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Canada’s Queen Victoria Day: Is It Good for the Jews?

Canada’s Queen Victoria Day: Is It Good for the Jews?

Statue of Queen Victoria

Each year on the Monday before May 24, Canadians (well, most of them) celebrate a holiday in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Victoria, whose assertive personality rose far above her 4- foot, 11-inch height, reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom from 1837 until her death in 1901. (She also became Empress of India in 1877, but that’s another story.)

This is a uniquely Canadian holiday; it is not celebrated at all in Britain. (In fact, Quebec does not acknowledge it, and a couple of other provinces have renamed it.) So that might cause you to wonder: Why do any Canadians keep celebrating the birthday of a monarch who passed away over a century ago? Did she do anything special for us? Was she unique in some way?

I think what is special and unique about this holiday has nothing much to do with Victoria herself but rather with her title. In the British parliamentary system, the Constitutional Monarch is the national figurehead who stands beyond partisan politics. In this role, the queen or king is perceived as representing equally every citizen in the realm. Although the monarch is the titular head of the Church of England, it is his or her responsibility to uphold the rights of all religious and cultural minorities.

In Canada, the person who fulfills this role is the governor general, who is appointed by the Canadian government to represent the monarch. In the past, holders of this office have promoted aboriginal cultures, established shelters for battered women, supported the sponsorship of refugees and have contributed to the development of a rich, multicultural society. No matter where we live, no matter what political party we support, we perceive the Governor General as everyone’s friend.

So, what does this government official have to do with us Jews, not only in Canada but throughout the world?

We find our answer in the State of Israel, which has a similar figurehead. The president of Israel, like the British monarch or Canadian governor general, represents every single citizen. Moreover, he or she is acknowledged as the global representative of the Jewish People. I suppose you could say that the Israeli President is like the rabbi of the worldwide Jewish congregation.

The current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, has spoken often about the four “tribes” in Israel that live in their own solitudes: the secular, the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Hasidim), the nationalist Orthodox, and the Palestinian Arabs. He is making efforts to bring these tribes into dialogue, to create a united country within Israel’s borders and a lasting peace beyond. In striving to do so, he does not hesitate to critique the government of Israel when he feels that it is not pursuing these lofty goals effectively.

Along with Israelis, the citizens of Europe and the Western world face a growing polarization. The political spectrum now spans from ultra-right wing populist parties to extreme left wing anti-Israel platforms, with a shrinking and ambivalent middle ground. As the late folksinger Phil Ochs reminds us in “Flower Lady”:

And they argue through the night
Black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right.

Wouldn’t it be helpful for every nation to have someone that people respect, someone who looks beyond the next election toward a greater vision for their country? Might such a person also help us to adjust our own perspective from time to time? If that is Queen Victoria’s legacy to our contemporary world, her memory is well worth preserving.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander is rabbi emeritus of Solel Congregation of Mississauga, which he founded in 1973, and is also adjunct rabbi at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto. He currently serves as chair of ARZENU, the global Reform Zionist organization.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander
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