A ‘manufactured narrative’?

Waterloo, Ont.

“Moral selectivity is worse than immorality,” insisted Omar Ramahi, a Muslim Canadian invited to address an adult Sunday school class at Waterloo (Ont.) North Mennonite Church recently, to give his perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He was referring to the biblical narrative that justifies occupation and injustice as a “manufactured narrative.”

“People entrenched in the principles of religion, namely justice and peace, cannot pick and choose when and where to apply or exercise morality,” he further elaborated. “As people of religion, we need to ask ourselves, ‘If Moses, Jesus or Mohammad were present amongst us, how would they react in light of our interpretation of the sacred religious/guidance texts that they espoused and were revealed through them? Would they sanction privilege based on injustice?’”

Ramahi, born in Jerusalem in 1963 and now a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo, said that if Jews invoke God in justifying conquest, it shouldn’t be surprising if Muslims and Christians invoke God for the same ends.

He called anti-Semitism a “dreadful disease,” just as racism and anti-Muslim hatred are. He said all three are the triggers that fuel, in particular, the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people: the confiscation of their land and the system of apartheid championed, articulated and practised by the state of Israel.

His own family history colours his view of the conflict, as his father comes from a small village that was completely blown to pieces with explosives by the Irgun and Haganah Jewish groups in the 1947-48 war. No one remained in the village, as it was in the most strategic area that the Zionist movement targeted for its state.

The family had to keep fleeing from village to village, and finally wound up in the al-Zarqu refugee camp. This history has convinced Ramahl that the Zionist-Jewish conquest of Palestinian land started way before the Holocaust.

Bringing the conflict to more recent times—especially the savage bombardment of Gaza killing more than 500 children in 2014—has brought the realization that the Zionist project has gone too far, making it harder to defend as time goes by. “The liability is excessive, and Israeli’s behaviour in fuelling anti-Semitism is a reality,” he said.

Agreeing with these sentiments was David Chodos, an adherent at Waterloo North, who, with his Christian wife, Natasha Krahn, and two children, still practises his Jewish faith. Chodos, who grew up in the Kitchener-Waterloo Jewish community in the 1980s, was invited to give the “Jewish perspective” in a separate Sunday presentation.

“I sympathize with the injustice the Palestinians are facing, and believe that we need to seek, and advocate for, solutions that address this injustice,” he summed up in his remarks.

“However, we also need to consider the Israeli/Jewish perspectives—including both historical and current security concerns—as we tackle this issue. It is also essential to keep in mind that, within the ‘Israeli side’ of the conflict, there are a wide range of opinions spread across religious, political and cultural lines. Thus, one cannot consider ‘the Israelis’ or ‘the Jews’ as having a single, unified, position on Palestinian rights, the settlements or other contentious topics.”

Chodos grew up hearing the pro-Israel side of the story, starting with the Zionist dream of leaders like Theodore Hertzl, continuing with the darkness of the Holocaust and followed by the worldwide acceptance of the Jewish state in 1948.

“Supporting Israel was not a key part of my Jewish identity growing up, but I didn’t question it at the time, either,” he said. “The liberal Jewish community, both in Israel and North America, is very much aware of Israeli injustice toward Palestinians, and has been grappling with this issue for years.”

The Jewish community in Israel is quite complex, Chodos further explained. “There is a broad spectrum of observance ranging from secular to ultra-Orthodox,” he said.

“Orthodox Jews tend to have the most sway in government and control key parties in the coalition governments that dominate Israeli politics. They also tend to have the loudest, most divisive demands. However, more liberal groups are present, as well, and some are actively working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There has also been some injustice encountered by Reform [liberal] Jewish communities in Israel, confronting restrictions from Orthodox Jewish leaders on where they can pray and who is considered Jewish.”

He sees some interesting historical similarities between Jews and Mennonites. Both groups moved around Europe, then to North America, to find a safe place to exist. In Israel, however, the biblical context for that particular place adds extra layers of complication.

There is also a similarly strong affiliation within communities. The Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews tended to have much more in common with each other than with the larger societies they lived in (Poland or Russia, for example), which is reminiscent of Russian vs. Swiss Mennonites, he noted.

—Corrected April 10, 2017

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