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A Jew by ChoiceA Jew by Choice

A Jew by Choice

A former Bloc Québécois politician, Richard Marceau converted to Judaism in 2004. Since 2011, he has worked for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs as a senior adviser. In 2011, he published A Quebec Jew: From Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish Activist, detailing his spiritual journey and involvement in the Jewish community. He recently sat down to talk to Convivium publisher Peter Stockland

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A Jew by Choice June 1, 2016  |  By Peter Stockland
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CONVIVIUM: Tell me a little bit, first, about the letter you wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. What were you hoping to do with that, and what was the thinking behind it?

RICHARD MARCEAU: The issue of Christians in the Middle East and their persecution is unfortunately under the radar. Once in a while you have an article here and there, but the situation is tragic. In 2008, I travelled to Egypt, and the Coptic Christians are very involved in the tourism industry. One of the things I like to do when I travel is talk to [the locals] and not stay only among tourists. The fear of the Coptic Christians really struck me. Of all the things that I remember from Egypt, it’s when I talked with them, how afraid they were. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the French media had quite a few articles about Christians in the Middle East – around 2011-2012 – and it brought back that memory from Egypt and how tragic their situation is. The third thing is all the discussions that happened in committee in the House about Jewish refugees from Arab lands and how the Middle East basically emptied itself of Jews following the creation of the State of Israel. We could see a parallel today in the Middle East: The entire region is being emptied of Christians. I’m not sure we can say ethnic cleansing, but it is certainly a religious cleansing of the area. This cleansing is tragic because obviously we’re talking about the region responsible for the birth of Christianity. Today Christians are killed just for practising their religion. As Jews who have been the target of such persecutions for so long, we decided to do something.

We were looking at what exactly we could do, and it came together when we met with the Catholic-Jewish relations in Canada around the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate [In Our Time – a Second Vatican Council Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions]. We were looking for ways to work concretely with the Catholics on a project that would be of interest and importance to both communities. The Jewish sensitivity to religious persecutions and to the rights of minorities intersect with the Catholic worries and interests. So we suggested to the Catholics that maybe we should do something together about it, and it didn’t take long before everybody was in agreement. From there, the first part of the campaign came, which was the joint letter of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus to Minister Dion. But we don’t want that to be leader-driven only; we want to make it more participatory.

C: I know it’s early yet, but do you have a sense of where the response is coming from? Is it coming, initially, from the Jewish community or is it actually spreading?

RM: My sense is that it’s spreading. The first blast, so to speak, was in the Jewish community, but then I know that it went, I wouldn’t say viral – because it’s not a cat video – but the strength of the response surprised us.

C: Not to turn a positive into a negative, but I saw the numbers, which are staggering. Up to 200 million people who’ve been in one way or another harmed, persecuted as you said, killed, raped, forcibly converted. It’s a huge population. It’s almost two thirds of the population of the United States. The question that I’m perplexed by, and I imagine you are as well, is why this doesn’t seem to be galvanizing a broad-based reaction in Western secular society.

RM: I am a bit perplexed. First of all, to think that in the 21st century people would still be persecuted for religious reasons is really amazing. Second, who would have thought that Christianity would become the most persecuted religion on the planet? When you think about it, it’s enough to make your jaw drop. Too, there’s a sense, and here I’m speaking only personally, that in some quarters of secular Western society if somebody from another religion is persecuted, it has to be denounced. But if it’s a Christian, it’s almost as if “it’s payback time.” People will say, “Oh, well, it’s unfortunate, but you can understand.” There’s a sense that it’s understandable because the persecutors are so angry at the West, and that’s a way to get back at the West.

The other thing that is surprising is, even in some churches in the West, it doesn’t seem to be much of a worry. On the one hand, I understand the reluctance of giving preferential treatment to groups based on faith or ethnicity. On the other hand, it reminds me of Hillel’s saying, “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I would have thought there would be more pressing action by the people in the West to help persecuted Christians.

