Canada's Jews, Arabs Split over Israel | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canada's Jews, Arabs Split over Israel

The two sides are standing, in a more or less orderly fashion, behind the metal barricades. A supporter of Israel steps up on the railing and slowly waves his arm, middle finger extended, back and forth in the air. "Long live Palestine!" a young man shouts in response.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 27, 2002

Canada's Jews, Arabs Split over Israel

The two sides are standing, in a more or less orderly fashion, behind the metal barricades. A supporter of Israel steps up on the railing and slowly waves his arm, middle finger extended, back and forth in the air. "Long live Palestine!" a young man shouts in response. No stones, no guns, just duelling placards, opposing flags and the kind of taunts rival groups hurl across the divide when they know there are plenty of police to keep them apart.

On this bright spring day in Montreal, the small pro-Palestinian demonstration is only a sideshow to a massive solidarity-with-Israel rally marking the 54th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish state. The antagonists eventually tire of the game and drift apart. Those carrying the blue and white emblems of a people who created their country file to a nearby park to listen to speeches and sing joyous Hebrew folk songs. Those waving the green, black, white and red of a people still clamouring for theirs, go to a designated protest spot on the far fringes of the action. These days this is pretty much what passes for dialogue between JEWS and ARABS in Canada.

Two of the country's largest ethnic communities consumed by what is happening to friends and family overseas. Two communities spilling over with emotion, desperate for change, fearful of what may yet come. Two communities battling for the ear of the public and government, but deaf to each other. New solitudes in a country that seems to have far too many already.

"I never used to feel scared," says Gil Troy. Marching with the crowd down the centre of René Lévesque Boulevard, balancing his toddler son on his shoulders, the 40-year-old McGill University history professor says the e-mails, phone calls and letters he received in response to an opinion piece he wrote for the Montreal Gazette a year ago - entitled "Why I Am a Zionist" and since expanded into a book - changed all that. Hateful words, religious slurs, threats - he's still so spooked he requests that the names of his wife and children not appear in print.

Troy, a native New Yorker who came to Montreal 12 years ago, grew up in a family that strongly believes in the Jewish state. His parents both lived there for a time, they talked about it at the dinner table, they donated money to sustain it. When he finished high school, Troy spent a year there himself, working and travelling before starting his university studies. "To us Israel's not just an abstract notion," he says. "It's a very real place with very real people."

Like most Jews in Canada, Troy was a supporter of the Oslo peace process. He talks wistfully about a trip to Jerusalem in February, 2000, when he escorted 200 students from Montreal on a "birthright israel" tour sponsored by local Jewish organizations. "I tasted the peace and prosperity," he says. "We went to the Western Wall to pray. You could hear the mullah's calls to prayer and the church bells ringing in the Old City. It was perfect." Now he looks back on the trip and wonders if he and his community were naive to believe the Palestinians wanted peace as much as they did.

The turmoil of the past 20 months - the second intifada, the suicide bombings, the harsh criticism Israel has come under from bodies like the United Nations for its reprisals - has galvanized Canada's 360,000 Jews, say community leaders. As in Israel, there is a sense that all other options have been exhausted, and force is the only answer. People who never involved themselves in the debates about the Jewish state now believe its very existence is threatened. "I think Jews in Canada have had their hopes for peace shattered too," says Reuben Poupko, a Montreal rabbi who has two adult children living in Israel. "Today, we're more unified than we ever have been before. The last year and a half has erased all political differences."

On this day, it's easy to believe those assertions. Thousands of people waving placards and Israeli flags (organizers claim 25,000, the media says less) are packed into Place du Canada, the scene of the giant federalist "We love Quebec" rally on the eve of the 1995 referendum. Teenagers hang from a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, screaming themselves hoarse leading chants of "Arafat - terrorist" and "Sharon, Sharon, Sharon." "Stop Homicide Bombings," reads one of the signs. "There will be peace with Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us," says another.

