MONTREAL - The appearance of so-called Nazi salutes at Quebec student protests was condemned by a Jewish-rights organization that asked people to refrain from using the hurtful gesture.
Some protesters have been using it repeatedly in recent weeks to mock Montreal police at demonstrations in which chanting crowds have referred to local officers as the "SS," called them fascists and compared them to Nazi police for their alleged brutality.
There have also been swastikas on anti-police pamphlets being distributed.
While the gestures are meant as an insult to police — and not as any expression of support for Nazism — B'nai Brith Canada says that's no excuse.
It chose to issue a statement decrying the behaviour on Tuesday, which would have been the 83rd birthday of Holocaust victim and child author Anne Frank.
The group said the actions defile the memory of those who died in the Holocaust, of those who survived under the Nazi regime and of those who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War.
"We condemn, in the strongest of terms, this inexcusable display of hate by Quebec student protesters that has outraged the Jewish community and demonstrated just how low the level of public debate has fallen on the streets of Montreal," CEO Frank Dimant said in the statement.
"The actions of these protesters, whether for the purposes of deriding Montreal police or drawing attention to their cause, defile the memory of the Holocaust and remind us just how quickly anti-Semitism and the manifestations of hate can venture their way into our public discourse."
Photos of the Nazi-themed protests have been circulating on social-networking sites, causing some shock and outrage. The photos have been posted on the Internet in recent days, sometimes without context, leaving viewers puzzled about why Montreal protesters are using the salute.
One German visitor to Montreal remarked to a Canadian Press reporter over the weekend that he was shocked to see the salutes on Crescent Street, a trendy Montreal party strip.
In some countries like Germany and Austria, the gesture itself and Nazi-era symbols are outlawed. Just last year, a Quebecer was arrested for performing the salute on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin for a photo.
The province's more hardline student group, which has rarely been critical of protesters, implored people late Tuesday to cut it out: "Even if they are jokes, references to the Nazis during (protests) must stop," the CLASSE said on Twitter.
Dimant said in a statement Tuesday evening that Martine Desjardins, head of the Quebec federation of university students, contacted him and "formally apologized on behalf of her organization for any distress the student group had caused."
Dimant said he appreciated the "swift apology" and added that Desjardins told him she will "make every effort to curtail the inappropriate and destructive behaviour by protesters."
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs says the decision to use the Hitler salute, in the Montreal protests, is not an act of hatred — just one of ignorance.
"These are clearly not support for Nazism or intended as anti-Semitic displays," said spokesman David Ouellette.
"It's much more a function of the ignorance about history and the over-heated rhetoric that has plagued the current crisis in Quebec."
The gesture is not illegal in Canada.
Audrey Licop, spokeswoman for The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, says the fascist greeting was used by the Nazis in the 1930s and was mandatory for citizens in Nazi Germany.
Licop says it is still used today by many neo-Nazi organizations.
"The gesture is shocking because we are historians and we know that we're not in the same historical or political context," Licop said. "But the problem is that it's a profound lack of respect to the victims of Nazism and the genocide of Jews during World War Two."
Dimant, of B'nai Brith, put it even more bluntly.
"We're talking about the Montreal police force, we're not talking about Nazis here," he said in an interview. "And to try to make any comparison makes a mockery of the Holocaust."