C: You’re not a Christian, but you were raised as a Christian, as a Catholic, so you understand more than intellectually. You would think that the appeal would be to the human person, to a Christian anthropology understanding that the person is a person regardless of what their professed faith might be, especially coming from other Christians. Whether we agree with them as Copts or whether we agree with them as Catholics, these are children of God. Is ideology defeating anthropology, or is it just walls that have grown up and can’t be climbed over?

RM: I don’t know if it’s walls. I think lots of people in the West hope that everybody wants to do good. When you’re raping, killing people because of their faith, this does not compute for such people, and especially in Canada where our history and our geography made our society very peaceful. When you have groups that don’t care about human rights and equality between men and women, and all of those things, I think it’s hard for Canadians to understand that this is happening. Then maybe it’s that they don’t want to see it. It’s too dark. It’s too depressing. It’s too sombre.

C: I sometimes wonder, too, whether it isn’t, in a convoluted kind of way, my friend who is a friend of my enemy is my enemy. Christians who support Israel are sort of ipso facto against the Palestinians. Or if I’m a supporter of the Palestinians, Palestinians extended to Muslims, if I support a campaign against the persecution of Christians, I’m somehow supporting Israel.

RM: I think our position on Israel should not factor in, in the sense that you could be very critical of Israel and still care about the situation of Christians in Iraq and Syria and other places. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that if you say you believe in human rights, if you say you believe in the protection of minorities, if you say that you believe that sexual slavery is wrong, that people should be left to live in peace according to their own freedom of conscience, you cannot apply those criteria differently according to what you think is the situation in country X or Y. Those should be absolutes, and every country should be judged by the same standards. Your position on the Arab- Israeli conflict, or the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, or whatever conflict you can think of, should not factor in to that absolute need to protect human rights.

It’s not a zero-sum game, and you can very well be pro-Palestinian and a friend of Israel. I call myself in my book a pro-Palestinian Zionist. I’m sure we’ll get back to this. It’s not a zero-sum game, and those who are forcing people to choose between one or the other are not bridge-builders and peace seekers. They’re actually destroyers of harmony.

C: I guess the operative word, or an operative word, in what you just said is should. I wonder, in your small-p political life, do you encounter people who, while they should understand that triangulation – that there’s an emotional psychosocial reaction – say, “No, this is an ideological stance I’ve taken. To support this means to negate that”?

RM: What I sense is that there are some people who are afraid that by condemning some excesses… Such excesses of the Muslim world are very well documented, including as you will recall, by a group of UN-mandated experts in 2002, from the Arab world itself, the Muslim world, about the problems with the Muslim world, with the Arab world. There’s a sense that if you criticize this, you’re criticizing Islam and you’re intolerant. Standing up for human rights for Christians and religious minorities is not being intolerant of any other group. It’s saying those people have rights, those people should be protected, those people should not be persecuted. And that should be it.

C: It’s interesting that the campaign itself was directed, and this is obvious, first to the Jewish community, to mobilize the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affair’s natural constituency, then to Christians to raise alarm. But is there an outreach to Muslims as well, or is that just part of the general campaign? Have you, in fact, made an outreach or are you hoping that Muslim voices will join?

RM: We would love people from every faith to join. We would love to have people of no faith join. Part of our outreach to different groups includes reaching out to non-Christian, non-Jewish faiths. We have started to work closely with some Muslim groups. We started to work closely with the Sikhs on other issues. There is no group in Canadian society with which we do not want to work, provided of course that they are not anti- Semitic. The Jewish community has been here for more than 250 years, has contributed enormously to Canada, has been given so much by Canada, and so wants to give back.

As part of our religious imperative, whether we’re believers or not... make it religious/cultural imperative, there’s the necessity of making the world a better place. When we say that, it’s not only for Jews but for everybody. What we can do as Canadians is to interact with Canadian society and the Canadian government. This is where we can be effective, and this is where we can push for things. This is where we can make people aware of what’s going on.

C: I suppose it’s difficult, if not impossible, for you to comment on what the Muslim community or individual Muslims should do.

