JSpace — A Progressive Jewish Voice in Canada

Michael Stroh, a retired Reform rabbi, was speaking about an Israeli trend that unsettles and upsets progressive Zionists like himself.

“There’s a right-wing secular and religious militancy in Israel that’s very scary, and we have to confront it,” he said without mincing his words.

Stroh unburdened himself of this concern on November 15 at a conference at the University of Toronto sponsored by JSpace Canada. Founded four years ago, JSpace describes itself as a Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization which provides Canadians with “a fair and balanced alternative to the rigidly pro-Israel right and the anti-Israel left.”

Supportive of a two-state solution to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, JSpace opposes the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and all initiatives that challenge Israel’s legitimacy, promote boycotts of Israel and negate its right to exist as a Jewish state.

At its biennial conference, seminars addressed a wide array of topics ranging from the internal and external issues facing Israel today to the way the Canadian media cover Israel and the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Speakers included Bob Rae, the former premier of the province of Ontario; Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail‘s former correspondent in Israel; Mel Cappe, Canada’s former ambassador to Britain and Northern Ireland; Joan Garson, the current chair of ARZENU, the International Reform Zionist Organization; Mohammed Wattad, an assistant professor at Zefat Academic College’s School of Law; Jonathan Kay, the editor-in-chief of Walrus magazine, and Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa and a blogger for Haaretz.com.

I attended the first two morning sessions, and here’s what I can report.

Mohammed Wattad, an Israeli Arab who’s currently a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine, said that Jewish Israelis should stop viewing the Arab minority as a Fifth Column. As a democratic state, he noted, Israel should ensure that Israeli Arabs are treated equally and are permitted to commemorate the naqba, the events in 1948 which resulted in the mass emigration of some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in what is now Israel.

But the naqba cannot be compared to the Holocaust, which, he noted, is a singularly unique event. Wattad said he’s taken aback by the ignorance of his fellow Arabs concerning the Holocaust. “I’m shocked that Arabs know nothing, nothing about it,” he said.

Derek Penslar, the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto and the Stanley Lewis Professor of Israeli Studies at Oxford University, discussed Zionism.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, envisaged Jews and Arabs living together as equals in Palestine, he noted. And in what appeared to be a lament, Penslar said that ethno-nationalistic values trump liberal values in the new civic textbook in Israeli Jewish schools.

In a seminar titled Rabbis Speak Out, Michael Stroh, the rabbi emeritus at Temple Har Zion in Toronto, described himself as “a little bit of a liberal” who’s been “mugged by reality.”

Professing to be an advocate of a two-state solution, he claimed that the current Palestinian leadership, headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is not prepared to conduct serious peace negotiations with Israel. He said he doubts whether Palestinian leaders will give up their demand for the “right of return” — the freedom of Palestinian refugees to return to their lost properties in Israel.

Debra Landsberg, senior rabbi at Temple Emmanu-el and chair of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, suggested that some of her congregants are frustrated by developments in Israel. She said she disagrees with a comment made by U.S. casino tycoon and Birthright funder Sheldon Adelson that Israel doesn’t need to be a democratic state.

Rabbi Aaron Levy, founder and director of Makom — a downtown Toronto center blending Jewish tradition with liberal values — said he personally believes that Judaism is “much more important” than Zionism, though he identifies as a progressive Zionist.

“I’m much more concerned with local issues than with Israeli issues,” he said.

Miriam Margles, the rabbi at the Danforth Jewish Circle, said the focus of her work is to carve out a “third space” where people do not have to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.

“We need to listen to each other and reach for understanding,” she stated.

Israel’s consul general in Toronto, D.J. Schneeweiss, condemned the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, for which Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

Militant Islam is the common enemy of Western countries and Israel alike, he said, arguing there is no difference between terrorism directed at Parisians and terrorism aimed at Israelis.

Praising progressive Zionism as “a really good thing,” he said, “It comes from a place of love and support for Israel.”

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com