Ahmed Khalifa is an Arab Canadian, and Karen Mock is a Jewish Canadian. They were both part of the Canadian Arab Jewish Leadership Dialogue, and on the advisory committee of the Heart to Heart program for Palestinian and Jewish teens under the auspices of Hashomer Hatzair Canada.
For more than 10 years we have been part of a Toronto group that works to bring groups of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together at a summer camp near Ottawa every year. They live and work together to get to know each other, to understand each other’s lived experiences, and to have courageous conversations that lead them to learn they have more in common than they have differences. Meeting with us and our families showed them that Arabs and Jews can be friends.
Every year, we admire the kids’ ability to overcome physical, emotional and social barriers. But one day, as we watched them deep in a co-operative activity, we confided in each other that we were worried. We wondered what would become of them if the time came when they were forced to stand on opposite sides of a conflict. We hoped and prayed that the work they did could help them build an alternative future.
It is hard to describe what the past month has done to our groups of idealistic Jewish and Arab campers, who not only dream together but work toward a world in which everyone has equal human and civil rights. Until recently, the conflict between our identity groups was largely confined to a faraway land, but reports of hateful incidents right here at home are now pouring in. In the early days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, reported Islamophobic hate crimes spiked in major cities across Canada, including vandalism at a mosque in Toronto. One member of our group was afraid to wear his usual keffiyeh scarf. Then, as Israeli counterstrikes have killed more and more innocent civilians in Gaza, antisemitic graffiti has been found in cities across the country, marches and angry protests in several cities have called for boycotts of any businesses supporting Israel, while synagogues have faced vandalism and even Molotov cocktails.
We may be human rights and peace activists, but we are also angry. We have worked very hard to help establish relations between Palestinian and Israeli kids. They have grown up in nearby villages, but never had the chance to get to know each other by virtue of being born during a time of conflict, occupation and terrorism. They had learned to hate and fear each other, but after attending our camps and returning home, they and even their families continued to stay in touch as friends. And, as they grew into adulthood, many went on to work toward peaceful coexistence, using some of the strategies they had learned here in Canada.
We are deeply disappointed in Canadian adults who enjoy all the rights and freedoms of this great country and choose to use those freedoms to promote anger and hatred. In all of our years of assisting young people from the Middle East, we didn’t think we’d need to address the heightened displays of vitriol and hate put on by adults in our own neighbourhoods here in Canada.
We are not fence sitters; we are not neutral, and no, we are not aligned on every issue. But we understand and appreciate what it means to be Canadian, and we understand and appreciate our respective religious values. While we will continue to support our dialogue programs for teenagers from overseas, it is obvious that we also need to work harder with adults from our own communities.
Fellow Canadians, you must not allow these incredibly stressful times to be used by those who pursue an agenda of hate, antisemitism or Islamophobia to convince you they are right. There is nothing worse than using the blood of innocent civilians to achieve victory in a battle that has no winners. Only losers live in that world of hate and fear, and continue to blame others for all their problems.
We must give our fellow citizens grace and understanding. Those who wave Israeli or Palestinian flags do so out of love for their people, out of fear for the deaths of more victims – not in celebration of the murder of innocent civilians.
We are not blind to the hate and anger in both our communities. But if both communities keep pointing to the extreme fringes in each other’s group as their norm or their representatives, then the majority of both communities stand to lose.
Let us all stand united at this tough moment in the face of all acts of racism and hate – and for the sake of the next generations, let us keep the idea of Canada alive.