French Canadian government backs off matzah ban

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MONTREAL — The "Matzahgate" scandal is over, at least for now.

A few weeks before Passover, a Quebec government agency attempted to block the sale of kosher-for-Passover products that did not have labels in French.

After a tense period of accusations of insensitivity and even anti-Semitism leveled against the French Language Office, government officials and Jewish community leaders reached an agreement last week.

Passover matzah and other kosher foods will be allowed to be sold in Quebec stores next year for Passover, even though their English-only labeling contradicts Quebec's language charter, which calls for French to appear on all publicly displayed products.

Many Passover products sold in Quebec are imported from the United States.

The agreement came after a two-hour meeting between officials of the French Language Office, which polices the language legislation, and representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Sephardic community.

"I think we made a constructive small step in sensitizing them to the concerns of our community vis-a-vis this issue," said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the CJC's Quebec region.

Jedwab expressed dismay, however, that the language office had not immediately exempted the kosher products. The law permits such exemptions for religious reasons.

The ire of the Jewish community here was raised after the language office received a letter from a major food distributor informing it that the labeling of the imported Passover products was illegal.

The letter urged immediate action "because kosher products are on the shelves for a limited time." Some stores pulled the matzah and other kosher products with English labels from their shelves.

Nicole Rene, president of the French Language Office, said that "the Jewish community was not being targeted. It was the importers who were targeted because they were not complying with the law."

A task force comprised of CJC and government officials would be formed to work toward a solution that would not require amendments to the French Language Charter, Rene said.

"I would like to find a long-term solution so that this doesn't happen again," Reisa Teitelbaum, head of the CJC Quebec region, said.