Perhaps the most divisive debate in the history of Montreal’s Jewish community, the “Jewish School Question” fuelled years of negotiations, court battles and heated public debate among Protestants, Catholics and Jews. It also further split an already fractured Jewish community along social and economic lines over the issue of separate Jewish schools. The lack of consensus among Montreal Jews, as well as their inability to reach a compromise with the Protestant School Board, left long-lasting repercussions.
Granted privileges but not rights under the Provincial Education Act of 1903, Jews could attend Protestant schools but were denied seats on the school board, due to its Christian character. Parents chafed at having taxation without representation, and petitioned the board to hire Jewish teachers and allow Jewish commissioners. The Protestant Board insisted that Jewish property owners provided insufficient funding for their students, despite protestations that Jewish rate payers were often incorrectly listed as Protestants or Catholics. A frustrated board in 1922 sought a “neutral panel” to address this perceived financial burden and later threatened to expel Jews from the Protestant system.
For part of the Jewish community, the “Jewish School Question” served as further proof of the need for a separate school system. But this issue only deepened rifts in a community already divided by labour strikes and the “kosher meat wars.” Established “uptowners,” represented by the Jewish Educational Committee and leaders such as Maxwell Goldstein, regarded separate schools as a threat to integration and endorsed negotiating for increased rights under the Protestant system. In contrast, immigrant “downtowner” “nationalists,” led by H. M. Caiserman, Michael Garber and Louis Fitch, viewed a separate Jewish panel as an opportunity to strengthen Jewish identity. Represented by the Va’ad Ha’Ir (Jewish Community Council), “downtowners” had the support of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle and the Yiddish Keneder Adler newspapers.
Quebec Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau sought to address these tensions in 1924 with the “Committee of Nine,” a Royal Commission composed of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish members. The commission’s effectiveness was undermined by protests from “downtowners” who disagreed with the three Jewish commission members selected. These included Michael Hirsch and Samuel Cohen, “uptowners”who were committed to preserving the status quo, and Joseph Schubert, a “downtowner” who supported separate Jewish schools, but didn’t represent the many religious “downtowner” Jews. In 1925, Taschereau referred the Act of 1903 to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which declared that the law violated the British North America Act. The case eventually reached the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which in 1928 stated that Jews in fact had no legal rights in the Quebec public school system due to the BNA Act, but that Quebec could create a separate Jewish panel.
In 1930, the David Bill (named after its sponsor, MLA Athanase David) passed, allowing for a separate Jewish school board and publicly funded schools. The law came under pressure from the Catholic leadership, allied with an increasingly antisemitic press, which viewed a Jewish school board as subversive. Taschereau, too, grew less supportive. Meanwhile, the Jewish board’s positions were filled with “uptowners” who again tried to negotiate a deal with the Protestants. Without consulting the rest of the community, the board managed to secure legal tolerance (instead of privilege) for Jewish students to attend Protestant schools, but nothing more. Hiring discrimination persisted, as did the lack of tolerance for Jewish holidays, and Jewish students were still forced to learn Christian religious teachings.
While the situation would slowly improve, the community had to wait until the 1960s, when government funding of Jewish day schools helped transform the educational situation for Montreal Jews into one of the best in North America.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky.
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*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library - Archives, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Museum and Archives and the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.