As the walls of hatred and animosity continue to build in the Middle East, some fledgling steps toward building bridges were undertaken closer to home.
More than a hundred students, professors, activists and concerned individuals gathered at Hart House on Sunday to partake in a unique and timely initiative that had both Israeli and Palestinian supporters, Muslims and Jews leave their differences at the door and open up channels of communication.
“It is only through discussion and communication that individuals can understand each other,” said Safiyyah Ally, a coordinator of the event. “We do not believe that our event will suddenly remove differences and tensions between the various communities. What we do believe is that it is the beginning of a long process. It is the first step, and we believe it will go a long way towards building understanding and trust between the two groups.”
“We don’t always have to agree with each other, but we do have to listen to each other with respect and try to understand each other’s viewpoints,” noted Margaret MacMillan, provost of Trinity College and author of Paris 1919. She served as moderator for the introductory panel portion of the event.
Entitled “Towards Peace and Reconciliation: Here and Abroad” and presented by the Peace and Conflict Society at U of T, the day-long workshop used a variety of avenues to facilitate dialogue between the two groups. The event started off with speakers from both sides sharing their perspectives, continued with intimate small-group discussions, and concluded with an evening of dinner and arts. Frequent breaks were taken to allow for both Muslim and Jewish prayers.
“Is it worthwhile to compare the pain? Only if you’re trying to score points,” stated Rabbi Marty Lockshin, a professor of Jewish Studies. He emphasized that the aim of the workshops should not be to purge emotions but to eliminate stereotypes and build up a basis for friendship so that “maybe, just maybe, the people of Toronto can serve as a model for the greater Jewish and Muslim communities.” Professor Lockshin also criticized the media for paying undue attention to hostility between the two groups instead of encouraging positive interaction.
Hussein Hamdani, a lawyer and Islamic activist, said that faith can be an instrument of resolution instead of a pretext for bloodshed. “We will be accountable to our Creator and He will ask us, ‘What did you do to mend the hearts of the creation? Were you an agent of rage and anger, or reconciliation?’” Hamdani reminded the audience of the shared heritage of Muslims and Jews, stating it was proof that peace was possible with mutual respect and dignity.
“If you’re really serious about making peace with the other side, you must go to war with your own prejudices,” said Mohammad Alatar, quipping, “I usually don’t tell people to go to war, but for this one I’ll even provide the weapons.” Alatar is the director of Palestinians for Peace and Democracy and is a human rights and peace activist.
Although the media was not allowed to participate in the smaller group dialogues for the confidentiality and comfort of participants, they were invited back in time for the innovative Simoan Circle, where spokespersons from each of the groups sat in a circle and shared their thoughts. With participants often waxing emotional, the circle allowed individuals to speak about positive elements as well as frustrations they had encountered while engaged in dialogue.
“Our body language started to reflect the progress we were making. As we were talking, our chairs started moving a little closer,” said a participant, introducing herself as Rahel. “It was a very positive discussion in an open atmosphere,” agreed another participant named Louise.
Others articulated the challenges faced by their respective communities. Daniel recounted the negative reaction he encountered during a protest where he carried a placard pronouncing himself as a ‘Zionist for peace and justice’: “I had a ridiculous amount of people come up to me and say that the sign was an oxymoron because all Zionists are racist.” Basim, a Palestinian sympathizer, said that the Palestinian community often feels isolated and easily dismissed because their cause seems hopeless.
Speakers from both camps agreed that much work is to be done to dismantle stereotypes that are nurtured within their communities regarding “the enemy.”
“You never get to see the humanity behind the other group,” said Fatima, “the event has opened my eyes to a lot of [the Jewish people's] struggles.” What is the most important thing she learned?
“They’re just like us.”