Right before Rosh Hashanah, we got an unexpected piece of mail – a Shana Tova card from an Ottawa area member of Parliament.
Some might find this an interesting bit of political outreach. I found it unsettling. I don’t know this MP – they don’t represent my riding – and I’ve never dealt with them or their office for any reason.
It’s not rocket science to figure out how I might have ended up on the greeting card list in general.
I write this column, after all, and my husband is active in the Jewish community. We’re in the Ottawa Jewish phone book, a public list of sorts all in its own right.
Why would an MP who doesn’t represent me directly feel he should send us a card? That’s a reflection of how politics has become a bit of a nice marketing game – a subject for another time.
But what unsettled me was that, in government office, there’s a list of people who are Jewish and identified as such by name. What starts out as a holiday card list can easily be manipulated for purposes far less benign.
It got me thinking though about the question of how we are identified as Jews and who gets to make the choice about that definition.
Another list of Jews has been in media lately – the government mega-list, aka the census. Thanks to questions on ethnic origin and religion, the government may not know all the Jews in Canada by name, but it has a pretty good idea of where they live.
There’s been some controversy over what the 2016 census says about the Jewish population, based on the way the question about ethnic origins was asked this year. In raw data terms, the results suggest that in 2016, the number of people with Jewish origins dropped by half when compared with the 2011 results.
The Jewish population in Canada hasn’t declined by that dramatic an amount in five years. Simply put what happened was that in 2011, Jewish was on the list of ethnic origins people could choose when filling out the census. In 2016, it wasn’t. People had to write it in. So, the responses plummeted.
What struck me as so fascinating is the existential issue at the heart of it all: Who gets to define who is a Jew? And how do we craft that definition?
The census results have sent minor shockwaves through the organized Jewish community – demographic data, after all, is used to plan and allocate increasingly scarce resources.
But as we all know, those decisions don’t get made based just on what the numbers say.
There’s also the question of the extent to which the people behind those numbers stand up and ask to be counted.
In my October 30 column, I wrote largely about the positive developments in our community to make sure the needs of young families were being met. By showing increased interest in the programs being made available, we’re, in essence, standing up to be counted – and we are.
But in that column, I also referenced some recent instances where, when other people have sought to be included in our community, the responses they’ve received raise questions for me about whether we’re also falling short of the standards of inclusivity to which I believed everyone legitimately aspires.
For this, I’ve been accused of distorting or just making up facts, tarnishing the reputation of an entire segment of the community and actively seeking to drive a wedge between it and others.
I’m glad people took the time to challenge my views and stand up for theirs. That’s their right.
Every Jew in this community – whether they meet a census definition or not – has the right, and perhaps even the obligation, to stand up and be counted if we want a community that truly reflects our diversity. We shouldn’t need a census to make that a priority.