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Washington Jewish Week Staff Writer Eric Fingerhut Contributed to This Report. the Jewish People Are

October 10, 2003
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They went. They saw. And now — they understand.

When eight native Canadian educators toured Israel this summer as guests of B’nai Brith Canada, Jewish officials were hoping the visit would leave a lasting impression, affecting the way curricula are shaped in native schools.

After visiting sites in Jerusalem, Masada, Ein Gedi, Tzipori, Caesaria and Tiberias, the indigenous Canadians said they felt more sympathetic toward the Jewish people who — like them, to some degree — had been dispossessed of their ancient homeland.

The Jewish organization decided to take aboriginal educators this time in response to concerns about anti-Semitism and lack of knowledge about Jews among native Canadians leaders.

Sharon McKay, director of education and training at the Keewatin Tribal Council in northern Manitoba, said she had “very limited knowledge” of Jews before the trip.

“I viewed the Jewish people as ordinary Europeans, and that was pretty limited because they were persecuted by everybody, including the Europeans,” she said.

On the trip, McKay said she learned the Jews are in fact the founders of an ancient and enduring civilization.

“What also came through for me is the connection to the land and how sacred a homeland really is. As an aboriginal, I really connect to that because I connect to the territories that my own people are from,” she said.

Sylvia Solomon-Bereskin, who led the trip for B’nai Brith Canada, said she used aboriginal storytelling methods to provide a historical context for the ancient sites the group visited.

“The conclusion was that Israel today is not about politics, it’s not about 1948 — it’s about being native to the land, which is something that for them really resonates,” Solomon-Bereskin said. “I’m not sure if it was a revelation to them, but they certainly got it.”

She said trip organizers noted the Jews are not the only people native to the land of Israel.

B’nai Brith Canada sends groups of Canadian educators to Israel every two years under the auspices of its Holocaust and Hope program.

Last winter, Saskatchewan native leader David Ahenakew made an anti-Semitic speech. He expressed support for Hitler’s genocidal campaign against the Jews and subsequently was indicted for violating Canadian hate laws. Shortly after making his remarks, Ahenakew resigned all leadership positions in the native community.

The national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, Ruth Klein, said a key aim of the Israel tour was to give educators “new ideas about how to teach Canadian anti-racism in the schools.”

Klein was in Israel during the visit and joined the tour for several parts of the trip.

“They were just amazed by the idea of Yad Vashem,” Klein observed. “They don’t have a memorial to their own suffering and they don’t even have an approach to make sure their next generation knows their own history.”

Edwin Jebb, director of education for the Opaskwayak reserve in northern Manitoba, said he has known about the Holocaust since reading a book in high school on Auschwitz. Still, he said, some things at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, took him by surprise.

“I didn’t know that one and a half million children were killed in the Holocaust,” Jebb said. “That came as a shock to me. Being a parent, that hurt.”

Tour participants said they were very impressed with how Jews have revitalized their language and culture in the modern era.

On a visit to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, the group stopped at the grave of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to hear a presentation about how the pioneering philologist helped transform the ancient Hebrew language into a modern living tongue.

“It’s something that’s close to us, because a lot of First Nations are losing their language,” Jebb said. “So we got back and said, ‘Hey, if the Jewish people can do it, we can do it, too.’ “

Against the backdrop of terrorist violence, Jebb said he and his fellow educators were also moved by the spirit of the Jewish people, particularly in the face of terrorist violence at home and negative media coverage abroad.

“The word I heard before I got to Israel was that their spirit is beyond belief, and when I got there, I found it to be true,” Jebb said.

He said a tribal elder “had told me to expect that. He told me, ‘The spirit of our people is hurting and broken, but you’ll find that the spirit of the Jewish people is strong.’ He asked me to ask the people I met to pray for us and to ask them where they get their spirit from.”

He also said the group found Israelis very agreeable. “It was pleasant,” Jebb said. “You don’t normally expect people on the street to start talking to you. We found it a very friendly country.”

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