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Citizenship Cannot Be Made Conditional Upon 'Assimilation'

10/08/2015 12:19 EDT | Updated 10/08/2016 05:12 EDT
FETHI BELAID via Getty Images
Female students, wearing a niqab, gather outside the building housing the office of the dean of the Faculty of Arts in Manuba, some 25 kms west of Tunis, on December 8, 2011. Several hundred demonstrators gathered at the university calling for women to be allowed to wear the Muslim veil in class and pass exams. A group of Salafists disrupted classes on November 28 at the university, demanding to stop mixed-sex classes and for female students to wear full face veils. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Karen Selick recently wrote the most honest column we will see in this election campaign. Under the misappropriated flag of "libertarianism," Ms. Selick refused to pretend, as this government has, that she represents the very women she seeks to oppress. While the Conservatives traffic in hatred -- a currency well-abused by leaders throughout history compensating for a dearth of meaningful policy -- under the guise of women's rights, Ms. Selick has rejected the farce that she is here to protect the veiled victims.

Nothing in the last week has shown so ugly and truthful as Karen Selick's words. Finally, someone peeled back the smoke and mirrors and laid bare the underlying logic of the "anti-niqab" movement: a pure and unadulterated hatred directed at those who don't look like her. Ms. Selick would permit these "niqab-wearers" the benefit of Canadian citizenship, so long as they continued to play by her rules. If they did not, she suggests Canadians ought to deny them service at restaurants and refuse them as renters and as employees.

Ms. Selick has only one modest request -- don't let me notice that you're different. It'll be our little secret. I'll pretend that you're Canadian (though it will always be limited to pretending) and you will pretend that you are like me. If you ever wonder how to identify if some behavior is Canadian enough, just do what I do. That's the test. This way, I'll permit your continued existence -- conditionally.

Here's the thing. As a grandchild of the Holocaust, what scared me most when I read this horrendous commentary was not the fact that bigots like Ms. Selick exist, but rather, the fact that I had read her words in the leading newspaper in the country.

People sometimes wonder what it means to grow up as a child or grandchild of the Holocaust. They wonder how the stories that we were raised on changed the way we view the world. How the narratives we know frame the way we experience our existence as Jews, as Canadians and as individuals.

The story of the Jews of Germany plays a prominent role in post-Holocaust Jewish narrative. At the turn of the last century, the Jews of Germany were a product of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which began at the turn of the 18th century. The Haskalah was a movement of European Jewry that adopted the secular values of the European Enlightenment and promoted the assimilation of Jews into secular European society.

Throughout European history, Jews had lived in segregated communities from their Gentile neighbours. They dressed differently -- the men in all-black garb, the women with long dresses and head covering. They spoke a different language, Yiddish. The Haskalah was seen as an emancipation from the orthodoxy and alienation of European Jewish life. Jews assimilated, intermarried, built businesses, owned land and celebrated holidays with their Christian neighbours.

For the first time in modern European history, Jews felt relatively safe as Jews for a whole century. They got comfortable. And all they had to do was graciously hide their identifiably "Jewish" features. As long as they spoke unaccented German, dressed normally and engaged in secular society, they would enjoy the privilege of being served at restaurants, renting apartments and voting -- though generally at the pleasure of the secular majority.

When Hitler came to power, many of those Jews who had assimilated, even married Christians and raised Christian children, thought they would be safe from the Nuremberg Laws. They thought assimilation would protect them. It did not.

As Jewish children, we were told this cautionary tale repeatedly. It is engrained in our Jewish identity. The moral many of us gleaned was: don't get too comfortable. Your existence here is conditional.

It was through this lens that I read Karen Selick's bigoted piece. It was for this reason that a cold chill ran up my spine as I read "Jew" every time the word "niqab-wearer" appeared. I realized how smoothly it read.

Reading those words in the National Post gave her bigotry the legitimacy of rational -- if not popular -- thought. It also made me shrink. In that instant, it made me wonder if anyone noticed I was a Jew. It made me want to keep a bag packed as narratives of victimhood and fear flooded me.

It's terrifying to see the legitimate platform given to such raw bigotry in "my" country -- even if only to highlight an extreme viewpoint. It's disturbing to see how many of "my" countrymen read her words and nodded or commented in confirmation. And worse yet, that "my" government has endorsed and traded in the hatred of innocent people as if they were their own personal political fodder.

What Ms. Selick fails to understand is that by denying the "niqab-wearers" membership in Canadian society, she is affirming that her own membership is conditional. Those of us who carry the stories of destruction and murder of our own people should remember how slippery is this slope of racism and hatred. Let us never forget.

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