"The news brings me to tears so often it's incomprehensible," says Leila Mouammar of Montreal. Over her breakfast of black coffee and Belmont cigarettes at a restaurant on the Main, her dark eyes well up several times just talking about the plight of the Palestinians. Mouammar was born in Canada, but grew up in an activist Palestinian family. Her grandfather, a stonemason, emigrated in 1967, but always looked back. In the 1970s, her dad helped organize Yasser Arafat's Canadian visits. That the 27-year-old would become active in the community herself seemed preordained. "I grew up surrounded by relatives who would show me the keys to their houses in Palestine and talk about the orange groves they used to walk through," says Mouammar. "It's a political act not to give up. People are unwilling to forget. It's this kind of stubborn resistance. If they give up, Israel gets away with what it did."

She has tried to bridge the gap and failed. During her studies at McGill a few years ago, back in a time when peace seemed possible, Mouammar and a Jewish friend started a cross-cultural discussion group. It thrived for a while but eventually broke down, overwhelmed by clashing viewpoints and the questions with the unacceptable answers. Now, Mouammar is a fixture at pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Her sorrow and anger are fuelled by memories of a year spent working for UNICEF in a Beirut refugee camp, and visits to friends and family in the West Bank.

Traditionally, the Arab community in Canada - 274,000 people according to the 1996 census, but surely larger now - has never been a bastion of solidarity. There have been too many old grudges and all the divisions you might expect - political, religious, linguistic - in an ethnic group comprised of 22 different nationalities. But it too appears to have finally found a common cause in the horror of the last 20 months. "People are sick and tired of this issue. We're always turning in a circle and in the meantime innocent people are paying the price," says Mazen Houdeib, who immigrated to Canada from Lebanon in 1990 and now runs a public housing organization in Montreal. "People from all the Arab communities are against the injustice. The media calls it a cycle of violence, but it's like I'm hitting a three-year-old boy and blaming him."

Mouammar describes it more as a shared sense of hopelessness and despair. "The fatalism gets deeper," she says, lighting yet another smoke. It's a burden the whole community carries. She talks about her own family, how the television is always tuned to CNN, how holidays have been ruined by events in the Middle East, how she spends so much time thinking about the crisis that she often can't sleep. "It taints the way I look at the world," she says. "Everything is political. Sometimes I think, wouldn't it have been nice to grow up an Anglo-Saxon and not care about anything?"

"Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Not just in the Middle East - anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe," says Dr. Ian Goldstine, his finger poking holes in the air. It's May and it's snowing in southern Manitoba, but the president of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg is still enviably tan from a recent trip to Israel. "It's causing a lot of anxiety in our community, because if it can happen there, it can happen here," he says. Goldstine talks about recent racial attacks in France, Britain, Ukraine and Tunisia. The two synagogues in Canada - one in Saskatoon, one in Toronto - that have been set on fire this spring, though police have yet to declare either incident a hate crime. "What goes on in the Middle East affects what happens here," he says.

That's certainly the impression left by the annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents compiled by B'nai Brith, the Jewish rights group. Its 2001 report details 83 occurrences of vandalism and 203 cases of harassment against Jews in Canada - an increase of 35 per cent over five years. Gravestones damaged in a cemetery in Ottawa, "Kill Jews" left scrawled in a park in Montreal, "Osama Bin Laden lives" spray-painted on the wall of a synagogue north of Toronto. Ruth Klein, the group's national director of advocacy, says 2002 is shaping up to be worse. What's new about the threats and slurs is the context. In the past, people most made reference to Hitler and other "traditional" racist themes - now they talk about the Middle East.

