TORONTO — The Jewish-Muslim dialogue in Toronto is gathering steam.
Last week, some 65 people gathered at a Toronto library to discuss ways of improving relations between the two groups. At the same time, around 10 Pakistani journalists interviewed three Canadian Jews by phone on a range of topics, including Israel and the purported Jewish control of the media and Hollywood.
Organizers of the event termed the meetings a success. “The vibrations were very positive,” said David Nitkin, president of EthicScan, one of the conveners. “It was a chance to break stereotypes and hear people’s stories.”
Tariq Khan, publisher of Weekly Press Pakistan (WPP), an online news service in English and Urdu, said, “My friends were very happy. My vision is that we are building a bridge between Jews and Muslims. Also, what is my main objective is that non-Arab Muslims should recognize, accept the Jewish State of Israel.
“It is a process going on. It will take some time, because it is such a large [Muslim] population.”
The meeting marks the fourth time Jews and Muslims have gathered in Toronto to explore ways to improve relations. The gatherings have attracted the attention of Jewish communities across North America, with Nitkin fielding inquiries about the format from groups in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Florida and Quebec. “They ask, ‘What’s the magic formula here?’” he said.
“There is no magic. It helps that Tariq knows 1,400 journalists [in Pakistan] and can push the message in Urdu, Pashtun and Arabic,” he added.
Participants at last week’s gathering included 50 adults and a little more than a dozen high schools students from both communities. The Jewish kids were recruited through contacts in the Beth Tzedec and Beth Tikvah congregations.
While the young people met in their own room, adults gathered in groups of eight or 10 around several tables, with the opportunity to get up, enjoy some refreshments and visit other groups.
Participants talked about the mundane – their day-to-day lives, how they came to Canada, what they do for a living – to how they perceived the State of Israel. The Muslim participants, who largely hailed from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, discussed the impact of 9-11 on them.
Jewish participants were asked a lot of questions about Israel, and even what a kippah is, Nitkin said. A good number on both sides could be considered secular and not particularly religious.
Many of the Muslim participants had heard very little about the Holocaust, largely because no much is written about it in Urdu, Khan said. His own wife was “completely surprised” to learn about it. The Jewish participants largely were unaware of the “holocaust” suffered by Muslims in 1947 during the partition of the Indian subcontinent into the modern states of India and Pakistan, he added.
The journalist interview session reflects an increased interest in things to do with Israel, Khan said. WPP is doing its part, providing news about the Jewish state to Urdu-speaking readers, thanks to an arrangement with the Israeli Tazpit news service, he added.
A write up on the WPP website provided readers with highlights of the international press conference. The Jewish participants – Nitkin, Judie Oron, an Israeli-Canadian journalist and author of Cry of the Giraffe, and Andria Spindel, president of the March of Dimes – were asked about the history of the Jewish People and their ties to Israel.
WPP reported that the Jewish interviewees said there was no need to have tension between Pakistan and Israel and that Israeli people “see a bright future for Pakistan, which may become a bridge of tolerance and co-operation to connect Israel with the Muslim world in the near future.”
Responding to questions suggesting Jews control the media, the Jewish participants said that if that was the case, why are the media so often critical of Jews and hostile to Israel. “Why do mostly negative news reports about Israel get coverage in major publications around the world?” WPP reported the Jewish participants asking.
The Jewish interlocutors also referred to Israeli academic excellence and achievements in the sciences. In addition, they referred to the Palestinians living in Israel, noting that they participate in Israeli elections, practise their religion and enjoy a higher standard of living than Arabs living nearby under kings and dictators.
“What emerged from these many questions and answers was how little contact there was between Pakistani Muslims and Jews,” WPP stated. “The lack of good information in Pakistan about Israel is unfortunate. There was candour in the pain suffered by all peace-loving citizens to anti-Muslim sentiment as a result of 9-11. Many Jews hold stereotypes that all Muslims are hostile to Israel and that Islam harbours terrorists who attack innocent civilians. Many Muslims hold stereotypes that Jews are [the] enemy of Islam and responsible for all the problems and sufferings they face, though that’s hardly credible, given the hostile press in large parts of Europe and the Middle East. These stereotypes are the result of ignorance, not hatred,” WPP stated.
Nitkin said the dialogue has drawn the attention not only of those who wish to emulate it, but also those who oppose it. An Iranian government-controlled blog has featured a photo of himself next to a red Star of David, dripping blood. The blog suggested the dialogue would eventually undermine Pakistan.
Nitkin, however, is hoping to see others seeking goodwill run similar programs. He would also like to see more programs to advance the relationship, such as joint sports and cultural events and perhaps a fact-finding tour by Canadian Muslims to Israel.
For his part, Khan has repeatedly expressed an interest in visiting Israel. Ajmi Muslim – those who are not Arab – “have no grudge against the Jews or Israel,” he said.
In fact, Afghani Pashtuns are historically descendants of some of the 10 lost tribes of Israel and call themselves sons of Joseph, or sons of David and sons of Moses, he said.
Khan said the dialogue is scheduled to continue, with the next meeting likely at the end of October.
“We have to change the format and find a bigger place” to accommodate larger numbers, Khan said. “What we are doing here, the message is going to Pakistan.”
“We want to create a strong basis for further dialogue,” he added.