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In Dialogue Group, Jews and Arabs in Canada Eat, and Talk About Peace

It was a shouting match that motivated an Arab man in Canada to establish a quieter venue to discuss Arab-Jewish issues. Qais Ghanem, a Yemeni-born professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, got the idea for Potlucks for Peace after he’d been to a panel discussion on the Middle East.

The participants were members of the Canadian Jewish and Arab communities, and “the discussion quickly descended into a shouting match,” Ghanem said.

During a break, Ghanem noticed two young women talking to each other.

“One of them was Jewish — I could easily tell that by the way she was dressed — but I couldn’t tell if the other one was as well,” he said.

After introducing himself, Ghanem learned that the woman in question was Palestinian.

“They talked as if they were old friends,” Ghanem said.

The contrast between their civility and the verbal slugfest that had unfolded on stage a few minutes earlier sparked his idea. He organized an informal get-together between Jews and Arabs at his home, and Potlucks for Peace was born.

Now, 60 Jews and Arabs have been meeting in Ottawa for the past two and a half years, hoping to foster dialogue and build bridges between their communities.

Members of Potlucks for Peace — university professors, professionals, musicians, students, senior citizens and others — gather once a month to eat, talk politics and learn about each other’s views, feelings and experiences.

Much of the dialogue is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two and a half years after six people came to that first meeting, the group has recruited new members by word of mouth. It has attracted both Arabs and Jews.

There are now about three Jews to every two Arabs, up from three to one when the group began. Many of the members had had little or no contact with members of the other group before coming to their first meeting.

The Potluck for Peace members at the group’s May meeting know that they live side-by-side in a multicultural society, and that they hold strongly differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We both live in Canada, and as Canadians we have to understand each other,” Bahija Reghai said.

She’s from Rabat, Morocco, and many of her childhood friends, who are Jewish, moved to Israel.

“I don’t think there’s enough dialogue between various communities. Dialogue is very important, since multiculturalism can also lead to ghettoization,” she said. “I don’t think we should allow that.”

Holding a frank but still civil discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not an easy task. Participants spent the first few months simply getting to know each other, talking about children and food.

“We were building up trust so that we could have a real discussion,” Ghanem said.

“I took quite a long time to get beyond simply having dinner and a pleasant social time. It also took a specific effort on our part to generate discussion that really was difficult,” said Allan Moscovitch, a university professor and active member of the Jewish community.

According to Moscovitch, a few months ago he and Ghanem had to model a discussion on a controversial and difficult topic in front of the group to break the logjam. They talked about anti-Semitism, focusing on commonly held stereotypes.

They based the conversation on a notorious interview with Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, in which Theodorakis rehashed well-known anti-Semitic canards.

“It was a very difficult discussion, but we showed that it can be done,” Moscovitch said.

The talk also was eye-opening to many Arab group members, revealing the depth of Jews’ concern about safety.

“What I learned is that the sense of fear — which for me didn’t seem real — is really real,” Reghai said. “I understood that it’s not something that’s put on and not an excuse for something else, but something rooted deeply in historical experiences.”

By now, conversation flows more freely and touches on many difficult subjects. At one point, one of the group’s Jewish members asked whether any of the Arabs in the group had anything good to say about Israel.

Monzer Zimmo, a Palestinian born in Gaza, answered the question. After the 1967 Six Day War he could not return from Egypt, where he was attending university.

His criticism of Israel and its government did not mean that he was critical of Jews around the world, he said.

In fact, he added, he had two conflicting personal stories about Israelis. One was about the Jewish doctor and nurses who saved his father’s eyesight; the other was about the Israeli bulldozers and tank that destroyed the olive groves at his family’s farm.

“I like to think of the first story, even if on a collective basis there is more of the second,” Zimmo said.

Ghanem know that the people who go to Potlucks meetings are an unusual group. They’re the ones willing to take on the difficult task of opening their ears and minds to contrary viewpoints and stories.

Many also see their mission as spreading the word to others in their own communities.

“I think we have a role to play in extending that dialogue more broadly within this community, and perhaps elsewhere in Canada if we can,” Moscovitch said. “We all have to live together here as Jews and Arabs and to find a better and easier way of doing that here, because we share many things, even if we may disagree about the Middle East.”

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