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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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I Offered a Gift and Got Back More: Dialogue Group Responds to Hate Crimes
Safiyyah Ally is a member of the Muslim-Arab-Jewish Dialogue Committee at the University of Toronto, Canada. This piece was originally published in The Toronto Star (www.thestar.com/), April 12, 2004. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service (www.sfcg.org/cgnews/middle-east.cfm).
Leib's face shone when she opened her front door. A group of five university students, members of the Muslim-Arab-Jewish Dialogue Committee at the University of Toronto, stood waiting awkwardly on her steps. We had come bearing a lily plant and a letter of support from the university community. She waved us in, thanking us profusely.
Members of the Dialogue Committee first started meeting in early September when we realized, almost simultaneously, that something needed to be done about antagonistic relations between Jewish, Arab, and Muslim people on campus.
We were disturbed by frequent struggles between Muslims and Jews, and between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, on several campuses. Protests, name-calling, and fistfights characterized the relationship when these groups collided.
We wanted to find a way to alleviate the tensions. We knew instinctively that only through dialogue and interaction with each other could individuals look beyond the hate, rage, and prejudice to begin to construct meaningful relationships with each other. And we were willing to make it happen. It was a real challenge at first for Muslims, Arabs, and Jews to work with each other, even for a common cause. Understanding and trust did not come naturally. Many of us had never spoken to the "other side."
But the effort was worth it. Over time, we came to understand, appreciate, and even trust one another. Working together allowed us to break down stereotypes and misconceptions that we didn't even realize we had. We were able to tackle the prejudices that could have bred hatred, preventing us from becoming the friends we are today.
Because we shared such a positive mindset within our own group, recent acts of vandalism and hate against the Jewish community shook us out of our optimistic bubble. We felt surprised and helpless that such crimes could occur in the wider community.
So we gathered together one Sunday afternoon to talk about what we could do in the short term. We wanted to see a unified campus response to the hate crimes. We wished to express solidarity and support for the Jewish and Muslim communities. We helped organize a rally at the University of Toronto on April 1, 2004. We sent open letters of support to the Jewish and Muslim organizations that were defaced.
We delivered lily plants to the homes that were vandalized. It was a humbling experience for us.
Our first stop was Tova Place, the Leibs' home in Thornhill. As we stood in her doorway, Maria repeatedly gestured for us to come in. When we hesitated, reluctant to impose on the family or intrude on their privacy, she insisted. Finally, she made the decision for us by turning to me and gently unzipping my coat.
The moment was symbolic and unforgettable: Here I was, a stranger and a visible Muslim, and Maria Leib, a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, was willing to extend her generosity to me and invite me into her home. She led us to her living room, ensured we were seated comfortably, and introduced us to her son. In halting English, she tried to explain how hurt she was to discover hate scrawled on her front door. She had endured enough while in Romania. When she opened her door, the message brought back memories of family members lost years ago.
Then she got up slowly, went into the kitchen, and returned with cake for all of her visitors. As I sat on the couch eating, I couldn't help but think the Leibs really did not need our support. The hate that was clearly targeted at them had missed its mark. It had not broken their spirits. It had not embittered them.
Ichil Leib was pleased to meet us. We were the biggest group he had hosted in the last few weeks, he said. He delighted us with his retelling of Jewish history. His story of the Holocaust opened our minds and our hearts to the suffering his family had endured. He asked us pensively why we had come.
I explained that as Canadians, we felt that the attacks were antithetical to the values of respect and plurality that we hold dear. We wanted to show support for the way of life Canadians had chosen. We wanted to express solidarity with the Jewish community. We hoped to demonstrate that regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, or even life experience, we as individuals share a common humanity. My explanations sounded shallow to my own ears. We had come bearing lily plants. We were given much, much more.
We were shown that adversity could draw out the strength in people; we saw for ourselves that evil could not spoil the goodness in humanity. In the end, it was we who thanked them for teaching us an unexpected but meaningful lesson.
Though we had interrupted their pre-Passover preparations, they were wonderful hosts. When we got up to leave, the Leibs followed, our conversation continuing unabated into the hallway. We remained talking near the door, after we had put on our coats. And when we left the house, Ichil followed us out.
As we clambered back into the car, Ichil had some final words for us. "Sing the words of love," he repeated several times. He stood coatless, waiting outside in the cold, until we had disappeared from sight.