Standing Together believes Jews and Palestinians can live in security and prosperity—and now the Israeli group is building support in Canada

Growing numbers of Jewish and Palestinian Canadians who support the Israeli/Palestinian shared society NGO Standing Together include more than 450 people who attended a sold-out event -- many of whom held up its trademark purple signs for a photo after hearing from organizers Itamar Avneri and Rula Daoud (centre right), at the Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, March 26, 2024. (Credit: Alex Korin)

An Israeli grassroots group called Standing Together that believes that Jewish safety and Palestinian independence are intertwined and that peace deals must not uproot either Jews or Palestinians in Israel is making inroads in Canada.

Four of Standing Together’s leaders toured North America in March and April, mostly in separate pairs, to meet with and encourage supporter chapters. A current speaking tour included a sold-out Toronto event with more than 450 attendees on March 26. (Of the more than 800 people who signed up for tickets, at least 300 remained waitlisted.)

Now, a second Canadian event will be held in Vancouver on April 17, among a series of West Coast appearances by another leader from the organization.

Canadians appear to be the fastest growing community of Standing Together solidarity groups outside Israel.

Local chapters are organizing in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Victoria and the Gulf Islands, London, Ont., Vancouver, and Montreal. A Toronto group had 215 members, the largest single city-based Canadian group of supporters, at press time.

Yehuda Mansell, a Friends of Standing Together member and organizer in Vancouver, says word of mouth spread about the group, generating broad interest.

“The amount of people who are like ‘this is really refreshing. I want to hear more about this,’” is encouraging, says Mansell.

“Even some of my more right-wing friends are like, ‘OK, let’s talk about this. Let’s work this through.’”

An event on March 26 in Toronto was at capacity for the night with Standing Together’s national co-director, Rula Daoud, and Itamar Avneri, another member of the national leadership team. Avneri was recently elected to a city council position in Tel Aviv.

Rula Daoud of Standing Together speaks while Itamar Avneri, left, and moderator Mira Sucharov, right, listen, at the Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, March 26, 2024. (Credit: Alex Korin)

A grassroots Israeli NGO established in 2015, Standing Together’s joint leadership includes women and men, both Jewish and Palestinian Arab Israelis. Its human rights focused messages are highly critical of the Netanyahu government and its handling of the war.

Daoud criticized rhetoric about “conquering Gaza” and “wiping out or expelling” Gazans from right-wing Israeli politicians, and pointed out that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said similar things in previous Gaza wars.

“We are saying different things. If we want to live in security, that security has to go hand in hand with independence for the Palestinian people,” she said.

“We want to prosper, and we deserve that prosperity, and that voice that we are speaking [with] is giving people an alternative,” Daoud said.

“When you have an alternative, when you have a competition, you can choose. And when you can choose, you make it harder for the right wing to become stronger and there is the main thing.”

Standing Together’s reaction following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and IDF response in Gaza involved de-escalating tensions within Israel, Avneri said.

“We blanketed the cities with posters with messages of de-escalation, shared future, and shared responsibility for our society. We had dozens of meetings all around the country. Two weeks after Oct. 7 we started to do big conferences with those exact messages,” said Avneri.

The conferences drew 400 attendees in Tel Aviv, and 800 in Haifa, even while air raid alarms were going on, he told the audience.

Standing Together also co-organized Jewish and Palestinian demonstrations with Women Wage Peace, which was founded by Canadian-Israeli Vivian Silver. Silver, who lived on Kibbutz Be’eri, was killed in the Hamas attacks.

Avneri spoke about the importance of that October unity during “a month that was horrifying to all of us.”

“The seventh of October made it much more clear to most people that the status quo has changed and it can’t go back to the same place,” he told attendees.

“You have the two people living [side by side], the Jewish people and the Palestinian people, and one fact is that nobody is going anywhere,” he said to applause.

“This is the time… what do we do different in order to bring different solutions?”

Standing Together also organized a truckload of aid to Gaza in March, which both Israeli police and the IDF blocked. Despite repeated attempts in March and April, organizers were told they could not enter the “closed military zone,” according to national field organizer Uri Weltmann, who is speaking in Vancouver April 17.

Critics of the unity movement can be found in many corners. In January, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) blasted  the normalization of Standing Together and its message of “dialogue and unethical coexistence.”

The statement posted on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s website said Standing Together perpetuates Israeli narratives and “normalcy” of the state.  