RM: Right, but at the same time I think that anybody, any Canadian of good conscience, no matter their faith or lack of faith, should be troubled and indignant, made indignant, by what they see happening in the region.

C: Yeah. I suppose we’ve all been involved in causes or projects where the worst of our friends behave very badly, and then we’re called on to apologize for them or to explain them. There is a point of fatigue with that, too, isn’t there? If I’m an ordinary Muslim living in Ottawa, just living out my faith, I don’t know why I’m constantly obliged to apologize for something somebody in Yemen does.

RM: Nobody’s asking anybody here to apologize. But if you’re a practising Muslim in Canada – I’m obviously not a Muslim theologian – I think you should be indignant at what’s happening, persecution- wise, in the Middle East. We’re not asking anybody to apologize; we’re just saying, “You’re a Muslim Canadian. You’re a Sikh Canadian. You're a Christian Canadian. You’re a Jewish Canadian. You're a non-believing Canadian. That should wake you up, and that should make you want to do something about it.”

C: Let me ask you something on a more personal level, as someone who has gone back to the core faith of what Pope John Paul II called our elder brothers and sisters in faith, the original faith. I don’t know what the exact word is we want to use, but you grew up as a Christian, as a Catholic. Tell me a bit about your own journey. I know you published a book about it. Tell me a little bit about the impetus for that, of having made that transition, and also the story of being there, being with your father in Israel, being in that region and understanding in a geographical sense how perilous things are.

RM: I have a strong religious faith. It actually doesn’t mean that it’s doubt-free, but I have a strong religious faith, and the idea that anybody’s faith could be a basis for them to be persecuted is repugnant, to say the least. I’m [also] a double minority. I’m a Québécois Jew, which makes me a minority within a minority. So how can protection of minorities and the rights of minorities not be fundamental to anything and everything I do? I cannot not be aware of the importance of those protections.

C: So there’s an inherent sensitivity, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but an implicit understanding of when somebody’s toes are being stepped on, or worse, what that actually feels like.

RM: I like those words, an implicit understanding.

C: That prompts you to act, to want to be engaged, to want to move on these files. How does that experience with your dad connect to this? Is he still very much involved with the Church?

RM: My father has strongly held beliefs. He’s a Third Order Franciscan, and he had never been to Israel. I think to really understand, or to better understand, Christianity, it helps to see where it was born. There is something to be said to be standing by the shore of the Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee – to look at what Jesus would have seen. To be standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, where there’s now a beautiful church, and almost see where it happened and how it happened, because the physical thing is there.

We had seen the synagogue, and then we had gone back by the shore. We were reading the passages of the New Testament, and just at that moment, there was a boat that came by. It wasn’t that different from what it was 2,000 years ago. For me, it was important to show that you cannot de-Judaize Christianity without changing the nature of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew who lived as a Jew and died as a Jew, and to understand Christianity, or to understand Jesus for that matter, you can do that better by putting him into context and seeing the world he grew up in and the places that he saw.

It’s not a question of trying to find a compromise between Christianity and Judaism, because that’s pointless and it’s not good for anybody. But despite the differences that exist and that are real, there are also commonalities, and one is where both religions were born; another is the fact, as you put it earlier, that Christianity is a daughter religion of Judaism.

C: Geography and history are part of this. But when you look at the sky, it’s a mystery, because that sky has never changed. It’s exactly the same sky that he would have looked up at. Whether you accept the divinity or you accept that he rose up into the sky or whatever doesn’t matter; his eyes made contact with that sky and saw it as the same colour of blue that you do. It’s that essence of our humanity, isn’t it, to be there and to be able to have that moment, that experience. I can only imagine that it must have been even more profound doing it at your father’s shoulder.