David Matas, an immigration lawyer and human rights activist in Winnipeg, calls it the new ANTI-SEMITISM - old stereotypes and libels wrapped up in a profound opposition to Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians. The source, he and others in the Jewish community say, is the Arab world. "They attack Israel militarily and they attack Israel and the Jewish community through rhetoric," he says. "There is a direct link between this anti-Zionist rhetoric and attacks on the Jewish community worldwide." That bias has even infected world organizations like the United Nations, says Matas, who participated in last year's World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, an event dominated by charges of anti-Semitism and favouritism toward the Palestinians. "There is a clear double standard - anything that Israel does that's the least bit wrong receives an inordinate amount of attention and priority," Matas says.

The receptionist at the suburban Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Arab Federation plays the voice mail left the night before over the speakerphone. "When you Arabs die, I smile," says the man, the sounds of a television audible in the background. "The whole world is on the side of Israel. Believe it buddy. The only fucking good Arab is a dead Arab. Thank you." Vicious and stupid, but not smart. The caller forgot to block out his phone number from call display, and is now under police investigation.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Canada's Arab and Muslim communities lived in fear of misdirected reprisals, and experienced their own miserable share of harassment and vandalism. The hate has died down, but it hasn't gone away. On May 25, the CAF will release the full results of the most comprehensive opinion survey of Arabs living in Canada to date. The study, funded by the federal government, paints a picture of an ethnic community that doesn't feel at all comfortable. "Arabs are saying we face racism in our daily lives, in school, the workplace, the media. And there is a government in place that doesn't listen to what we say," says Raja Khouri, the Toronto consultant who compiled and crunched the data. "The picture is not pretty. The picture is not healthy." Khouri says 84 per cent of respondents think Canadians believe all Arabs are violent, 74 per cent say Ottawa is not concerned with the views of Arab Canadians, 92 per cent think what Canadians know about Arabs comes from negative stereotypes. "When is the last time you saw a positive Arab character in a movie or a television show?" asks Khouri. "Not someone who was violent, or a terrorist, or a filthy rich oil sheik."

Is Canada a new battleground between supporters of Israel and Palestine? Are the tensions between Jews and Arabs spilling over? It depends which side you ask. "There have been violent acts already and there have been violent threats," says Joe Wilder, the Winnipeg-based chairman of the Canada Israel Committee, a group that lobbies Ottawa on Middle East issues. "I think there is reason for concern." John Asfour, head of the Canadian Arab Federation, is equally adamant, but totally in opposition. "There may be incidents, but it is the work of juveniles, insignificant people who would do it to the Arabs, the Japanese, the Italians, whoever. I think it's time for B'nai Brith and the Jewish community to stop singing this song."

If there is a war being waged in Canada, it's over public opinion. The CIC, CAF and other organizations in both communities expend large amounts of time, effort and money lobbying government, countering each other in the press, and passing along reams of "unfiltered" information to supporters. In fact, the most striking things about talking to Jews and Arabs across the country is how informed and articulate they are about their issues of concern. The dates, place names, details of obscure treaties and UN resolutions come fast and furious in any conversation. "It's like being a baseball fan and knowing the names of all the minor league players," jokes Rabbi Poupko. It's hard to imagine that Canadian voters could measure up on any matter of domestic political concern.

Then there's the money. The North American target for this year's Israel Emergency Campaign by the United Jewish Communities is $300 million - $60 million from Toronto alone. About half the money raised will go to assist victims of the conflict and enhance security for Israeli schools and daycare centres. The Israeli government will raise millions more in Canada through the sale of bonds. Then there's the money that flows from North America to help support and expand contentious Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza - something the Canadian government officially frowns on.

Fundraising in the Arab community is not as centralized, but significant amounts still flow to a variety of charities, including the Red Crescent Society and Montreal-based Medical Aid for Palestine. Winnipeg's only mosque recently collected $25,000 for Palestinian relief efforts at its Friday prayer services. "We're a small community and very new," says Marwan Saadi, head of the Canadian-Palestinian Foundation of Quebec. "Maybe we have some millionaires, but not any billionaires. Our means are nothing compared to the Jewish community." Arabs and Muslims living in Canada have also reputedly been a major source of funds for several extremist organizations with less benevolent aims, including Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

Both sides seem convinced that the other has the advantage - more sympathetic treatment in the media, the favour of the Canadian government - and that it is helping tilt the balance in the Middle East. "Unfortunately the Liberal government is only interested in staying in power," says John Asfour over lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in Montreal. "There is a Jewish vote, there is a Jewish lobby they don't care to offend." Joe Wilder, in his office high above Portage and Main, scoffs. "I wish we had the clout that's attributed to us," he says. "To be frank, we've lost a lot of battles in the past."

