I was recently asked to make the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Jerusalem Community Services of Ontario (JCSO), a Palestinian community organization. The title of the event this year was “Palestine in the Heart”, and I felt privileged, as a non-Palestinian, to be invited.
It was a fun event, with a large crowd, perhaps 200 people. The tone of the evening was both cheerful and nostalgic and featured many cultural events – poetry reading and a little play reminding people of various areas of Palestine – Jaffa, Haifa, Nablus, Hebron and of course, Jerusalem.
I was one of 2 guest speakers and was invited to talk about whatever I wanted. As I prepared for my address, I reflected on the evolution of my own thoughts regarding where truth and justice lie in the difficult Israel/Palestine issue. If you are interested in my speech, please read on.
I am very happy to be here tonight and to take part in your “Palestine in the heart” festivities.
As you know, I am not Palestinian, nor a Palestinian Canadian. My great grandfather was Swedish, but today I am just a plain old Canadian.
But Palestine is in my heart, too.
Over the last few years, I have spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to change Canada’s position on Palestine. I would like to see more Canadians say they have Palestine in their hearts, too.
But if you want more Canadians to have Palestine in their hearts, you are going to have to show them a good reason.
Why would a Canadian, who is neither Arab nor Jew, spend much time on this issue? Do you think its because I think Palestinian food is better than Swedish food, or because I think Debke dancing is better than square dancing?
I do it because I am a proud Canadian who believes in the values of fairness, equality, justice, respect for international law, and so on.
I think that those values should be applied inside Canada and outside. It should guide our relations to China and Iran and South Africa, to all people of whatever colour, to Aboriginal Canadians, to men and women, and so on.
They should also apply to Israel/Palestine.
I am angry that my country, Canada, does not apply these values when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question.
But I did not always feel this way. And you might be interested in knowing how my thinking, as a Canadian, has evolved over the years.
You might be surprised to know that I started off on the other side – defending the human rights of Jews in Canada.
When I grew up, in the 1950’s, Canada was still a rather British, even racist, society. Jews were not very welcome.
As a young man, I rebelled against this racist attitude, and proudly took on the role of defender of human rights for Jewish Canadians.
I remember a heated argument with my mother who didn’t want me to bring a Jewish friend to play tennis with me at the Oakville Club.
I also remember that in 1967, I was happy that the little Jewish state of Israel successfully defended itself against the millions of Arabs around it.
You see, at that time, I saw the fight of Israel against the Arabs through my own experience – the lens of the discrimination against Jews in Canada.
By that time, I was proud that Canada had overcome much of its racism, and that, for he most part, we had learned to be tolerant of people from other religions or of different colour.
My own experience in Canada led me to assume that the problem between Arabs and Jews was also principally one of intolerance and racism.
Why can’t the Arabs just learn to tolerate the Jews as we did? Why do they hate each other so much? Why can’t they just make peace? Two states for two peoples –surely that can’t be so hard.
Then in 2009, after Israel’s horrific attack on Gaza, I decided that I wanted to go to take a look for myself, once things had settled down. I signed up for a tour organized by a group of progressive Israeli Jews. I spent 2 weeks visiting Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel.
That tour changed everything for me. I was astounded by what I saw.
What seemed so complicated before now became crystal clear.
On the ground, it was very clear who was the aggressor and who was the victim.
And I realized that the fight is not about “tolerance” but about human rights. How can you expect people to be tolerant when their land and their rights are taken from them?
But through that visit, I learned something else.
I learned that there were a lot more Palestinians than I had realized. More than a million live inside Israel, and they face a lot of discrimination inside the Jewish State of Israel. So I came to understand that the problem is a lot more complicated than just fixing borders.
I have now been back to Israel/Palestine four more times.
My perception of the issue today is very different from what it was 5 years ago.
Back then, I didn’t see anything wrong with the idea of Israel as a Jewish State. The French have a state, I thought, the Italians have a state, so what’s wrong if the Jews have a state? As a Canadian, that seemed like a fair solution.
The idea of dividing historic Palestine in two – with one state for Jews and another for the Palestinians, still seemed to me like a fair compromise.
In fact, I remember saying at a JCSO event, (or perhaps a PCC event) that a 2 state solution was the only thing Canadians could ever support.
But my views have now changed. I now think the idea of a state for Jews fundamentally flawed.
In my view, no state can be considered democratic if it gives some people more rights than others, based on their religion. (I would say the same thing, by the way, about an Islamic state, if it gave rights to Muslims that it denied to others.)
Another issue which I had not understood back then, was the issue of the over 5 million Palestinian refugees, whose lands had been taken from them. That was off my radar screen. And in any event the return of the refugees seemed too big to contemplate.
But little by little, as I returned to the region again and again, as I talked to Palestinians in Canada and in the region, as I visited refugees and listened to their stories, and talked to political activists (both Jewish and Palestinian) my views began to evolve.
I came to better understand the refugee issue, and the issue of the right of return, which I now support completely. It is completely fair. Canadians can understand that. And it is supported by international law.
But here is my message to you.
It has taken me a very long time to change my position.
I have Palestine in my heart today, not because I love Palestine, but because I love Canada. My Canada is one that supports human rights, international law, justice and equality everywhere around the world. I have Canada in my heart.
My ideas have evolved through discussions with Palestinians like Mohammed Abokasem, and Rami Abou Hamde. They have evolved through discussions with Palestinians in Israel Palestine. They have evolved through discussions with Canadian Jews, and through reading the writings of amazing Jewish intellectuals like Ilan Pappe and Norman Finkelstein.
If someone had yelled at me 5 years ago that “Israel is an apartheid state”, I would have thought them an anti-Semitic racist and would have dismissed them outright. Today, I see things differently.
Ideas I now hold would have appeared to me as “unreasonable” 10 or even 5 years ago.
So what is the lesson here?
The lesson is that Canadians can change their minds. But it takes time. It’s not just a matter of winning an argument, but also of gaining trust.
And you can help that by showing that you, Palestinian Canadians, don’t just have Palestine in your hearts, but you also have Canada in your hearts. That you believe in fairness, equity, justice – not just for Palestinians but for everyone. For Whites and Blacks, for Aboriginal Canadians, for Arabs and Jews and for men and women.
When Canadians feel that you share their values, they will be open to sharing your hopes for the future. They will put Palestine in their hearts.
Palestine is in my heart
Presentation to JCSO dinner,
Sunday, November 30th
Chair, National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine