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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Arab, Jewish panellists ‘share frank opinions’

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From left, Maurice Green, Raja Khouri, Ralph Benmergui, Karen Mock and Jareer Khouri [Cara Edell photo]

TORONTO — How can Canadian Arabs and Jews meet to mend historic divides? How can they reduce conflict and improve understanding between their communities? How can they counter hatred and promote human rights for those living here and in Israel?

These complex and pressing questions were addressed at a recent event sponsored by JSpaceCanada, a Jewish pro-peace group, and the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group.

The program, titled “Courageous Conversations: Arab Jewish Relations in Canada,” was held Jan. 24 at the Barbara Frum Library.

Moderated by journalist Ralph Benmergui, who identifies as a Jew born in an Arab country (Morocco), the discussion featured four representatives of the dialogue group.

The panellists included Raja Khouri and Karen Mock, the founders and co-chairs of the organization, and longtime members Maurice Green and Jareer Khouri.

Mock is the former executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, Raja Khouri is president of the Canadian Arab Institute, Green is a labour, and human rights lawyer, and Jareer Khouri is a senior adviser to the attorney general.

The evening was part of an effort to promote peaceful dialogue, co-operation and a greater understanding of Arab and Jewish culture, politics and history. The dialogue group contends that neither community benefits from tensions, violent conflicts, public accusations and racist exchanges.

“It is important for progressive Jews and other Canadians to hear about our dialogue experience over the last several years. Our dialogue group presents a model for our mainstream communities to build relationships and positively relate to each other,” Raja Khouri said.

“We share frank, honest and direct opinions,” Jareer Khouri said. “For the Arab and Jewish communities to change their perspectives, both sides must have the courage to voice different opinions.”

The dialogue group, founded in 2007, was created in response to the increasing hostility between Jewish and Arab communities, which was mainly demonstrated in conflicts on university campuses. Mock said the idea for the group was born when she was chair of the attorney general’s Hate Crimes Community Working Group in 2006. 

Raja Khouri, former president of the Canadian Arab Federation, and Bernie Farber, then executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, were both members of that committee. They began talking to each other to defuse conflict situations between their two communities and work out practical resolutions to meet both Arab and Jewish needs.

While the panellists agreed on the importance of being able to put themselves in each other’s shoes, they also discussed the challenges of achieving understanding and respect for the other’s point of view.

Raja Khouri said there’s “a perceived orthodoxy” on each side and any person who speaks outside the orthodoxy is endangering themselves.

“I’ve been attacked by some in my own community, as have Jewish members whose opinions don’t mirror the so-called mainstream. In terms of the honesty of the discussion, it takes a long time to get there, and it took us approximately two years to build the foundation of trust before branching out to others.”

Jareer Khouri said most Canadian Arabs believe the Jewish community is “monochromatic” when it comes to Israel.

“We have to move away from the impression that no criticism of Israeli policy is possible in the Jewish community, and we must also dispel the impression that Arabs don’t criticize events and policies in the Arab world.”

Mock said reasonable criticism of Israeli government policy is not antisemitic. She also clarified the meaning of Zionism as “Jewish self-determination.”

Green said the result of shared respect and trust each is “honest conversation through which people come to appreciate why you hold the views you do.”

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