Darchei Noam, JSpace host frank talk with Israeli envoy

From left, Darchei Noam member Shirley Segev, moderator Ralph Benmergui, Israeli consul general to Toronto and Western Canada DJ Schneeweiss and JSpace member Hart Schwartz

TORONTO — A conversation between moderator Ralph Benmergui, Canadian radio and television personality turned political advisor, and DJ Schneeweiss, Israel’s consul general to Toronto and Western Canada, was occasionally tense at an event held at Congregation Darchei Noam Dec. 3, co-hosted by the Reconstructionist synagogue and the progressive Jewish organization JSpace Canada. 

Billed as an interactive evening of open and honest discussion with Schneeweiss, participants – most of whom were affiliated with Darchei Noam or JSpace – observed an interview with Schneeweiss, conducted by Benmergui, and joined by JSpace member Hart Schwartz and Darchei Noam member Shirley Segev. They then had the opportunity to ask their own questions of the envoy.

Several times, Benmergui asked Schneeweiss if he could look at the conflict from the Palestinian perspective, and Schneeweiss initially stated he could, saying, “The Palestinians are convinced we don’t have a desire for peace, that they’ll get more out of the international community than with dealing with Israel itself.” 

But Benmergui charged this still constituted “looking at things from an Israeli lens.”

“Fine, I could say that Israel is a colonial enterprise, et cetera,” Schneeweiss retorted. “I don’t want to go on, because I don’t want to be quoted as saying this.”

Benmergui said the Jewish People “have had to decide not just to be a defensive people, but an offensive people, in order to protect the state we’ve established,” and he asked Schneeweiss about the effect this is having on the “soul of Judaism.”

Schneeweiss said Israel defending itself as a nation, like other western countries does not undermine “the inherent good of our religion.”

Schwartz asked Schneeweiss if he saw, in the near future, the Israeli government freezing or curtailing “the destructive policy of settlement building.”

Schneeweiss responded that, though settlement-building has “become a sort of touchstone of whether Israel is for or against peace [with the Palestinians],” many Israelis don’t view this as the defining element of establishing peace and consider “other dimensions as having equal impact, such as that of Israel’s security.”

He continued: “An argument that runs through the Israeli body politic is, ‘We left Lebanon and got rockets raining down from the north, we left Gaza and got rockets from the south, and now you want us to leave the West Bank?’”

Perception is crucial, he said, noting there is a substantial gulf between how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is regarded inside and outside the country. 

He argued that settlement policies are often highly politically driven, entwined with the complexities of managing an Israeli coalition government.

Asked by an audience member how Diaspora Jews can trust what they read in the news about Israel, Schneeweiss said: “I suggest supplementing news sources. If you just read Canadian news, supplement it with Israeli news, but also, don’t just read Ha’aretz. Read different points of view.”

Benmergui interjected: “Read the Arab and Palestinian press… part of our Jewish experience is to love the other, the stranger.”

The conversation ended with Schneeweiss saying: “We’re not perfect. We’re flawed and riven with rivalries. But it doesn’t mean that the project itself is unworthy… To do the project… we have to be able to protect ourselves. A lot of people in the West nowadays think you can get freedom without standing up for what you believe in, but sometimes you have to… Israel isn’t a painting we can hang and admire from afar. We each have a role to play in making it what it needs to be. The fact it’s not there yet isn’t a failure, but just means it’s a work in progress.”