RM: Well, to me, somebody put it to me that geography is like the fifth Gospel. Things like the city have changed, but the natural setting did not change that much, or the distance did not change that much, and so when Jesus was pushed out of Nazareth and he went to the Sea of Galilee, once you’ve driven the distance, you understand better what it means. Or another example: when we were in Ein Gedi, that oasis in the Judean desert close to the Dead Sea, we were walking there, and we were reading the passages where David was running away from Saul and hid in a cave. Saul came and David cut a piece of Saul’s cloth and then said, “Hey, I could have killed you.” When we were reading this, we just had to look up and we could see caves in Ein Gedi. It could have been one of those caves. It doesn’t matter if it was that cave on the left or that cave on the right; we could feel it and see it.

C: I remember reading a wonderful essay once on the role or the place of the Jordan in Negro spirituals. The understanding, it’s people who clearly had never been anywhere near the River Jordan and if they had, they would have been in a very, very bad way, but they spiritually were able to transport the understanding of what the Jordan represented. They were able to take it and actually make it not just a metaphor but also an active principle of their faith in the way that it was in the Scripture, the way it’s actually intended to be. These are people who were brought on slave ships or that were the descendants of slaves, and yet something in that was located in geography and yet transcended geography. It touched the essence of their humanity.

RM: Absolutely. The Jordan has, certainly in Judaism and in Christianity, a big spiritual significance.

C: Having crossed the Jordan, to the older faith, if I can put it that way, did you feel a tug on your heart when you were in that moment with your dad to think, “Maybe I’ll go back. Maybe I’ll...”?

RM: No. Memory is a powerful thing, and there are some things that stay with you no matter where you go in life or where you are in life. I still know the Mass by heart, and actually when we were on Mount Tabor, we were in a church there. There was a Mass. And because we were there, my dad said, “There’s a Mass. I’m going to go.” Even though it’s a language I did not understand, the rhythm and structure of the Mass is the same in any language.

Here was my father, who didn’t speak the language either but felt comfortable because there was a Catholic Mass, and me, who stayed at the back because I’m not a Christian anymore. I still have a foot in that world, so it’s not unfamiliar. It’s not mine, but I understand it because I went to church every Sunday for the first 17 years of my life.

C: You were an altar boy, I think.

RM: Yes, I did that. I was paid a quarter, 25 cents, to serve Mass, and I went to a private Catholic high school growing up. How should I put it? Catholicism does religion well, the symbolism, etc. It’s a very rich tradition, and even though it’s not mine, I can still appreciate the beauty of it. It is being, for me, both an insider and an outsider, and it led to interesting discussions. It made me think that I like the fact that in Judaism, Hebrew is the original language, and I can walk into any synagogue in any country in the world, and I can pick up the book, and I know what’s going on, and I will be able to participate fully in the service. So it led to interesting discussions on the role of language in rituals from that experience.

C: That’s interesting, too, from a personal perspective, because obviously language is parallel with culture for you, going back to what you were saying about being a minority within a minority, that the language speaks to you not just in the vocabulary but at a very, very deep emotional level.

RM: Yes, it’s a marker.

C: A commonality of understanding that transcends the natural dissonance that we have when it isn’t our first language. And anyone who speaks in another language always runs into those. We do it all the time. That’s very, very interesting. You and your dad, did you have a conflict about it, or was it that you had to resolve the differences.

RM: Listen, I know that my choice, my religious choice, is not my dad’s first choice; but as an adult, I made my own. I converted to Judaism. I was in my 30s. It was a well-thought-out choice. By being in Israel with him, there was also all this stuff that we talked about, rooting Christianity in its birthplace. It was also for me showing that Judaism is alive and well – Jewish identity is alive and well – and seeing how vibrant Israel is and how rich. I’m not talking here in the material sense, but how rich Israel – Jewish identity – is, how central also the State of Israel is to contemporary Jewish identity. Whether you go to a Reform synagogue or a Conservative synagogue or an Orthodox synagogue, you will have prayers for the country you are in. Here, for example, we have this prayer for Canada, but you will also have in all of those prayer books a prayer for the State of Israel. That’s one of the things that I wanted my dad to understand, that oftentimes Christians don’t necessarily understand the centrality of Israel, the State of Israel, to modern Jewish identity. It is fundamental, and in all the interfaith dialogue that should happen in Canada, for it to have any meaning, at some point the understanding of how special Israel is needs to be factored in.

