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Ezekiel Hart, the first Jew elected to public office in the British Empire, swore his oath on a Hebrew Bible with his head covered before taking his seat in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada on this day in 1807. The next day, Attorney General Jonathan Sewell objected to his being seated, since Hart’s oath had not included the required words, “on the truth faith of a Christian.” Hart’s election by the citizens of the Quebec town of Trois-Rivieres (with 59 out of 116 votes for three candidates) had already been decried by some anti-Semitic politicians and pundits, and he was expelled by the Assembly on February 20th. He was reelected the next year and spoke the “proper” oath, but he was expelled again. Hart remained an influential citizen, however, as a businessman and militiaman. In 1832, the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada passed an Emancipation Act that guaranteed full rights to Jews, twenty-seven years before anywhere else in the Empire.
“[N]o Christian nation . . . granted Jews the rights of citizens . . . because they themselves do not wish to be part of any country. They may make a country their residence to pursue their business dealings, but never their home. This state of affairs is a result of the Jewish tradition, which requires Jews to wait for the messiah, their prince; while waiting, they cannot pledge allegiance to any other prince.”
—Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, founder, Le Canadien newspaper, 1808
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.