Why would a Canadian have “Palestine in the heart”?

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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

Peter Larson
Chair, National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine


  1. Hi Peter, I tried to comment on your speech but when I click the COMMENT button , I get error 404

    404. THAT’S AN ERROR. Here is my comment:

    Thank you for such honest and valuable speech and taking the time to appreciate what is going on in the Holy Land.

    All the Israel-Palestine issues have been addressed (recognized and United Nations resolutions was clearly articulated and issued in timely manner); most of the UN Security Council and the General Assembly resolutions were issued through democratic vote based on International Law, some were Vetoed by the USA’s supremacy.

    The people (Canadians and others) are not expected to know all what happened; Palestinian and their supporters can’t help them understand this conflict (time and effort), the Palestinians have been fighting back oppression for almost a century now, they are continuing to do all they can to get their rights back and they will succeed.

    The Super Powers (mainly Western World) that created the UN to prevent wars and implement International Laws tolerate Israeli aggression and let their Jewish citizens (Canadians, Americans, French, Germans and Scandinavians) take Palestinian land, demolish their homes and kill them and imprison Palestinian children, further more they provide aid, weapons and prevent the UN from even providing food to refugees and internally displaced people and much more. The problem stems from the Western World’s greed and immorality “their double standards democracy”.

    Abdul-jabbar Asiri

    1. lets get more Canadians to go and see for themselves. The Palestinians are so grateful when Canadians (or anybody) comes to try to understand their suffering. Its safe. Its fascinating. and it will change your view of the world. Anybody interested in coming with me next year? let me know.

    2. My sense is that most canadians, really dont know what is going on. They know Israel does bad things, but they also think that the Palestinians do, too. So instead of investigating, most wash their hands of the issue, and defer to governments. We need to find ways to interest Canadians and then educate them.

  2. Thank you for a well articulated rationale for the views you currently hold. It is very helpful, maybe even necessary for Canadians with no direct connection to Palestine, to visit the area for a first hand experience of the situation to change hearts. Thanks for the work you are doing.
    Bruce Hutchinson

  3. Hi Peter I had no idea that your shift of views happened just in the last few years. I enjoyed the topic you presented. As someone who’s been 2x, I fully agree with Bruce’s comment that seeing it/going makes a difference. I felt like a 2nd class citizen to the Israeli’s in WB/Israel. Being Palestinian is of course even worse – more like 4th or 5th class if such a thing existed.

    I would also like to bring attention to the latest Bill that will make the Palestinian flag illegal in many situations, and the *extremely strict repercussions. There is even more to this Bill than what I mention ..see electronic intifada, about 1wk ago for more.

    ~ Tara (another (!) Canadian with Palestine in her heart)

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