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I’m not saying we should not criticize. I would just want to be clear about this because sometimes we’re accused, “Oh, you can’t criticize Israel,” but that’s total baloney. To not understand how important the State of Israel is today for Jews is to not understand Jews. For Christians to not think about it when they talk about Israel or reflect about Israel or think about Israel is to miss the boat on something that’s fundamental.

I wanted my dad to understand that as well. There’s a reason why, when every morning I get up and I wrap tefillin on, that I have the direction of Jerusalem on my iPhone. Every Jew prays toward Jerusalem. Every synagogue sanctuary is toward Jerusalem; and when you’re in Israel, it’s toward Jerusalem. When you’re in Jerusalem, it’s toward the Temple Mount, so that centrality is very, very present. We talked about religion but also the modern stuff. At some point, we’re going back to the shore of the lake of Galilee. There’s a cemetery there that we stopped by, and I wanted to talk about modern Zionism. There’s the grave of Naomi Shemer, who wrote the song “Jerusalem of Gold” (“Yerushalayim shel Zahav”), which is the unofficial national anthem of Israel. There was the grave also of a thinker, Berl Katznelson, who was a friend of David Ben- Gurion, so there’s also the non-religious but still very Jewish movement that exists in Judaism, as you know, contrary to Christianity. Christianity is a faith, and from its beginning, it has severed the, shall we say, nation-religion link. There was a whole debate about the... It’s like the Apostles. The whole debate between Jesus’ followers who wanted it still based in Judaism and to practise the rites of Judaism, and Paul, who wanted to be...

C: …a light to all nations.

RM: Right, so you had a fundamental difference. Judaism is both a nationality and a religion. When you read the Tanakh, when you read the Hebrew Bible, the religion doesn’t exist, or Judaism doesn’t exist. When we talk about Jews, you talk about the children of Israel, so it’s a national concept as well. You can be a Jew and a non-believer. You can’t be a Christian and a nonbeliever, right?

C: Right. Although I’ve actually heard the argument that you can be a Catholic and a non-believer. There was a movie years ago where there’s a huge argument around this Irish Catholic table, and one of the sons says to the father, “But you don’t even believe in God,” and the father spontaneously says, “But you don’t have to believe in God to be a Catholic.”

RM: I think you can be culturally Catholic.

C: Yeah, culturally Catholic.

RM: Now a thinker that I like, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, would say that it’s both tribal and universal, and Rabbi Sacks would say the same. He’s probably the most eloquent speaker and writer about Judaism nowadays.

C: I’d like to ask you about working with interfaith initiatives. There’s a very large debate around the moving parts within interfaith, multi-faith dialogue. There are these boundaries that come up around what some people consider a pulling force toward syncretism, that if you engage in dialogue with other faiths, you’re necessarily pulled toward a faith of nothing, like a kind of mush that’s just all things to all people but nothing to anybody. Yet to me, you exemplify, from what I understand, that capacity to actually move from one to another, retaining, as you said, memory without losing identity and yet existing within multiplicity, if I can put it that way. That’s a difficult balance, isn’t it?

RM: Well, I think everybody is multi-faceted, and everybody’s shaped by where they’re from and the choices that they have made. So, in that, I’m no different from anybody. Where you’re born, your family, the values, etc., necessarily have an impact on who you become; and then when you start to be a certain age, you make choices that also impact who you are, who you become. To go back to your question, as I understand it, is that to have real, meaningful interfaith dialogue, you need to understand yourself better before. In a dialogue, you listen, but you talk. In a dialogue, if what you want to say is to have any value, it has to be who you are and what you believe, so in terms of Christian-Jewish dialogue, that mush idea is the worst thing that could happen, because you leave who you are to reach something that is nothing, really. I’m very secure in my Jewish identity. I thought it through when I made the choice in my 30s. It’s a choice that I thought through very well and reflected upon, and it was a choice that I made that was both in my gut – we’d say in Yiddish, in my kishkas – and in my mind. They both aligned for me to make that decision, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. That groundedness in my beliefs allows me to have an open dialogue with any other faith, and I don’t feel threatened by anybody else’s deeply held beliefs.

