Opinion: Ben Murane, who heads the New Israel Fund of Canada, argues that while Nakba Remembrance Day may be difficult for Jews, it’s also important

Ben Murane, executive director of the New Israel Fund of Canada

On April 14, the Peel District School Board added Nakba Remembrance Day to its diverse calendar of “significant days”—sparking short-sighted objections from a group of Jewish parents.

The alert decried the move as “marking a day of objection to an internationally sovereign nation” and asked parents to tell the school board to not “accept politics in the classroom.”

But for parents like me with Jewish children in the Ontario public school system, I had a different first reaction: this will be difficult, but long-term this is important.

Canadian Jews feel enormous pain and fear on our own streets after Oct. 7. Each weekend as I drop off my six-year-old son at Hebrew school, I thank the armed police officers stationed outside Beth Tzedec Congregation for his protection. My fear for his safety is well-founded and real.

However, many instances of well-meaning activism in defense of Jewish safety have mistakenly made mountains out of mole hills—or worse, strayed into Islamophobia or attacked protections we require for Jewish safety too.

Let’s put aside the claim that days involving political differences should be excluded from a school calendar. Many days listed already involve political opinions and ethnic conflicts. Some within Canadian history, such as Franco-Ontarian Day, Orange Shirt Day, and Louis Riel Day. Others also mark tragedies far away or long ago, such as Tamil Genocide Awareness Week, Baha’i memorials of martyrdom, two Holocaust observances, and even Tisha b’Av.

The real cause of this upset is Canada’s current polarization over Hamas’ heinous acts on Oct. 7 and this devastating Gaza war. Many people perceive anything to do with Jews, Palestinians, or Israel-Palestine in disturbingly zero-sum terms. Merely expressing compassion for the genuine suffering of either bloodied people can invite a torrent of one-sided hate.

The way out of this polarization, however, is not arguing for more polarization or pretending historical events did not happen.

It is understandable that Nakba Day is difficult for those of us who believe the creation of the State of Israel was good and necessary. The Nakba is a sad and real event: 700,000 people lost their homes and became refugees. Listening to my Palestinian co-workers and friends, it is impossible to understate the way their parents’ and grandparents’ lives were changed forever. It’s not intuitive to hold the two simultaneously.

Yet Canadian Jews should see themselves in reality as world leaders in recognizing the complicated founding of a country we call home. Even though debate continues about how to rectify the injustices to Canada’s Indigenous and First Nations peoples, we have a national commitment to recognizing that these injustices are true. Rather than diminish Canadian life, we have enlivened it.

For these reasons, I am not threatened as a supporter of Israel’s existence by Nakba Day any more than I am threatened as a Canadian by Orange Shirt Day.

We must recognize that seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians are living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—and nobody is going anywhere. Likewise, Canada contains citizens who are deeply affected by what happens in Israel-Palestine on any side. We all lose if we seek the erasure of the other.

Some say that the Jewish community is not ready so soon after Hamas’ heinous acts on Oct. 7 and while 133 hostages remain in captivity to engage in acts of understanding towards those who scare us.

Instead, I believe depolarizing our communities must start immediately. In recent weeks, progressive Canadian Jewish groups have been taking steps to do so.

The New Israel Fund of Canada where I work signed a letter alongside 50 multicultural Canadians in the Globe and Mail decrying the deterioration of Canadian public discourse. NIFC, along with JSpaceCanada and Canadian Friends of Peace Now have been hosting dozens of events for thousands of Canadian Jews featuring Israelis—both Jewish and Palestinian citizens—demonstrating that it’s possible even amidst the violence to care for both peoples. That’s why last week NIFC became the first mainstream Jewish, pro-Israel organization to fundraise to alleviate hunger in Gaza through World Central Kitchen and International Rescue Committee.

The current zero-sum, black-and-white polarization hurts us all. Erasing each other only deepens division and perpetuates more pain. The only way to a safer, saner, peaceful future is a shared one—here in Canada, and in Israel-Palestine.

Ben Murane is the executive director of the New Israel Fund of Canada.