Avi Benlolo will screen a film at Beth Israel on Feb. 13. (PR photo)
There is a fundamental disconnect between what is happening in the Middle East and what observers in Europe and North America perceive, according to Avi Benlolo, founder and chairman of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative. He aims to close that gap, and will be in Vancouver next month to bring his message – and a new documentary film – to West Coast audiences.
“Peace is unfolding in the Middle East,” Benlolo told the Independent. “The Abraham Accords have completely revolutionized Israel’s relationship with some of the neighbouring countries like the [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Morocco and so on. This new development hasn’t yet registered here in the West.”
On university campuses and in the social movements of Europe and North America, he said, the narrative remains mired in the decades-old conflict and tired rhetoric of “apartheid,” “colonization” and BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the state of Israel.
“The truth of the matter is that that rhetoric isn’t rhetoric in the Middle East,” Benlolo said. “In the Middle East, BDS is nonexistent. You now have trade in the billions of dollars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, so clearly BDS has lost.”
The film that Benlolo produced and directed, The Future of Israel and its Defenders, approaches the issues through the lenses of experts, military strategists, entrepreneurial leaders, journalists and current and former political leaders.
“The message I’m trying to transmit,” he said, “is one really of hope for change.… If we are reinforcing that message that this is happening, that will help build on the peace process.”
A growing global realization of Mideast peace will also help reduce antisemitism and empower Jews, especially young people, everywhere, Benlolo hopes.
The film will be screened, and Benlolo will participate in a question-and-answer session, at Congregation Beth Israel Feb. 13, 7 p.m., in a celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday.
Benlolo founded the Abraham Global Peace Initiative after many years of working in the Jewish communal sector, including as chief executive officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. AGPI became a registered charity in late 2021.
While there are many Jewish and Zionist organizations in Canada, Benlolo said his is unique.
“There is no voice for Canadian Jews internationally,” he said. “We are taking the Canadian voice global and working with the United Nations, working with the [European Union], working with multiple leaders around the world. Antisemitism and defamation of Israel is a transnational phenomenon. The swastika that you see painted on a school wall is not just localized, it’s being motivated globally.
“We are also saying, we as Canadians can stand up for ourselves,” Benlolo continued. “Canada itself is an incredible brand globally…. What AGPI is doing is optimizing the Canadian brand and we’re doing it very successfully. Every two minutes – I’m not exaggerating – there is a subscriber onto our website from somewhere on the planet, Italy, Brazil. Every two minutes. That’s because people love the Canadian brand, they love everything that we are saying, so we can be, as Canadians, an international voice with quite tremendous strength.”
While Benlolo is hoping that the Abraham Accords mute some of the condemnation Israel experiences on the world stage, defending Israel’s rights internationally may be entering a new phase, he said. The old tropes are being replaced with the phrase “Israel’s most right-wing government ever,” including in mainstream media sources.
“It’s a challenge, I’m not going to kid you,” said Benlolo. “The thing is, the media is never a fan of Israel, particularly here in Canada, outside of the National Post and maybe the Jewish [community] media. They are using any opportunity to grab hold and to make Israel look bad. They love it.”
The characterization of Israel’s new government clouds the reality, he argued. Israelis who voted for right-wing parties did so mainly on security grounds, he said, because they are deeply concerned about terrorism.
“That has driven them to move to the right,” he said, adding that Israeli society in general “is fairly secular, is not right-wing and is very pro-human rights.” He noted that the new Knesset features the country’s first openly gay speaker.
“Just because you’ve got this government right now that’s made up of a coalition doesn’t mean that it represents Israeli society and it doesn’t mean that it’s everybody in Israel that believes in this. That needs to be articulated as well,” said Benlolo. “Finally, we’re going to put pressure to bear as a Jewish community and friends of Israel, we’re going to continue to pressure Israel to make sure that it stays the course and stays true to tikkun olam.”
More details, and tickets for the event, which is presented by Beth Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, are available at bethisrael.ca.