Sunday, March 08, 2009

Worrying signs in our golden age

Compare and contrast the following two stories from February 2009: (1) Re-enactment of the Plains of Abraham battle in Quebec City is canceled, and (2) an anti-Semitic ice sculpture at Quebec City winter carnival is protected.

Exhibit A
In the first case, secessionist groups hinted there might be violence if the National Battlefield Commission did not cancel a re-enactment of the 1759 battle in Quebec City between soldiers from France and Britain. France lost the battle and eventually gave up all of New France to Britain at the end of the Seven Years' War.

By the by, no one protests the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg (not even the Ku Klux Klan). But veiled threats from the brown shirts at Le Réseau de résistance du Québécois helped get the event canceled.

It's debatable whether battle re-enactments circa 1759 depicting Old World soldiers killing each other should offend us today. But the secessionist political parties followed the lead of the Le Réseau de résistance du Québécois and so the organizers cancelled the re-enactment.

Exhibit B
In the second case, the organizers the Quebec City Winter Carnival said on February 18, 2009 they would not remove an ice sculpture depicting a hunched-over, hook-nosed Jewish man holding a bag of money. The sculpture was near the entrance of--wait for it--the Plains of Abraham.

The sculpture, which is called "The Jew" and three others next to it were put on display by the Ukrainian community.
A summary in front of the sculpture explained the work was inspired by the Ukrainian folk tale Den or Vertep, which is told at Christmas time. The summary explained the characters in the piece, the Tsar, the Warrior, the Jew, the Goat, and Death were divided into both "positive and negative characters.
Hmm. I wonder whethere "the Jew" is one of the positive of negative characters in this Ukranian tale.
Olena Zakharova, the press secretary for the Ukrainian Embassy, defended the sculpture. "It was not the intention of the Ukrainian sculptors to offend anyone. Vertep is an ancient Ukrainian tradition." She suggested that whether the Jewish figure is viewed positively or negatively is "a matter of preference."

Source: The Chronicle-Telegraph
The Ukranian embassy certainly has chutzpah. Their defence of the anti-Semitic sculture is that the story to which it makes reference is an ancient Ukranian tradition. Translation: Anti-Semitism is part of our cultural tradition, so what's the big fuss about the sculture?

However my favourite quotation from the article is from the carnival person in charge of the scultures. Audrey Cook examined the art and didn't see any problem with it.
"You have to be well informed about all of the little symbols and what they could signify. I looked at this sculpture from all angles before the complaint and I couldn't see any negative connotations associated with the work," Cook said last Thursday.

Source: The Chronicle-Telegraph

I'm not sure if Cook's cluelessness means that the average person in Quebec is far removed from the typical anti-Jewish imagery of Europe and doesn't recognize it, or that the average person does recognize it but assumes it's a normal depiction of Jews and their money-hording ways so what's the big fuss?


In conclusion
Maybe everyone in these two stories was a little too sensitive. Maybe the outcome of the 1759 battle shouldn't bother Quebecers. Maybe anti-Jewish Ukranian ice scultures shouldn't bother Jews. After all, Quebecers and Jewish Canadians both have it pretty good in 2009.

In fact, we're living in the golden age of liberal democracy. French-speaking Quebecers have successfully protected their lanaguage. Jews are not second-class citizens. A black man is President of the United States. Gay people can get married in Canada (more or less). In short, we're moving the right direction on many fronts.

Which is why it is disconcerting that (1) 'the Jew' sculpture was made, approved and kept in place at the Quebec City festival and (2) a group of misfits can threaten violence to get a battle re-enactment cancelled.

These are worrying signs in our golden age.

* * *

(For the record, here are two articles on these topics.)


Plains of Abraham re-enactment scrubbed
By Ken Meaney, Canwest News Service
February 18, 2009

The National Battlefield Commission bowed to opposition from Quebec sovereigntist groups Tuesday and cancelled plans to re-enact the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at the site of the conflict in Quebec City this summer.

Commission chairman Andre Juneau said Tuesday the re-enactment portion of events planned to mark the battle--a turning point in French-English relations in Canada -- was dropped because the commission couldn't "guarantee the safety of the public."

Juneau said the plan was distorted by opponents and was the subject of "veiled threats of violence."

The re-enactment had been planned as part of the 250th anniversary celebrations--from July 30 to Aug. 1 -- of the pivotal battle in the French-British struggle for North America. But sovereigntist groups, such as Le Reseau de Resistance du Quebecois, led a vocal campaign against it and threatened to bring out hundreds of demonstrators to disrupt the event. Juneau said the re-enactment was wrongly portrayed as a celebration.

"It was never the intention of the commission to recall the events of 1759-60 as a pretext for a party or celebration," Juneau insisted at a Quebec City news conference.

