He grew up in a mixed neighbourhood in Iran. His best friend was a Jew. His roommate in college was an Armenian. His plaintive question, “What happened to those days?” was echoed by a collective nodding of heads amongst those gathered around the table.
“Something went wrong,” he continued, “Hopefully this group can build something for our children. The people in this room are the right people to start it. Canada is the right country to do this. I want my children to experience what I experienced.”
The speaker was Morteza Jafarpour, a Muslim, and the executive director of SISO (Settlement and Integration Services Organization). The occasion was an extraordinary gathering of Muslim, Arab and Jewish community leaders at a meeting organized by the Committee for Hamilton Arab, Muslim and Jewish Dialogue, that came into existence in the wake of last September’s disastrous Hamilton Police Board’s open forum. That night, when vicious invective between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel supporters led to an abrupt end to the proceedings, Dr. Lorne Finkelstein and Ali Cheaib’s eyes met in silent acknowledgement that there had to be a better way to discuss people’s differing political views. The two were acquainted from their mutual involvement in the Strengthening Hamilton Community Initiative (SHC).
Dr. Finkelstein quickly invited several leaders of the city’s Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations to form a “dialogue” committee, whose members include: Javid Mirza, President of the Muslim Association of Hamilton, Khaled Balika, Vice-President of the Muslim Association of Hamilton; Ali Cheaib, President of the Hamilton Council of Canadian Arabs; Hussein Hamdani, founder and Chair of “Ihya Foundation”; Gerry Fisher, Executive Director, UJA Federation of Hamilton; and Lorne Finkelstein.
After five monthly meetings, the “Dialogue” committee organized the “first ever” meeting of the Joint Executives of their respective organizations. They met for an informal dinner meeting in a boardroom at the SISO offices in downtown Hamilton, with the goal of providing an opportunity for them to meet and establish a comfort level with each other and further promote the concept of “respectful” dialogue. UJA Federation was represented by Gerry Fisher, Executive Director; Lesley Lasky, UJA Federation President; Harold Pomerantz, Chair of Federation’s Public Affairs Committee; and David Somer, a Federation vice president.
Speaking at a short press conference prior to the meeting, Dr. Finkelstein said that the group’s members have pledged not to allow events in the Middle East influence their relations and to work at sensitizing themselves to others’ perspectives.
To further illustrate his point, Dr. Finkelstein alluded to an initially “tense relationship” between himself and Mr. Cheaib that was transformed over coffee when the two shared stories one morning about Mr. Cheaib’s experiences in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli incursion and Dr. Finkelstein’s encounters of anti-Semitism. It is this kind of dialog and sharing of personal stories that Dr. Finkelstein held up as an example of how tensions can be defused when people are willing to sit down with each other and offer different perspectives.
During the course of the evening, the 20 participants had an opportunity to introduce themselves and articulate their vision for future meetings and projects. All expressed the hope that the spirit of the evening will spread on a grassroots level and that the participating organizations will continue to dialog, “no matter who is at the table.” Some of the ideas in consideration include the formation of a youth choir made up of elementary and high school students from Hamilton’s Jewish, Arab, and Muslim communities who will come together to perform songs of peace. Glen Mallory, conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, has committed to his orchestra’s accompaniment.
Following the meeting’s adjournment, participants lingered, clearly pleased by the congenial atmosphere and eager to have further exchanges.