Jewish, Muslim Groups Find Common Ground in Toronto

By Sheldon Gordon

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

TORONTO — In an effort to improve relations between Muslims and Jews, Canada’s Pakistani community has created a journalism scholarship in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was murdered by Muslim extremists in Pakistan last year.

It is the latest in a series of moves by Muslim and Jewish groups intended to improve understanding of each other’s religious traditions and promote a common political agenda on certain domestic issues. While the communities remain divided over the Middle East conflict, leaders have tried to find other areas where they share common ground.

“The Middle East issue should not stop us as Canadians from having a relationship,” said Imam Abdel Hai Patel, the University of Toronto’s Muslim chaplain and co-coordinator of the Islamic Council of Imams-Canada. “We share a lot of things in common. Many imams want dialogue.”

The journalism scholarship will enable a Pakistani student to come to Canada each year to study journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. Rana Syed, a Toronto-based television producer of Pakistani origin, has said she launched the scholarship as a “living memorial” to Pearl. Speaking before an audience of Pakistani Canadians at a sold-out fundraising dinner for the scholarship last month, Syed recalled how Pearl was forced by his captors to declare that he was a Jew immediately before he was killed. “It was a vile and despicable moment,” she said.

Barbara Landau, Syed’s friend and a co-leader of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, said of the scholarship: “This was quite a thing for Rana to have done, because she had her difficulties.” There was resistance from both the Jewish and Muslim communities, Landau said.

Syed received e-mails and phone calls from some Pakistani Canadians upset that she was not honoring “one of their own.” She defused resistance within her own community by enlisting the support of Patel and another respected cleric. To win support in the Jewish community, she turned to the Canadian Jewish Congress, which sent a representative to the fundraising dinner.

An estimated 350,000 Muslims and 180,000 Jews live in the Toronto metropolitan area, and efforts to bring the two communities together have been increasing recently. Landau is organizing monthly Muslim-Jewish dialogues at local synagogues. These interfaith meetings began at Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El following the September 11 terrorist attacks as an attempt to defuse an anti-Muslim backlash; they have since spread to most of the city’s other Reform synagogues. “As more people hear of it, more want to join in,” Landau said.

The growing interaction between the two communities is not limited merely to comparing notes on their respective religious traditions and immigrant experiences. “We’ve had a number of positive interactions with the Muslim community” on initiatives to influence government policy, said the Canadian Jewish Congress’s national director of community relations, Manuel Prutschi.

The Jewish congress has worked most closely with the imams council, which is among the least politicized of the Muslim groups. Last February, the imams council endorsed a brief by the Jewish congress to a Canadian Senate committee holding hearings on an animal-protection bill. “We both wanted to make sure the bill didn’t inadvertently criminalize ritual slaughter,” Prutschi said.

The same month, Patel and a Jewish congress official appeared together on a community cable television channel to promote Project Ready, an initiative between the police and the community to identify and respond effectively to hate crimes.

Meanwhile, another Muslim organization, the Islamic Society of North America (Canada), has joined with the Jewish congress to support the Ontario provincial government’s controversial tax credit for taxpayers who send their children to religious day schools. The head of the Islamic society previously participated in an interfaith rally organized by the Jewish congress to protest the arrest of 13 Jews in Iran on espionage charges.

The Jewish congress recently urged federal government support for plans by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shiite Ismaili community, to establish a “pluralism center” in Canada. The center will draw on the Canadian experience to help developing countries promote pluralism in their institutions, laws and policies.

Inter-community alliances, however, are still sometimes tenuous. The Jewish congress and the Canadian Islamic Congress worked together to champion Canadian military intervention in Kosovo, but the Jewish congress said the relationship has collapsed over the Islamic congress’s outspoken support for the Palestinian intifada. The final straw for the Jewish group came when the Islamic congress gave a community service award to a local newspaper that endorses Hamas and Hezbollah.

Muslim leaders, for their part, are dismayed that the Jewish congress and B’nai Brith Canada stayed largely mum on racial profiling of Muslim Canadians by the security services after the September 11 attacks. “The two organizations are well-respected,” said the Islamic congress’s president, Mohamed Elmasry. “If they had said this is unjust and contrary to Canadian values, I think it would have had a strong impact on anti-Islam [prejudice] in the country.”

Nonetheless, said Elmasry, occasional tensions are not necessarily a cause for alarm. “Relations between the two communities are normal,” he said. “You expect two faith groups to have issues where they agree and work together, and others where they disagree. We have disagreements with the churches, too.”

B’nai Brith Canada, however, is disillusioned with the results yielded by conciliatory overtures to the Muslim community. “We’ve done outreach to them, and it didn’t get us very far,” said B’nai Brith’s president, Rochelle Wilner. “The first thing we’d like to hear is the imams in Canada decrying what the imams in the Middle East have been saying about Jews.”

Patel, however, prefers to steer clear of the Middle East minefield. “Discussion of the issue may not be helpful,” he said. “We can’t solve this issue in Canada.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.