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Sunday, September 14, 2014

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Young Jews and Palestinians in ‘conversations’

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Rana Alrabi, left, Carly Seltzer, and Mohammed Shaban have organized Conversations, a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group for young adults.

MONTREAL — A project to bring young Montrealers of Jewish and Palestinian origin together socially was launched at a popular Mile End café on July 4.

The 25 invited guests, ranging in age from about 20 to 35, heeded 21-year-old Concordia University student Carly Seltzer’s call for the two communities to meet in “a non-threatening social space to just get to know one another.”

Seltzer has just completed an eight-week internship in the outreach and engagement department of Federation CJA, which sponsored the evening.

The project, called Conversations, is trying to reach many more interested young people.

“Most [dialogue] initiatives focus on discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Seltzer said. “I believe we can’t have a constructive dialogue until we respect one another first, and respect sometimes has to be built.”

While this initial encounter was not intended to be an exchange of views on the Middle East, the attendees were given an impression of day-to-day life in that region by a visitor from Gaza, Mohammed Shaban, who helped organize the event.

Shaban, 31, a teacher and community activist, has been in Montreal since September, arriving as one of 14 Sauvé Scholars from around the world and Canada. This nine-month program, affiliated with McGill and Concordia universities, selects promising young leaders interested in international relations and peace.

Shaban was the first Palestinian in the program since it was founded in 2003, in memory of former governor general Jeanne Sauvé.

His discovering Seltzer this spring, just as he was ending his sojourn, was fortuitous. Seltzer, a Torontonian who is entering her fourth year in women’s studies, describes herself as passionate about promoting understanding and social justice, and proposed the project to the federation.

Shaban, meanwhile, was devoting his time here to developing the curriculum for a pilot project in “fostering a culture of peace and non-violence,” which is to be implemented this fall in 65 public schools in the Palestinian Authority, with funding from Norway.

Seltzer has experienced the sometimes acrimonious debates on campus between those on either side of the issue, and she was looking for something else – an opportunity to get to know her Palestinian peers before getting into politics and history.

Shaban, of course, has lived all his life with the conflict, yet believes the young generation can be educated for a better future. He said he never met a Jewish person before coming to Montreal and knew very little about Jewish religion or history.

The Israelis, on a personal level, were also a mystery. He wasn’t even aware of what the menorah meant on the Israeli currency he uses until Seltzer explained it.

Although, as a Sauvé Scholar, he met many Jews, mostly older, (after they made themselves known as such), Shaban was disappointed that he had not found young Jews here who wanted to engage in a genuine dialogue on the Middle East. He’d had the impression they were simply indifferent.

So he welcomed the email out of the blue from Seltzer, who jumped at a rare opportunity to actually meet and converse with someone from Gaza.

Shaban found the café get-together encouraging: “It was wonderful. I felt human compassion, that they are really interested in getting involved.”

But he remains a little mystified as to why, in a free, multicultural society, such a meeting is still extraordinary. “I am concerned that people here are living behind high walls of mistrust,” he said.

The July 4 get-together was deemed a success by both Seltzer and Shaban, although there was an imbalance between the communities (more Jews than Palestinians) that she hopes will change.

Even under these convivial circumstances, Seltzer sensed it was not easy for some to meet. Though a small group, they were from diverse backgrounds.

The Montreal Dialogue Group (MDG), a forum since 2003 for Canadians of Arab (Muslim or Christian) and Jewish/Israeli origin of all ages, assisted with the launch.

Its co-president, Rana Alrabi, said it is “refreshing” to see that there are people in this age group interested in talking to one another.

With most MDG members over age 50, Alrabi, at 35, is one of the youngest. Born in Abu Dhabi to Palestinian and Lebanese parents, she has lived in Montreal since early childhood.

The public relations consultant had met Jews in college and professionally, but regretted never speaking with them about the conflict. The issue just seemed too delicate to broach.

She didn’t hesitate to accept an invitation to join the MDG a couple of years ago.

Although Seltzer’s internship at the federation has ended, she will be carrying on Conversations as a volunteer, trying to find other venues and types of social activities. A Facebook group at http://on.fb.me/conversations.montreal and a website at conversationsmontreal.wordpress.com have been created.

To what extent the federation will be involved is under discussion.

The website will be a forum for expression. Seltzer and Shaban have got things going by offering their impressions of each other.

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