By Steve McDonald
By changing religion, was I reneging on part of my identity? Or was I adding to it? How were my family and my friends going to see me? Were they going to see me as “the Jew”?
How was my father, a deeply religious and practicing Catholic, going to react? My head was reeling as I thought of my mother, my sister, my brothers.
Would my constituents from the riding of Charlesbourg, in Quebec City, accept being represented by a Jew? By converting to Judaism, was I putting my political career at risk?
These were just some of the thoughts enveloping Richard Marceau moments before he entered a mikveh in 2004. Last-minute considerations common to most Jews-by-choice. But it’s Marceau’s unique journey that is decidedly uncommon, as revealed in his recently published memoirs A Quebec Jew: From Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish Activist.
Born and raised in a devout Catholic family in the middle class suburbs of Quebec City – ground zero for the Quebec separatist movement – Marceau was drawn to political activism early. As the descendant of French pioneers who arrived in Quebec in 1635, Quebec nationalism was genetic for Marceau. He quickly rose through the ranks of the upstart Bloc Québécois party, which advocates national independence for the Canadian province of Quebec. In 1997, Marceau was elected to serve as a federal Member of Parliament and was appointed the Bloc’s spokesperson in English Canada – all at the remarkable age of 26. It was a post Marceau would hold for nearly ten years. And it would ultimately open the door to a spiritual journey he never anticipated.
In 2000, Marceau visited Israel for the first time with a group of Canadian parliamentarians hosted by the Canada-Israel Committee. “What struck me early on was the normalcy,” Marceau writes. “I was expecting to land in a war-torn country, with soldiers everywhere, and scores of stressed and fearful people. That was certainly the image presented by the media around the world. It was not at all like that. Despite security precautions, I found myself in a Western and modern state like many I had previously visited.”
A turning point was when Marceau’s group met with chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Erekat told the group that Israel was preventing him from travelling throughout the territories (including to Gaza), effectively holding him hostage in Jericho. “I remember thinking that the Israelis had played us. That the dizzying sites we had seen and the fascinating meetings we had attended were intended to pull the wool over our eyes,” recalls Marceau. “But that was not the only surprise. The following day, with the caption LIVE FROM GAZA at the bottom of our screen, who did we see on CNN speaking about the latest developments? You guessed it: Saeb Erekat himself!”
“Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, the Palestinians had become masters in the art of political propaganda. Second, that the Palestinian message that Palestinians = victims and Israel = oppressor is an easy one for everyone to remember.”
Coming Home a Zionist, Becoming a Jew
Marceau returned to Canada a Zionist – and an enthusiastic one at that. Whether through his work with the Canada-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group or in Holocaust commemoration, Marceau realized he had tapped into a sense of peoplehood familiar to a proud Quebecker. In so doing, and with the support of his wife Lori (who is Jewish by birth), he began to ask questions of his own spirituality – and discovered the answers in Judaism.
“After a number of years of religious indifference, spent somewhere between a curious agnosticism and militant atheism, I was ready to reconcile myself with God,” Marceau notes. “I needed spirituality. I needed a reason for being. And I had found these in Judaism.”
After countless hours of study and reflection, Marceau took the plunge twice – first through the Reform movement and later through an Orthodox beit din. Perhaps this is only natural for a man who avoids labels. “Instead of focusing on the adjective – Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – as important as those differences can be, I try to emphasize the noun – Jew,” he explains. “We need to remain one united people, even if we are divided in our opinions.”
Upon meeting him, one sees that Marceau’s sense of Ahavat Yisrael, love for his fellow Jew, is practically contagious. “The state of Israel is our most important project as Jews today,” he says. “It is the centre of gravity of the Jewish people.” As Senior Counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the leading advocacy organization of Canada’s Jewish community, Marceau is on the front lines in the daily effort to build the Canada-Israel relationship and defend Israel from slander. Whether he’s appearing on national television to defend Israel, or meeting with Canadian parliamentarians (including colleagues from his days as an MP), Marceau is defending Jewish sovereignty using the same political skills he once used to promote Quebec sovereignty.
Quebec, Judaism, and Identity
That said, he remains a proud Quebecker, and has been able to bridge the divide and present the case for Israel in a province where many hold misconceptions of Israel and Jews. For Marceau, striving to be a better Jew and advocate for Israel’s rights only makes him a better Quebecker. “I belong to two peoples,” Marceau writes. “Jewish tradition is crystal clear: there is no contradiction between a strong bond to the Jewish people and an unwavering loyalty to the country in which a Jew lives.”
Not everyone agreed. In his book, Marceau describes his public “coming out” as a Jew, and how a 2005 article he wrote on anti-Semitism (and revealing his conversion) sparked a backlash from within his own party. A fellow Bloc candidate responded with a scathing column that denounced Marceau in personal terms – even implying he was unconcerned about racism before his conversion.
But Marceau’s passion will not be denied. “Every time I have gone to Israel, I have returned impressed by this tenacious and intelligent people,” he reflects. “And I decided to be a counterweight, with the modest means at my disposal, to the clearly slanted narrative that was presented to Quebeckers.”
Indeed, Canada’s Jewish community – the third largest in the Diaspora – has found a unique advocate in Richard Marceau, whose journey from Bloc Québécois parliamentarian to Jewish activist is nothing less than extraordinary.