“This organization creates a false parity between the structural oppression of the Israeli occupiers and that of the oppressed and colonized Palestinians,” the post read.

Avneri explained the counterproductive effect of such opposition.

“We are the only Palestinian [and] Jewish movement inside of Israel that is fighting to end the occupation and the siege on Gaza and stop this war, and find also equality inside of these realities.”

It’s a miracle there’s still a peace camp in Israel, he said.

“We are trying to hold this miracle, and we are trying to make it stronger. Who are you boycotting? The peace movement? Palestinians who are fighting for their people?” said Avneri.

“It makes me really angry, because it makes you think that it’s not really about saving lives… it’s about ticking all the right boxes. We’re not into [that]. We’re into saving lives.”

While in Toronto, Avneri and Daoud appeared in national media (CBC Radio’s The Current and the Globe and Mail) before themselves publishing an op-ed in the Toronto Star.

They met with NDP MPPs Jessica Bell and Jill Andrew and Liberal MP Rob Oliphant at Queen’s Park, and were guests of York University student dialogue group Bridging the Gap for a discussion.

Avneri and Daoud said the Canadians they’d met so far “basically [understand] that they need to sit down and they need to talk.”  

“They need to give a safe place for different communities and try to build on from that point… healing our communities,” said Daoud in an interview following the pair’s meetings at Queen’s Park.

“There’s a real sincere intention [to do that] that we are seeing and feeling here.”

Ben Murane, executive director of New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), which organized the Toronto and Vancouver events with Standing Together leaders, reiterated the need to share space and seek common ground, despite often vastly different perspectives on Israel and the current war.

“It’s easy to stand together with people you agree with completely on everything,” said Murane before introducing Avneri and Daoud.

“But that’s not the task [that is] asked of us in this moment.”

Mira Sucharov, a political science professor at Carleton University and writer on Israel/Palestine who moderated the March 26 event, says the group’s message is resonating with Canadians.  

“Standing Together does a good job modeling dialogue, modeling conviction, modeling the values of compassion, dignity and rights for all,” she said.

“Standing Together has been particularly successful at branding and marketing,” says Sucharov. “The reps who do the talks are on the younger side—that helps people connect with them—and they’ve done a good job at getting chapters [established].”

“The Canadian Jewish community is looking for hope, and is looking for positive models to get us out of these very dark times.”

In Toronto, some event attendees shared their motivations for attending and their takeaways.

Palestinian-Canadian Muhannad Alghoul said he attended to help him heal, move forward and find spaces where the Palestinian experience is validated.

“There’s also something healing about sitting across from individuals who are Jewish, who are also seeking the same message, and the same future.”

Alghoul said sharing space in Canada represents an important first step.

“I want my Palestinian and Arab friends to meet my Jewish friends, and spend more time with them,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t mind meeting some of the individuals… in the Jewish community who don’t trust me. That would be my little baby step.”

Yafa Sakkejha, a Friends of Standing Together (FoST) member in Toronto, organized a community luncheon at The Granite Club, a place from which Jews and Muslims were once banned. The event served as a private space for Palestinian-Canadians to ask questions of Daoud and Avneri.

Sakkejha told The CJN she’s behind the organization as a Palestinian precisely because it comes from Palestinians and Israelis who share similar beliefs.

“Standing Together is not just about the Israeli society,” she said. “It’s a co-led movement… by Palestinian people that happened to have been born into the citizenship of the country called Israel.”

Sakkejha said the midday event found a positive, receptive audience.

“There is a large group of Palestinians in diaspora that actually choose: What’s the positive choice that we can make,” instead of negative detractions, she said.

Evening events at individual homes focused on discussion and learning were already in swing in Toronto in late-March, Miriam Zucker, one of the first Canadian coordinators in Toronto, told The CJN.

Zucker said events are ongoing, and hopes to hear soon from a Palestinian speaker, and a Moroccan Jewish one.

Recently, Zucker added, one Palestinian-Canadian supporter in Mississauga, Ont., went door to door with flyers for his neighbours, including many Palestinians.

Naomi Tessler, a Jewish artist, wrote and recorded a song called “Possible” based on the group’s principles of unity, which was then played on a loop before the Toronto event on March 26.

“People just come up with their own initiatives,” says Zucker. “That’s the power of a grassroots movement.”

Yehuda Mansell, the Vancouver organizer, says he asks new folks right away how they might want to contribute.  

