Road to Peace: left to right, Josh Morry of the Arab Jewish Dialogue on Campus, and AJD’s Howard Morry and Ab Freig. (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
Founded in 2006, the Arab Jewish Dialogue (AJD) is a national organization based in Winnipeg with the goal of improving relations and respect between Arabs and Jews through dialogue and education. On Feb. 23, AJD co-founder and co-chair Ab Freig, co-chair Howard Morry and AJD on Campus founder Josh Morry spoke at the University of Manitoba on The Road to Peace in the Arab Israeli Conflict – A Conversation with the Arab Jewish Dialogue.
Of AJD on Campus compared to AJD, Josh Morry said, “We, too, discuss issues that are difficult and that often make us feel uncomfortable. The only difference is some policy statements that make our group more conducive to operating on campus.
“One of the things we added to our constitution, and I believe you can find it on the website, is that we abhor the use of name calling. Not only does this undermine policies, but it stops people from being able to engage in positive dialogue.”
The core campus group consists of six Arab members and six Jewish members. Plans are in the works for the organization to host a Middle East feast at the U of M.
Since AJD on Campus formed, Morry said, “I’ve seen firsthand a reduction in the hateful speech that undermines the policies. Jewish students feel much safer on campus now.”
About Arab and Jewish relations, Freig said, “We talk about what is the best case scenario: living in peace and harmony, prosperity, cooperation. We talk about that and understand it. Then we talk about the obstacles and how we can overcome them. We both need to identify what’s best for us.
“That’s the basics of what we do. In order for us to do that, we needed to dig deeper. No one seems to dig deeper to understand. So, I’ll meet with people and start with a discussion on how to take it from here.”
Freig has witnessed how what starts in the dialogue group passes onto children, cousins, and further.
Howard Morry provided an example of how, simply by acting from a humanistic level, he was able to restore trust within the group after one of the times Israel sent its military into Gaza. He told those gathered that the Jewish members were sorry for any loss of life during the operation. “Once I said that, it was as if the oxygen was put back in the room,” he explained. “The people that were sitting cross-armed changed their posture to a more open one. And then, continuing with this … we actually had a very productive talk – politically, strategically, and at every level. But, until that moment, we had lost all the trust in that room and we couldn’t move any further.”
Recently, AJD has been talking a lot about ISIS, working to understand who is supporting them, how they are getting the money and what is driving them. And, because of the violence that happened in France with Charlie Hebdo, they also took some time to discuss the Prophet Mohammed.
“There was a Muslim Arab in the group who explained [the concerns] to the other members,” said Freig. “We issued a statement. We condemn violence and we support freedom of expression and [the] press. We put together a press release, signed by the Jewish and Arab members.”
While AJD has been going strong for nine years, creating the same kind of openness and trust within a university setting will be a challenge. “Unless you’re a really bad student, you’re not going to be part of this group for nine years, because you graduate,” said Josh Morry. “I think before we expand across Canada, we have to expand across Winnipeg. So, it would be nice to a get a student here to set up a group at the University of Winnipeg (U of W).”
He noted that it may be easier for AJD on Campus to expand to schools on the East Coast. “People are much more eager to join student groups and get involved there,” he said. “Our model is easy to replicate. The constitution is easy to duplicate, using very general terms.”
Freig stressed that, within both groups, members do not “agree on everything, [but] we don’t really need to, to have a dialogue. We discuss difficult topics and keep talking about it, and hash over the issues until we get to an understanding. That’s what we try to achieve.
“It’s not necessarily an agreement, but an understanding – understanding each other’s narratives. There are some issues we are in too deep with, so we have one meeting after another, trying to get the other person to understand. If you don’t understand where the other person’s coming from, you won’t ever get over being at odds with one another. We still have work to do.”
Howard Morry added, “One of the great gifts of this group is that it gives you a chance to explain things more than once. In this group, we approach issues in different ways. Over time, listening to each other, there’s an understanding with some members, but not with others.
“I’ll tell you that the happiest moment I think I’ve had is when I’ve said something the 16th time over a two-year period, and I had one of the members come up to me and say, ‘Howard, you just changed my life.’”
Both groups hope to inspire the broader Canadian population with how well people – not only Arabs and Jews – can get along by speaking to each other respectfully, not jumping the gun, and not just trying to be right. They see their groups as a learning tool for life, teaching how to get along with others and to build trust.
“Our intention is to extend throughout Canada and then maybe we will inspire people in the Middle East,” said Freig.
Co-chair Morry added, “While we want there to be peace, our group is focused on Canadian Jews and Arabs.… We were concerned when we first started, not wanting to become like Europe. There was a lot more violence and disagreement and no dialogue at all.
“The idea is that when you get dialogue amongst the people who’ve chosen to live in Canada, over time, it will hopefully influence the rest [of the world].”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.