Jewish, Muslim Groups Find Common Ground in Toronto

By Sheldon Gordon

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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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.”

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