Mideast conflict is ‘the elephant in the room’

Jewish, Arab residents of Wadi Ara hold signs reading
Jewish, Arab residents of Wadi Ara hold signs reading "Neighbours for Peace" in both Hebrew and Arabic GIVAT HAVIVA FACEBOOK PHOTO

This is the second in a two-part series. Click here for the first part, “Building bridges between Jews and Muslims.”

Karen Mock is a human rights consultant who’s been working to foster Jewish-Muslim dialogue in Canada for 30 years.

An active member of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM), a non-profit group committed to bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities in Canada closer together, Mock echoed the sentiment of others leading the charge on Muslim-Jewish relations with her assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the elephant in the room” when the two communities get together.

On top of that, she said, both Jews and Muslims – whether or not the latter have Palestinian roots – are likely to draw some flak or disparagement from their own communities for engaging in dialogue.

“Muslims [doing interfaith work with Jews] are likely to have their Muslim or Arab friends say to them, ‘Your friends the Jews,’ just as the Jews [doing interfaith work with Muslims] are likely to have their Jewish friends say to them, ‘Your friends the Arabs,’” said Mock, whose past roles include president of the Ontario Multicultural Association, CEO of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada.

Those challenges aside, she emphasized the point made by a number of Jewish and Muslim leaders at the forefront of interfaith efforts: that a foundation of mutual trust and understanding is an essential building block, without which broaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t possible.

But while some Jewish and Muslim organizations and leaders see making the shift from building bridges to more substantive political dialogue as an important and feasible next step, others in the Jewish community express varying degrees of skepticism about efforts to improve Jewish-Muslim relations and what this can achieve.

Mock stressed that establishing Jewish-Muslim friendship at the grassroots level isn’t an end in itself, but a vital tool for countering extremist views and inflammatory rhetoric among both Jews and Muslims.


“You can’t have conversations [about Israel] with people who’ve never met a Jew or who’ve only read propaganda that crosses the line from criticizing Israel’s government policy to lambasting all Jews,” said Mock, noting that she’s speaking about dialogue with “non-extreme Muslims – and that’s a huge population of Muslims.”

But more than simply meeting and spending time with each other, both Jews and Muslims must understand the other side’s narrative, as well as their pains and sensitivity to certain language, in order to begin a constructive dialogue about issues such as Israel.

For example, Mock said, Jews engaged in this dialogue can explain to their Muslim counterparts why calling Israel an “apartheid state” is deeply hurtful to many Jews, and Muslims can convey that to their communities.

On the other hand, she said, there are Canadian Jews who claim there’s no such thing as a Palestinian person or nation, though many people identify as such. “Jews who are further ahead in the [Jewish-Muslim] conversation can help [others] recognize that it’s not helpful to denounce someone’s identity,” Mock said.

Shahid Akhtar, co-chair of CAJM, also emphasized that building friendships between Muslims and Jews is important, but the process can’t end there. Once bonds have been established, the political situation in Israel can’t be omitted from the conversation, given that most Muslims in Canada feel strongly about the Palestinian cause, he said.

“Unless we face reality as it is, our attempt at dialogue will just be an exchange of latkes, samosas and polite conversation. It will be meaningless,” Akhtar said.

Conversations need to lead to action, he maintained, whether it’s Jewish and Muslim groups collaborating on a joint projects in Canada – like initiatives to help Syrian refugees – or efforts to build equality and security in Israel.

For example, he noted a recent event in Toronto, where supporters of Heart to Heart, a program that brings Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli teens to a summer camp near Ottawa, met with the directors of Givat Haviva – one a Jewish Israeli and one a Muslim Palestinian citizen of Israel. The Israeli non-profit aims to build an inclusive society by engaging divided communities in Israel.


Directly addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict opens up both groups’ perspectives and their ability to “see that the other side’s hurt is as intense as their own,” Akhtar said, but it also creates a positive model for Jewish-Muslim relations that might encourage dialogue elsewhere.

Samira Kanji is president of the Noor Cultural Centre, a Toronto Islamic cultural centre that’s engaged in Jewish-Muslim interfaith work.

Not only can getting to know one another change attitudes on both sides, she said, but “to the extent that our communities here influence positions and behaviours in Israel-Palestine, there could then be a positive fallout for the political conflict in that region.”

She added: “I imagine Jewish communities globally have much more influence on Israel than do Muslim or Arab communities on the Palestinians, although Muslims globally do empathize with the Palestinians, seeing them as patsies for Europe’s crimes against Jews.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told The CJN via email that his group works to build relationships with many ethnic and faith communities in Canada, including Muslims, and that CIJA has, for example, “a very positive and constructive relationship with the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the Ismaili community,” in addition to relationships that exist between the communities on the grassroots level.

But while it’s in the interest of the Jewish community to have strong relationships with Muslim Canadians, Fogel said, “the imperative does not negate the significant challenges we have with particular trends and views among some Canadian Muslims. In specific, and without wanting to paint a broad brush, we strongly object to the fact that some Muslim leaders and institutions in Canada have expressed views utterly at odds with Canada’s core values. This includes sexist, homophobic, anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic opinions.”

He did not mention specific organizations, but Fogel said there are some Muslim groups and leaders with whom CIJA will not partner or engage in dialogue because of their views. It’s important to collaborate with Muslim groups that are “credible partners and moderate voices” on issues of common cause locally, such as countering hate crimes and preserving religious freedoms, Fogel said, noting, “we are looking at outreach to multiple Muslims communities – some of which will be more receptive, some with which we can establish deeper relations and some of which will unfortunately remain beyond our reach.”

Tyler Levitan, campaigns co-ordinator for Independent Jewish Voices Canada, said it’s important to first recognize that Muslims in Canada are extremely diverse and come from different parts of the world. “Their views and experiences as they relate to Israel’s behaviour and political Zionism likely differ considerably based on where they’re from,” he said.

Meir Weinstein, national director of the Jewish Defence League in Canada, said he supports the Jewish community getting along with all communities in Canada, and he noted his good rapport with Tarek Fatah, a Canadian Muslim journalist and activist who’s advocated for liberal, progressive forms of Islam.


Weinstein said he has no problem with Jewish groups talking to Muslim groups about Israel and doesn’t see the need for “pre-conditions” to discussions of this nature, such as for Muslims to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

However, Weinstein added, “The reality is that the Islamic world doesn’t want a Jewish state in the Middle East, so we have to understand that, and we don’t want to support any efforts where Israel will have to withdraw land… We can’t be naïve. But as far as getting along socially, everything’s good.”