“A lot of movements abroad do get hijacked by Western voices,” says Mansell, a PhD candidate at Vancouver Theology School at UBC who co-founded his local supporter chapter.

“We are trying to reflect the model that’s being shown by the groups in Israel right now: Working together by meeting together.”

Mansell attended several iftar dinners during Ramadan, where he found himself speaking to multifaith leaders and elected officials in Vancouver about the group.

He said messages then flooded in from people looking for more information.

“Our group here in Vancouver is starting to look very diverse,” says Mansell.

“We are not Standing Together. We’re Friends of Standing Together. We aren’t adding to the message. We aren’t changing the message. We boost the signal, and we let the Jews and the Palestinians on the ground set the tone,” says Mansell.

He says he has dear friends who are Palestinian activists, and while they normally never agree “on anything except for the fact that we love each other,” he says this time the response to the message is different.  

“Since I’ve started presenting… some of these models, one of my biggest adversaries is like: ‘OK, I can get behind that,’” which Mansell says is encouraging.

“And that’s not a little thing.”

Pamela Block, a professor of anthropology at University of Western Ontario, recently formed a FoST chapter there, in London.

As a skeptical Jewish American teenager in the late 1980s, she wanted to see things for herself, and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“I was going back and forth to the West Bank during the [first] intifada… the checkpoints were just starting to go up in the last months of my being there.”

She returned with what she calls a set of her own complexities.

“I remember walking down the road—I was in Philadelphia living with relatives at the time—and seeing in front of Town Hall, a line of Israeli flags on one side of the street, a line of Palestinians at the other side, and just feeling like I don’t fit on either side,” she said.

“From the time I was an adolescent I always wanted to be in the space in between.”

She acknowledges the London chapter, so far, is largely Jewish.

“But what I saw in Toronto is that it started out with mostly Jewish members, but then slowly there became… more and more Palestinian voices.”

Recent chats in the Canada-wide WhatsApp group indicated there’s a sizable number of Canadian Jews, along with a significant number of Palestinian, Arab and/or Muslim Canadians.

Block says things are understandably slower to gel in London, given the “dynamics in the history” there. In February, Nathaniel Veltman was convicted on murder and terrorism charges for the 2021 car attack in which he killed five members of the Azfaal family, who were visibly Muslim. 

“Palestinians in London may feel more comfortable in Palestinian spaces where there are, you know, Palestinian flags,” says Block.

Montreal organizer Shelly Ben Shachar was born in Toronto, grew up in Israel and worked as an activist and documentary film researcher in Tel Aviv before moving back to Canada in 2017.

Ben Shachar says the Montreal arts community’s polarization in particular creates spaces that feel fraught and unsettling for anyone even identifying as a Jewish Israeli.

“The arts [scene in Montreal] became very polarized, and I speak about all the arts—film, dance, theatre, everything—‘Silence is complicity.’ ‘No talking with Zionists.’ You know, the whole spiel of basically no dialogue,” she says.

“We felt very cancelled by the pro-Palestinian advocates… the woke community around us.”

In the arts community lately, Ben Shachar says, “I’ve been the elephant in the room, because I’m Israeli.”

She sees anti-Israel sentiment as the new antisemitism, she says.

“It’s fine if you’re Jewish, but it’s really bad if you’re Israeli. ‘We don’t want to talk to you.’

“If you’re born Canadian, you lived here your whole life, and six months ago, you got into this fight and now you’re boycotting, something is wrong with this world.”

When she saw Standing Together’s North America groups forming, Ben Shachar seized the opportunity to foster a likeminded collective.

“There was a need for community here that I thought [was] my only need, as an ex-Israeli…gradually I realized: This is not just my need.”

In January, she posted in the Canadian WhatsApp group to connect with other Montrealers.

“People connected in the most organic way possible, based on the lostness of not finding a reasonable voice, not finding someone who’s willing to listen to their side to their concerns,” she says.

She says they aim to create shared spaces in the Montreal community.

“Other than the fact that I’m heartbroken and devastated with what’s going on in Palestine and Israel, what worries me is where I live now,” she says.

With what seems like the entire global community taking a stance, it’s more important than ever to share Standing Together’s message, says Ben Shachar.

“Remember, we’re all in this together against the regimes and leaders that are leading us to more war, to more hate, and to more polarization. We’re in this together.”