During the last federal election campaign, Media Action Group, an organization that fights anti-Semitism, sent out an email referencing an online story that suggested the Liberal party was being infiltrated by Islamists. Omar Alghabra’s name came up in the report, and not in a good way.
Alghabra went on to be elected MP for Mississauga Centre and later was named secretary of state for consular affairs, prompting more concern from certain quarters in the Jewish community and elsewhere.
Last weekend, Alghabra was a guest of Solel Congregation in Mississauga, which is located just outside his riding, and JSpace Canada, a progressive Zionist organization.
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In introducing Alghabra, JSpace spokesperson and co-ordinating committee member Karen Mock said critics had taken “potshots” at Alghabra and that the commentary over his appointment was “almost hysterical.”
“That’s not the Omar Alghabra that I know,” she said.
Addressing the congregation, where he has visited various times to support interfaith projects in the area, Alghabra presented a picture of himself as a typical immigrant success story. A native of Syria who grew up in Saudi Arabia, he travelled to Canada on his own at age 19 to study engineering. During his early days in the country, he worked the midnight shift at a donut shop, meeting all sorts of people from varied backgrounds. It was, he said, “the best political education.”
In Syria and Saudi Arabia, he continued, he had been part of the majority Sunni Muslim culture. People celebrated the same holidays and life was simple. The world appeared as black and white, right and wrong, he said.
There were also, he acknowledged, widespread “stereotypes of minorities.”
Today, he said, he looks back and realizes “how ignorant I was growing up” as well as sheltered and unfamiliar with the diversity of people. For that change in perspective, he thanked Canada.
Today, because of his background, he feels a sense of responsibility to help “Jews and Arabs work together to advance the well-being of both and send a message to the Israelis and the Palestinians how we can work together to advance common agenda.”
In a question and answer period, Mock got the ball rolling by asking Alghabra his views on establishing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Alghabra responded by stating unequivocally that “the targeting of civilians is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.”
Terrorism should not be romanticized or justified, “whatever the grievances people have… There are legitimate grievances and disputes over there that have to be dealt with,” he said, adding Canada could play a role in bringing the two sides together.
Later, Alghabra expressed support for a two-state solution and said when people don’t see steps taken toward peace, their “lack of hope and [lack of] progress on the ground make it easy for people to be seduced by the voice of radicalism.”
In a brief interview with The CJN following his address, Alghabra was asked to comment on some of the allegations contained in the pre-election emailing. Asked if he supported sharia (Islamic law) in Ontario, as was suggested at the time, Alghabra said he had supported same sex marriage and women’s right to choose, suggesting those positions were hardly compatible with an Islamic agenda.
Asked if he thought Hamas and Hezbollah were terrorist organizations, he referred to a recent parliamentary debate on the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
During the Feb. 18 debate, Alghabra was asked that question, to which he replied: “Our government put Hamas on a terrorist list. We believe Hamas is a terrorist organization until it gives up terrorist activities and joins us in our call for peaceful dialogue and consultations to reach a peaceful resolution to the two-state outcome that we would like to achieve.”
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In the same debate, Alghabra offered his views on BDS at length, saying not all advocates of BDS are motivated by anti-Semitism, though some are. He also said some students see it as a non-violent way to express their views and that he did not believe in infringing on their right to express themselves.
He added, “It is important to respect the right of Israel to exist and the right of Palestinians to have their own independent nation. We can help achieve this by encouraging engagement, dialogue, and respect for all.
“In order to create a hospitable environment for dialogue, we must actively fight against hate, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in all of their forms. Our challenge is that we must also ensure we encourage constructive and meaningful conversation.
“I do not believe a boycott is a constructive approach. I did not enter politics to promote boycott but to encourage engagement and dialogue between parties for the purpose of reaching long-lasting peace,” he said.