Carleton University Professor Mira Sucharov was in Toronto recently at the invitation of the JSpace Canada to speak to a group of liberal (and some not so liberal) Jews about issues facing them. Here is a special report on what she said and how the audience reacted, by CTIP guest columnist Robert Massoud. Read more..
by Robert Massoud, CTIP guest columnist
Don’t you love it when the audience at a lecture is just as interesting and instructive as the speaker? This is the case with a recent Toronto talk entitled: What’s in a Word? ~ Facing Zionism, Antisemitism and the Occupation by Professor Mira Sucharov of Carleton University. The evening exposed the limits of progressives when considering the reality behind those terms.
About 80 people nearly filled First Narayever Congregation , a self-described progressive shul in downtown Toronto. Organized by JSpace Canada which describes itself as a “progressive Jewish voice”, the talk promised to push the boundaries of polite conversation in Canadian Jewish communities.
Professor Sucharov did not disappoint, she spoke with clarity and assurance; grounded in historical facts, contemporary evidence-based reasoning, and a decidedly human perspective. Her manner was engaging, her conversation crackling and intellect sparkling when examining these emotion-ladened terms and what stood behind and against them.
Sucharov recounted a recent visit to the “Hand in Hand” bilingual school (Hebrew and Arabic) in Israel, perhaps an imperfect model of integration but also a source of hope for a vision and possibility of peaceful and productive coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. The visit turned emotional as she saw the anguish of daily life across Israel-Palestine and the need to bridge the gaping chasm between the solitudes.
She made the point that one’s understanding of terms – Zionism, occupation, antisemitism – has a lot to do with personal experience. Where you stand depends on whether you are on the hurt or benefit side. Prof. Sucharov quoted from a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed 79% of Israeli Jews think there was no discrimination in Israel and only 20% of Israeli Palestinians said there was no discrimination. Most worrisome is that 79% of Israeli Jews said they deserve special consideration because they are Jewish i.e. are in favour of institutional discrimination.
Opened to questions, the evening became even more interesting, revealing the contradictions and multiplicity of views that exists in Canada within the Jewish communities. Of the many questions, three were particularly instructive:
One member of the audience claimed that the fuel for the conflict was the economic and income disparity between Israel ($40,000 per capita), the West Bank ($4,000) and Gaza ($2,000) and then asked if the solution was to bridge the gap – a form of “economic peace.” It did not seem to have occurred to him that a 50-year occupation, 11-year siege and continuous dispossession and de-evolution of a population might be the major contributor. Nor did it occur to him that a start to remedying the unfathomable gap required an immediate end to the occupation and to the siege.
Another member spoke of the “Jordan Option” which apparently was discussed last October in Jerusalem. It involves convincing the Hashemite kingdom’s ruling family to dissolve the country of Jordan so that Israel can “incentivize” Palestinians to move there en masse. The man did not elaborate which incentives were discussed. This is especially distressing in the 70th anniversary year of the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba.
The parallels with the Balfour Declaration escaped him – one party promising a second party the land belonging to a third – or maybe not. He ignored 100 years of progressive consciousness and development of international law, anti-colonialism and decolonization. Balfour repeated 100 years later – no lessons learned.
A third person earnestly wondered if it was acceptable or productive to use terms such as “occupation” or “West Bank” instead of “controlled territory” or “Judea and Samaria” respectively because the former may be offensive and antagonize the listener automatically blocking any discussion or hope for agreement.
This closed mindset and limited thinking was not exclusive to audience members. When introducing the evening, the moderator reiterated the policy of both Narayever and JSpace which does not tolerate or encourage discussion which seeks to “de-legitimize Israel” or to question “Israel’s right to exist.”
During Q&A when asked to comment on these two terms – legitimization and right to exist – Prof. Sucharov clearly felt they were unhelpful, if not in the no-sense category. She said that the concepts exist within a legal context and an international framework, and should not be bandied about. The measure of a state is not its existence (because it exists) but whether it fulfills its legal obligations within accepted internal state and global structures.
Near the end Prof. Sucharov, perhaps out of exasperation at the lack of openness to her message, almost pleaded for someone in the audience to challenge what she was bringing. She could more rightly have asked to be engaged. Being challenged by constant hurling of the Hamas charter or Iran’s purported desire to wipe Israel off the map is hardly enlightening or useful to dialogue. Quite the opposite – it sinks conversation and kills intelligent discovery.
Of course no community is monolithic. More engaging questions were posed by others who identified themselves as Jews. One grew up in an Israeli settlement and was concerned about the treatment of African refugees in Israel. Another who also grew up in Israel was frustrated by the many “peace processes” that go nowhere or only make things worse. A third was a member of an activist group called “If Not Now” comprised of young Jews opposed to the occupation. The group’s stated goal is to end Jewish institutional support in North America for the occupation.”
The question came across as a cry for help and understanding from someone who was obviously struggling with their community when it comes to Israel and Zionism.
The talk served an important purpose: it contrasted the vibrant, intelligent and generous talk by Prof. Sucharov against a wall of blind spots so pervasive as to be spectacularly myopic. The lack of vision or even an imagination of a different dynamic from a professed progressive audience was very distressing.
We can only hope that Jewish community venues continue to invite speakers like Mira Sucharov because it is only voices and messages such as hers which can rescue Canada’s mainstream Jewish communities from autopilot slumber and from moral stupor. Such an awakening might help bring a just peace to Israel-Palestine.
Robert Massoud is a Palestinian-Canadian. In 2004, he founded Zatoun to build bridges between Palestine and North America through the sale of cultural and symbolic products from Palestine. He is invited to speak to faith groups, activist networks and student bodies with a unique message of creative participation and nonviolent resistance engaging North Americans to learn and be in solidarity with Palestinians and their struggle for a just peace. Robert believes that the Israel-Palestine situation is of direct interest to all humanity and its resolution vital to peace in the world and ultimately to the health of the planet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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