"Canada is my home where I live, but Israel is my home in my heart," says Amy Greenfeld. Sunlight is streaming into the atrium of the Asper Community Campus, an impressive complex that has become the centre of Jewish life in Winnipeg. Seniors happily splash their way through an aquafit class in a nearby pool. Greenfeld, 20, is struggling to explain her feelings about Israel. Growing up, she was like most other Jewish kids in Canada, she says - it was just a place you visited, maybe your grandparents lived there. But the last 20 months have changed things. Israel has grown in importance. It seems vulnerable, precious. Now it's an obsession.

And like any love, it's complicated. Greenfeld did her second year of university in Jerusalem - a study term that ended up coinciding with the first nine months of the latest intifada. She is deeply troubled by the way Israel deals with the Palestinians. "We're a country built on the ashes of the Holocaust. How can we run a government and army based on the oppression of other people?" she asks. But those concerns have been overshadowed by the increasing violence. Greenfeld experienced two suicide bomb attacks first-hand, and they tipped the balance in her mind. "You see the people lying in the street - you hear the sirens and the screams," she says. "Nothing can justify that. Nothing."

In the end, Jews in Canada don't have a choice, she argues. Now is not the time for arguing and finger pointing. Their history demands that they support Israel. No one else understands. Not the media, not the government, not average Canadians, who seem to know and care very little about the whole affair. "We're fighting our own battle here. It's the Jewish community and that's it," Greenfeld says. "Unfortunately, I think compromise is impossible here. One side will lose badly. We can't let it be us."

"We're a very proud people, we can only take so much," says Noris Zeid. He's about as Canadian as you can get. He plays hockey, he says "eh" at the end of most sentences, he wanted to meet at Tim Hortons. But the people he's talking about are Palestinians. Born in Deir Ammar, a refugee camp in the West Bank, Zeid came to Winnipeg with his family when he was less than a year old. Now 30, he runs his own appliance repair business. He has the better life his parents came to Canada to find; now he feels a duty to improve the lives of friends and family back home. Israel is to blame for the appalling conditions in the camps, he says. The Jewish state is the reason his family lost their homes in 1948.

Zeid says his generation, and the community at large, have been awakened by the events of the last two years. "There's a sense that this is an attack on not just Palestinians, but all Muslims," he says. MUSLIMS have to do what other ethnic communities are doing, band together, take their concerns to the government, make sure Canadians know what's really happening in the Middle East. "Some people think all Palestinians are born with a machine gun in their hands," he says.

Violence is the only option Palestinians have left, says Zeid. They are beaten down, desperate. "I call them defensive bombings," he says of suicide attacks. "Somebody comes and bombs your house, kills your parents, destroys your town, when you have nothing to begin with." If Zeid was back in the West Bank, he could see himself picking up a gun: "It's not a good thing, not a nice thing, but it's the only thing that's working. Israel didn't leave Lebanon because they are nice people. They left because they were under the gun."

Arabs and Jews in Canada are talking, just not to each other. E-mails fly, telephones ring, meetings are held. Events are dissected, fresh evidence of ill-will is catalogued for future reference. Community leaders preach to the converted, staunchly defending the indefensible.

Occupation. Security. Resistance. Terrorism. Self-defence. Murder. The issues that divide seem so intractable that the only real debate is about the words used to describe them. Two sides, two completely different versions of the truth.

Maclean's May 27, 2002

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