Courageous people committed to peace

portrait-hamdaniHussein Hamdani

(July 2, 3009) – Two inspirational men visited southern Ontario earlier this year. They came independent of one another, but their message was the same: The importance of peace and building bridges, and lessons for local communities.

I was invited to a luncheon to meet and listen to Dr. Faisal Azaiza. Azaiza is the head of the Jewish-Arab Centre at the University of Haifa, and is vice-president of the public council for the Abraham Fund, which supports programs of co-existence between Arabs and Jews.

He is an extremely impressive man with a heavy weight on his shoulders. As a Muslim, Arab man working at an Israeli university trying to build bridges between the Arab and Jewish communities in Haifa, he faces many challenges. But his intelligence and commitment to the cause is inspirational.

The centre runs many programs and projects, but he chose to speak to me about the Social Leadership workshop. In this workshop 25 Muslim and Christian-Arab students and 25 Jewish students are paired with one another.

In this course, the students learned to move from alienation to openness and acknowledgement of the other.

This was achieved by the students getting to know each other’s culture, including identity and religion; and learning to cope and deal with conflict.

He commented that the more the students interacted with one another, the more they realized that they had many matters in common, the more they appreciated the other side’s perspective, and the less hatred they had for one another.

It is a simple formula for harmonious student relations that works internationally: More interaction equals less hostility.

From Gaza came famed peace activist and gynecologist Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Abuelaish, 54, has delivered both Palestinian and Israeli babies. His story is well known: Two days before the ceasefire, while at his Gazan home, two Israeli tank shells were fired from a block away into his home.

Once the dust had settled, Abuelaish found his three daughters Bisam, 20, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13, and his 14-year-old niece Nour dead under the rubble.

It would be understandable if Abuelaish became so overwhelmed with anger at the Israelis that he would put a stop to his peace-building efforts. Instead, he proclaimed, “as a Muslim, as a believer, I think God … has selected me and my daughters to make a positive difference.

“For the sake of my daughters and their memory, I’m in the process of establishing a foundation, only for girls and women to empower them in education and health.”

At McMaster University, there is an initiative signed between the McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice (MMPJ) and the Jewish Students’ Association (JSA) aptly called the Peace Initiative. The initiative is intended to provide a framework for open and free dialogue on campus, but in a lawful and civil manner.

McMaster president Peter George has taken a personal interest in seeing that the Peace Initiative gets off the ground, and perhaps it will become a good model for other campuses to adopt.

I believe that the Peace Initiative is the byproduct of previous efforts made by members of the Hamilton Muslim, Jewish and Arab Dialogue Committee. These past efforts created a foundation of trust and provided lines of communication for the respective campus clubs to meet and discuss their concerns.

We should all be supportive of the Peace Initiative. This is a local venture, but it may have far-reaching implications. It is very clear to many of us involved in interfaith dialogue that the more exposure we have to one another, the less demonized we will see one another.

But for the Peace Initiative to be effective, it is critically important that members of the MMPJ and JSA meet with one another, talk to each other and share their stories in a free, nonjudgmental environment. The Peace Initiative should not be used as an instrument to silence another community’s voice, but rather it should be a vehicle for further understanding.

If a grieving father can find inspiration in such a personal tragedy, and if Muslim-Arab, Christian-Arab and Jewish students in the Middle East can sit with and learn from one another, despite their difficult environments, then certainly students in Canada can do the same.

The students at McMaster, and their supporters in the wider Hamilton community (including past executives of the MMPJ, JSA and members of the dialogue committee) should be congratulated on taking this initiative.

Hussein Hamdani is a lawyer in Hamilton and lives in Burlington.