Diversity in Outremont

Here in Outremont, a borough of Montreal, things are heating up for yet another episode of “Purim” during which our thousands of Hassidic Jews have a bang-up party with adults getting totally smashed and very noisy, while the kids are supposed to go around to visit friends and relatives, all costumed in bizarre outfits, to have a great time. Except that walking seems to be out. Instead the little Hassids prefer buses that ferry everyone up and down all the streets where Hassids are concentrated. Is that a problem?

Well, there is a regulation in Outremont that prohibits big busses from going on residential streets, exceptions being school buses and mini buses. The Hassids want to use big buses on Purim. The borough says no, only mini buses.

But the back drop is a long history of acrimony between the Hassids and their mostly French Quebecois neighbors over complaints that the Hassids generally try to ignore municipal regulations they find inconvenient — building codes, parking regulations, etc. Their massive intercity buses stop illegally on residential streets, their diesel engines waking people at odd hours of the night. And they have a reputation for getting away with a lot thanks to municipal officials allegedly wanting to avoid confrontation.

Not that the Hassids are very dangerous: they do mostly keep to themselves, they don’t do drugs (except alcohol and tobacco), they don’t carry firearms nor go around in gangs killing or mugging people. They do engage in vandalism against individuals that they dislike for trying to hold them accountable to the law. They also have a reputation for financial scams, but that doesn’t seem to affect neighborly relations that much. They can seem a bit intimidating when they turn out into the streets in large, noisy protest groups, during which they may spit on women (especially women not well covered). They can be extremely annoying in their harassment of non-Jewish neighbors whose houses they covet for Hassidic expansion (they have extremely large numbers of offspring). And they have little interest in sprucing up their homes or in a proper handling of garbage—reminiscent of what happened when a Lubavitcher sect started a Kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa and avoided performing basic neighborly things like keeping lawns mowed in the summer and sidewalks shoveled in the winter.

Thus, Hassids are not much fun as neighbors and are widely resented by those living near them. Their behavior has fed into Quebec-wide controversies over “reasonable accommodation” to the foreign cultural ways brought by massive immigration to Quebec.

Tensions in Outremont can indeed heat up, resulting in the current dispute over what kind of buses can be used over Purim. The English language media tends to encourage the view that the Hassids should be just left alone, while residents of the borough just want peace to reign. This morning the local CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) station had an item on the up-coming Purim celebration to which I made this comment:

OK, so we heard from Mindy Pollack (sp?) [a Hassid] at least twice this morning, whinging about how Hassids  should be allowed to ignore municipal regulations. Now when will we be hearing from the other side?? There are usually two sides to such matters!!!

To which the CBC was kind enough to reply:

Thank you for sending us your feedback. We contacted the borough council about the issue and they turned down our interview requests for this morning. Do you live in Outremont? If you do, we’d love to hear your thoughts and your side of the story. Please get in touch with me……

Best,  Sophie     CBC Radio One

So here’s my side of the story:

Good day, Sophie (great name: it’s my daughter’s, as well!)

Thank you for your reply — and your and Daybreak’s efforts in getting alternative views!

Yes, I have lived more than half my life in Outremont, beginning in 1968. To understand why the borough council turned down your interview request you would have to appreciate the extreme venom that exists between the Mayoress and her acolytes on the one hand and the growing number of citizens, on the other, who become outraged at what they perceive as preferential treatment given to the Hassids in many aspects of daily life. As a result, the Mayoress et al remain tight-lipped in just about all contexts. This controversy has been well documented by Pierre Lacerte in his long-standing blog, and in the reports by our brave independent councilor, Céline Forget.

(If I say brave, it’s because I witnessed her being punched out by a Hassid a few years ago during a period in which she had to put up with all sorts of vandalism and threats.)

My own view is that when a territory has a mix of ethnies in which more than one wields significant power (for whatever reason), it is crucial that the government apply laws with exquisite equality and neutrality if it is to avoid social conflict. Ethnic diversity in neighbourhoods is now known to lead to a loss of “social capital” and to mistrust in all directions (Robert Putnam’s now well known but still too frequently ignored study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first.”

It is also well known in social psychology that while (self- and group interested-) “bias” can vary in degree across individuals, we humans all seem to have it to some degree, easily leading to perceptions and accusations of unfairness between rival groups. And we tend to be blind to our own biases. For example, I once witnessed Alex Werzberger (the Hasidic leader here) complain loudly about what he implied was an “anti-Semitic” newspaper column, which he waved at us (this was at a meeting of the now defunct Intercultural Commission), saying that the author had decided not to live in Outremont because of “too many Hassids”; afterward it turned out that it had been Richard Martineau of the Journal de Montreal explaining simply that he had wanted to move to a neighbourhood where his kids could play freely with lots of neighbourhood kids, and that while he would have been happy to have them play with Hassidic kids, he had been informed that the Hasidic kids wouldn’t be allowed to play freely with his. Well, for heaven’s sakes, if anyone is being prejudiced in that case, it’s the Hassids. And Martineau was right: here, the Hasidic kids do mainly play with other Hassids, while offspring of all the other ethnies in Outremont (however many there are) play freely with each other. Thus, I believe it is a big mistake for the media, especially the Anglophone media, to blame only the French Québécois for being biased (against the Hassids) while regarding the Hassids as a harmless and totally innocuous minority that is being victimized.

The result of all this inter-group acrimony is that a noisy celebration that might be well tolerated in an ethnically homogeneous area will now be felt as a major irritation by non-Hassids in Outremont and they will be acutely sensitive to any sign of regulations being ignored.

So again, I see no alternative to a rigorous and strictly neutral application of every last rule and regulation. Then we can all get on with enjoying “diversity”.