"Is is an extremely painful page in our history,"he said, noting the commission is mounting historic expositions and a book about the war and siege that led to the battle.

The outcry against the re-enactment caught the commission by surprise.

The battle has been re-enacted three times before, most recently in 2004,luring thousands of tourists to the provincial capital.

But it has become a flashpoint in Quebec, where it is seen as the beginning of assimilation into the English majority.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois supported le Reseau de Resistance in its opposition to the re-enactment, calling it disrespectful.

But federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lamented the debate surrounding the re-enactment of the battle was hijacked by sovereigntists.

"What I don't like, frankly, is that sovereigntists are trying to dominate a free debate. As someone who likes Canada and knows a thing or two about its history, I want to have my say," Ignatieff told reporters at a separate event in Quebec City.

He said he isn't for or against the re-enactment, but stressed any commemoration of this "defeat and tragedy" would need to be dignified.


Controversial snow sculpture gets cold reception
Posted by Scott French
Published: February 18, 2009


A snow sculpture of a Jewish money-lender on display at Quebec City's winter carnival has received a cold reception from members of Quebec's Jewish community and the Canadian Jewish Congress. Although the Carnaval administration has since apologized for the sculpture, which was created by a Ukrainian team, many feel not enough was done to prevent or remedy the work's anti-semitic message.

"We are sorry. It's circumstantial, it was never our intention to shock people. The Carnaval hopes to provide snow sculptures that appeal to everyone," said Jean Pelletier, director general of the Carnaval.

"Shocked" and "disappointed" were the terms Jake Burack and his wife, Tamara Fitch, used to describe how they felt when they came across the sculpture with their children, 8 and 11, near the entrance to the Plains of Abraham two weekends ago.

"It was a caricature of an Eastern European Jew, hunched over with a hooked nose, wearing a skullcap and holding a money bag. Every cliché possible," Burack said. "Our kids could see how upset we were."

A summary in front of the sculpture explained the work was inspired by the Ukrainian folk tale Den or Vertep, which is told at Christmas time. The summary explained the characters in the piece, the Tsar, the Warrior, the Jew, the Goat, and Death were divided into both "positive and negative characters."

An interpreter who was present during the building of the sculpture told the Buracks the Jewish figure "was a man who lent money at high interest." According to Burack, the interpreter did not understand why they were concerned.

The President of the Carnaval's Snow Sculpture International, Audrey Cook, also examined the work and found nothing questionable about it. "You have to be well informed about all of the little symbols and what they could signify. I looked at this sculpture from all angles before the complaint and I couldn't see any negative connotations associated with the work," Cook said last Thursday.

Some passers-by seemed undisturbed by the sculpture as well. Julien Laplante of Quebec City easily identified the Jewish figure. He said those who felt the Jewish figure was portrayed negatively were "projecting" it onto the sculpture.

Another couple who passed by and identified themselves as Polish-Canadians living in Montreal thought the sculpture was "beautiful."

Before Burack could submit his written complaint, the sculpture had been awarded two of the Carnaval's six prizes. Cook said the sculpture was awarded the prizes based "upon the aesthetic beauty and technical merit of the sculpture, not its potential symbolic significance."

When the Carnaval called to apologize to Burack by telephone last Friday, however, a spokesperson suggested the sculpture might be destroyed or its prizes taken away.

Pelletier later said the Carnaval would not take any of these actions, explaining that the prizes were given by a committee of volunteers and should therefore not be removed.

"The essential is that this will not happen again," Pelletier indicated.

Burack said he could not help but feel "very disappointed" by the Carnaval's lack of action.

"The lack of action detracts from any apology and indicates a lack of sincerity and/or understanding of the issue," Burack indicated via email.

The Canadian Jewish Congress agrees. "It's very disappointing that the organizers didn't realize this was grossly offensive," Rabbi Reuben Poupko said on behalf of the organization, adding, "The iconography is from the middle ages."

Simon Jacobs, the general director for Exhibition Shalom Quebec, an exhibition on Quebec City's Jewish heritage, was upset that such symbolism . "Something anti-semitic is going on in [Ukraine] and is acceptable to the point that they thought they could bring it here to Canada."

Olena Zakharova, the press secretary for the Ukrainian Embassy, defended the sculpture. "It was not the intention of the Ukrainian sculptors to offend anyone. Vertep is an ancient Ukrainian tradition." She suggested that whether the Jewish figure is viewed positively or negatively is "a matter of preference."

The Ukrainian team composed of sculptors Orest Dzyndra, Petro Romanyuk and Sergiy Klyapetura left Quebec City following the award ceremony and could not be contacted by the QCT. Neither the Embassy nor the Carnaval was able to reach them by press time.
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