Let me just say, Pope Francis said that when you enter an interfaith dialogue, if you come in with the idea of converting the other, that’s not interfaith dialogue and it’s pointless. Really, I totally agree with him on this, so when I explain my faith, it’s because I’m not pushing it on anybody; but also, because I’m secure in my faith, I don’t feel threatened when somebody explains his or her faith to me. That’s where I think the richness can come from. But Jews have made a lot of mistakes since the whole thing started. When the real dialogue started after the Second World War, three giants of Judaism had very different ideas of where to go. Let’s stick here to the English- speaking world. You had Moshe Feinstein, probably the ultimate decider in the 20th-century English-speaking world, who said there’s no point in talking to the Christians. They just want to convert us and the Church is simply putting a nice face to it in order to entice us to convert. That was one person.

Then you had Rabbi Soloveitchik, a great Talmudist teacher at Yeshiva University in New York, who said we can talk to Christians but not on theological issues – just on stuff that we can agree on. That would be social housing, betterment of the world, etc., so leave this theology out of the discussion. Focus on the concrete.

Then you had Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, no, we can engage. We can talk about God, because God is multi-faceted, and talking doesn’t mean that they want to convert us or I want to convert them, because we have our understanding – a different understanding of God, but God is so big that he can handle that.

Again, I’m simplifying. I would tend to think that in today’s 21st century, certainly in North America, that the Heschel view has won, that we can have discussion, including on religious issues and theological issues with respect, obviously, without going into that mush that is meaningless. Heschel won, and I think it’s good for the Jews; I think it’s good for the Christians; and I think it also shows maturity on both parts.

I’m not saying there’s no anti-Semitism, but there is a security in North America for Jewish identity. We saw it recently with the Church when it said it would not try to convert Jews in an organized fashion, which also showed maturity and a respect. I think it comes from the whole post- Second World War Nostra Aetate. All those discussions that happened reveal maturity and respect and a brotherhood in God that is very positive.

C: One of the myriad of things I love so much about Judaism is related to conversion. I was reading on conversion to Judaism, and there are some very strict warnings. You may approach a rabbi or Jewish authority about conversion, and he may say, “We don’t think you’re ready,” or he may even not return your phone call, which I think is so wonderfully refreshing compared to some Christian groups that will run out and grab anybody by the hand and drag them to the front door.

RM: Instead of proselytizing religion, I actually think we should be more open. I think Judaism should make conversion easier. Obviously there are differences between the different streams. I’ve met some wonderful converts who have become leaders of their community, the synagogue, or their Jewish clubs. There’s a history of that. When the Roman Empire became Christian, it became forbidden to try to convert people to Judaism, and the penalty was death!

I’m not a theologian, that’s only my opinion. I think Judaism would win by making conversion easier, but it’s a whole debate. The whole debate of conversion and who’s a Jew is very, very complex. In Christianity it’s easier; and in Islam it’s even easier, when you just have to say the Shahada and then the Shahida and then...

C: You’re in.

RM: You’re in.

C: My last question, which we always ask in our conversations, our tag line for Convivium is “faith in common life,” which we mean in two ways: the place of faith in common life, like the campaign the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has launched, but also faith that we have a common life. Do you believe that between Canada and Quebec – I don’t mean Canada and Quebec as political jurisdictions, but within the populace on the land mass – that it’s possible to share a common life? Do you have faith that there’s a common life among Canadians or that a common life is possible?

RM: Yeah, actually I think it works quite well. No matter what our political opinions are, I think there’s an understanding that people can work together, share things that in this room transcend differences of religion. There’s an understanding that your neighbour’s faith or lack of faith doesn’t mean that... When I’m talking here that it’s different, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends, neighbours, colleagues, partners.

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