The 13th annual Shira Herzog Symposium, hosted by New Israel Fund of Canada, took place on Oct. 15. Originally intended to be a discussion about the challenges facing Israeli democracy, the topic was changed to Celebrating Defiance, in light of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.
NIFC president Linda Hershkovitz said the new focus was an opportunity “to comfort each other, to grieve and to hear how our community in Israel is responding to this moment.”
She said, “Today, we still gather to celebrate defiance – defiance against terror and extremism, against giving up hope, and against allowing violence to drive Jews and Arabs further apart.”
Opening remarks underscored that among the more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas was ivian Silver, a 74-year-old Canadian-Israeli activist for peace and women’s rights, known to many of those in the audience.
The main speakers at the symposium were Orly Erez-Likhovski, director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC); Eran Nissan, a peace activist and executive director of Mehazkim, a progressive digital group in Israel; and Amal Oraby, a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist and member of the board of directors of Amnesty International Israel. Journalist Andrew Cohen was the moderator.
“I stand before you with a lot of fear, a fear that our lives will never be the same and a fear for the safety of my family, my friends in Gaza, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Israel, there is no room for voices who seek to see the reality with open eyes and acknowledge the occupation, and to refuse making the same mistake and expecting different results,” said Oraby, who serves as NIF’s Arabic media coordinator and has written extensively for the Israeli media.
Nissan, who was a combat soldier in the special forces canine unit, said every time there is a flare-up of violence, it represents a setback for both Israeli and Palestinian societies which will, in turn, drive more anger, animosity and distrust.
“In the days since Oct. 7, we identified narratives that we needed to push through our social media platforms,” Nissan said when asked what his organization did immediately following the attacks. “We understood that the first days after such an event are a crucial time when the heroes and the villains are being chosen.”
The Israeli government, he said, was framing the narrative as a struggle between Jews and Arabs. His counter-narrative is to highlight stories of shared experiences and heroism, such as Bedouin truck drivers who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Hamas attacks and paramedics in the Negev fighting to save lives while under fire.
“This not a popular time to talk about a shared society or about empathy,” said Nissan. “Civil society organizations have been under attack. The amount of hatred and incitement we see is horrific. What we are trying to do is boost our capacity to tackle the challenges that we have right now.”
“We are very concerned about the rise in racism and violence,” said Erez-Likhovski, whose organization aims to defend equality, social justice and religious pluralism in Israel and serves as the public advocacy arm of the Reform movement.
“It’s important to talk about the current feeling in Israel,” she added. “People feel they have been abandoned by the government and by the state. The feeling is that the state system is not functioning. It’s a direct result of this government bringing in incompetent people to any post possible. And it’s taken its toll over the past year.”
Since the attacks, IRAC has worked to help the people who were evacuated, assisting with food and clothing, and helping with pastoral care, among other services.
Oraby was not optimistic about the latest change in the Israeli cabinet: bringing in opposition leader Benny Gantz. He views it as a “war government,” not an “emergency government,” and pointed to a strong civil society as the way to deescalate the situation. “Where Israeli and Palestinian leadership have failed, the civil society is succeeding,” he said.
Nissan agreed that the current cabinet is only setting military objectives, adding that it is not considering what will happen following the conflict.
Erez-Likhovski also commented that the new coalition was not presenting any long-term vision of how to solve the conflict.
At the end of the discussion, Nissan acknowledged the gravity of what occurred on Oct. 7 in terms of Israeli history and its effects on the national psyche. His hope, he said, is that a new story for Israel can be written out of the pain, and the crisis the country is confronting.
The event was co-presented with ARZA Canada, Canadian Friends of Peace Now and JSpaceCanada. It was held at the Toronto Reference Library and on Zoom.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.