The Cathedral of St. James, a historic Anglican structure on Church Street in Toronto, was packed. The large, striking stone building, which usually fills up only on Sundays – church attendance is far higher in Canada than in Europe – was crowded last Tuesday evening with hundreds of people who came to hear a talk about a distant land.
The event, originally scheduled to take place at the University of Toronto, was moved to the church because the organizers – Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East – did not want to break a strike by university teaching assistants and course instructors.
The large organ in the background, the sense of a sacred space, the benches and the lecturer’s dais – the pulpit – created a bit of an odd setting for the speaker from Israel. Initially the dean of the cathedral did not want to allow the lecture to be held in his church, since it is intended for prayer and talks on spiritual themes. However, he was soon persuaded that a speech against the continuation of the Israeli occupation of Palestinians is a spiritual matter.
Canada’s liberal circles haven’t lost interest in developments in the Middle East and haven’t abandoned hope for change, even in a period when their government’s support for Israel has reached an almost embarrassingly high level. Canadians are divided between supporters of Prime Minister Stephen Harper – a right-wing nationalist, who’s the most automatic backer of Israel in the world – and his rivals. Harper is Benjamin Netanyahu’s identical twin when it comes to fearmongering as a method of survival. The one is obsessed with Iran, the other with ISIS. They’re good friends, of course.
The maple tree, whose leaf is the national symbol of this vast country, the world’s second largest in area, has begun to bud, but spring is tarrying. Canada is torn between the intense winter that continues to grip its east, and the milder weather in the far west; there was a difference of 40 degrees Celsius between the temperatures in Montreal and Vancouver last week.
Eight talks in eight days, in eight cities coast-to-coast, with travel between them by air, sea and land, left little time to experience the climate. But a homeless man who was freezing to death at the edge of Chinatown in Montreal and was taken away in an ambulance definitely felt the weather. He belongs to what are called Canada’s First Nations – the politically correct term for the country’s indigenous peoples, the Indians, who have been disgracefully dispossessed and oppressed.
But on the Sunday when I was in Montreal, many residents were drawn to the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Even the excellent local Lebanese restaurant, Garage Beirut, closed in the afternoon for fear of intoxicated revelers, as the city took to the streets to watch the colorful event, which brought to mind the Purim parades of our childhood.
Few of the large number of Palestinian, Arab and Iranian exiles here took part in the Catholic festivities. Some of them have fared very well. The father of S., a woman from Galilee, made a fortune in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia, where he still lives, while the daughter leads a comfortable life in Montreal, working in special education. T., who arrived for the talk in his Audi sports car, related that his family’s home in southern Lebanon had been destroyed twice by Israel and rebuilt twice with funds from Iran, upgraded each time.
Grace Batchoun’s family is originally from Jaffa, though she herself was born in Lebanon. She’s one of six siblings. Her brothers received Arabic names from their father, she and her sister were named by their mother: She’s named for Grace Kelly, her sister for Doris Day.
An energetic woman, Grace is now running for parliament. The primary campaigns among politicians in the opposition Liberal Party are at their height (the national election is scheduled for October 19); she’s already registered 1,200 new voters for the party in her electoral district in the Ahuntsic section of north Montreal. She and her husband, Tom Woodley, a positive man from Indiana who was a member of Bill Clinton’s staff in the past, run Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East – a moderate organization that is not anti-Semitic and does not hate Israel. As its name indicates, its aim is to promote justice and peace in our region.
Firas Arafat is a young man from the Gaza Strip who is studying in Toronto. He hasn’t seen his parents, who remain in Gaza, for 11 years, and hasn’t been able to organize a meeting with them.
In Calgary, a father and his daughter came up to me after the talk. The family is from the West Bank village of Burkin. The daughter wants to visit her father’s birthplace, but he’s worried and asks me whether it’s safe for her to go.
Dr. Damon Ramsey was also born to parents in exile, in Vancouver. At 28, he specializes in treating pain and tropical diseases – carried by sailors who arrive in the port city – and is also in high-tech. He wants to get rich, he says, so that he can help people fighting for their freedom around the world. His father, Mehran, was twice jailed in his homeland, Iran, once by the shah and afterward by the ayatollahs.
“My father was against the king first and then against God,” his son says with a smile, adding that his mother, Shoreh, too, was a militant left-winger back in Iran.
The parents live in a luxurious apartment in Vancouver, overlooking a marina and a park. In the parking lot are a Bentley, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. Damon’s father is a marathon runner and a mountain climber. When he fled Iran, he did it via Turkey. A few years later, it was Mount Ararat, which he traversed during his escape from his homeland, that was the first peak he climbed as a free man. He made his money in a high-tech company he founded. A raucous Chihuahua dog welcomes the guests to the parents’ home.
Mojtaba Mahdavi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edmonton, is also an Iranian exile. He thinks the regime in his country, which he visited regularly until recently, will collapse by itself one day. Imposing sanctions or attacking Iran will be counterproductive, he says, as it will unite the people around the regime. He is convinced Iran is not bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. A veil of sadness descends over his eyes when he talks about his homeland.
Another academic, Prof. David Leach, head of the department of writing at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, was a volunteer on Kibbutz Shamir as a young man; he’s now writing a book about the kibbutz. Leach prefaced the visitor’s talk with a warning that those who parked illegally might get tickets, and then said: “I want to acknowledge the fact that the University of Victoria is situated on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish and Straits Salish peoples. Over my 25-year association with UVic, we have gone from ignoring this historical fact, to recognizing this fact, to turning that recognition into something of a routine at events such as this.”
It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if lecturers from Tel Aviv University were to adopt a similar custom, and preface every event at the institution by noting that their university stands on Palestinian land – First Nations land.
On a Toronto street there’s an endless line of Asian immigrants at a store that sells Japanese cheesecakes. There are also quite a few browsers in Munro’s Bookstore in Victoria, which was originally co-owned by Alice Munro, recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, and her ex-husband James. Alice, who has lived for decades in an Ontario town, recently signed a petition against the dispossession of the Bedouin in Israel, together with Israeli author Amos Oz.
In the industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, the Al Simmons Gun Shop looks exactly like similar establishments in movies about the Wild West. Homes in the city, which depended for its livelihood on the depleted American steel and automotive industries, are decaying. It’s a depressing sight.
Most of the audience in Hamilton arrived for the talk, in a Unitarian church, in old vans. As a young woman, the church’s minister was in love with a Palestinian from Nazareth. “Now he’s married and the father of children,” she says wistfully.
Waiting for us at Victoria airport was a couple in an old Ford bearing a sticker in support of preserving wild salmon. The two pensioners, he with a ponytail, she with a broad smile, recently bicycled across Canada. It took them 14 weeks. Recently, along with fighting for the rights of salmon, they’ve also been active in promoting the rights of the Palestinian people.