for a piece of land for the plant in Boisbriand’s nearby industrial park and, as a lever in bargaining, he suggested the Hasidim would build the plant on their own land if they could not get a spot in the industrial park at a reasonable price.

This was not Klein’s first attempt to bring industry to the religious community. An earlier try failed because of differences between him and unionized workers at a carpet factory that Klein had tried to buy. Unsatisfied by a promise not to lay off the present work -force for at least five years and unhappy with the idea of making Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest rather than Sunday, the union refused to bargain new working conditions before the plant was purchased. Klein abandoned the project. “I may look stupid, but I ain’t,” he remarked later.

He planned for the investment money to come from wealthy American and Montreal business leaders, including the Seagram Company Ltd.’s Executive Committee Chairman Charles Bronfman: “Part of the deal was that Charlie Bronfman was going to let us manufacture the embroidery on the Crown Royal bags—7'/2 million of them a year.” But a Bronfman spokesman told Maclean's there was never such a deal.

As Klein’s business haggling became known, enthusiasm for the idea of a separate municipality waned among the Hasidim’s neighbors. Suddenly, it was no longer a quiet religious community that was being proposed, but a town with its own industrial economy in competition with that of Boisbriand itself. Annoyed when he learned about the planned industrial projects, which he was not aware of at the outset of negotiations, Boisbriand Mayor Nolan Filiatrault wavered in his support for a Hasidic municipality.

Then on Saturday, Sept. 29, the roof fell in. Dozens of Boisbriand’s 13,500 French-speaking residents were called by a private polling firm and asked whether they favored creation of a Hasidic municipality. Local politicians discovered the poll was being conducted only after the wife of a Boisbriand councillor was questioned. Klein denies that he commissioned the poll. Quebec officials say that it was he who passed on its results to them.

By an unhappy coincidence—for Klein—the poll was held on the day Montreal’s daily La Presse appeared with a full-page article wondering, in its headline: “Does Quebec want to legalize a ghetto?” The story, by respected journalist Lysiane Gagnon, made l’affaire de Boisbriand a political controversy, and the politicians backed off at high speed. Gagnon’s questioning article brought the media flock back for a second look, this time without the rose-colored filters over their lenses, and Boisbriand’s Hasidim got the hard news instead of the human interest treatment.

By mid-October, Mayor Filiatrault refused to consider holding a referendum on the Hasidic separation unless petitioned to do so by Boisbriand citizens, and then only if the Hasidim paid the $15,000 expenses involved (which Klein says he would do). But with all of Boisbriand’s councillors firmly against the project, there seems little chance that the Hasidim will succeed.

In Quebec City, meanwhile, enquiries about Boisbriand are answered by embarrassed groans. Wary of Klein’s methods and ambitions, one official wondered if the community knew of or appreciated the ramifications of Klein’s moves. Remarking that the Hasidim have more control over behavior within their community now than they would if ever it were constituted as a democratic municipality, the official said: “I think it’s really a question of money.” Klein’s actions are such that the government could suspect that he is not after religious autonomy as much as an industrial tax base and the right to issue municipal bonds. Embarrassed provincial politicians hope the affair will simply evaporate.

Bleached of its rosy complexion, the story of the Tasher sect’s striving for self-government has become just another confrontation ideally suited for the nightly news. Strangely, most of the devout, media-insulated Tasher Hasidim will probably never learn the extent of Klein’s dealings in their name, dp