It seems eons ago that canadians took to the streets with enough single-mindedness to persuade the Liberal government to sit out the Iraq war, much to the dismay of George Bush.
But moral consensus doesn't come easily on matters in which Israel is involved, as a hastily organized meeting of close to 200 union and peace activists at the Steelworkers Hall on Monday night (July 17) indicates.
For one thing, there's no sign of the federal NDP or its leader, Jack Layton, who were at the front of the march against the Iraq war. Yes, the party's Foreign Affairs critic, Alexa McDonough, has criticized the Harper government for not calling Israel on its attacks against Gaza and Lebanon. Late last week she called Israel's reaction to the kidnapping of its soldiers "illegal, brutal and disproportionate.'
A statement issued by Layton on Tuesday reminded Canadians of the historically important contribution of our peacekeepers in the region and urged their deployment to ease the humanitarian crisis.
All this is welcome relief from Stephen Harper's hardline backing of Israel, but it too conveniently sidesteps the context of the kidnapping crises: the isolation of the Hamas government and the deterioration of Palestinian living conditions. Back in March, the party, cowardly, backed the Tories' suspension of funds to the duly elected Hamas government - and instead called for assistance to be channelled to NGOs.
Windsor NDP MP Joe Comartin is slated to appear tonight but has been called home to his riding, which has one of the highest numbers of Muslims of any seat in Canada. But he's not the Foreign Affairs critic - that's the job of McDonough, who was at the helm of the party when former MP Svend Robinson was relieved of his Mideast duties for his quixotic visit to the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
The ensuing political cracks so badly wounded the party that it has been unwilling to pay more than lip service to any matter involving Israel since then.
Consensus on the Middle East certainly does not come easily, and pain from conflict there can strike close to home. Panelist Ali Mallah, a vice-president of the Canadian Arab Federation, wonders when he will see his wife and two children, who are trapped in southern Beirut, the very area being bombarded by the Israeli air force.
The three Jewish panelists - including moderator Peter Leibovitch of the United Steelworkers and Naomi Binder Wall of the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation - devote their time to the Zionist roots of the Israeli state, which was not and is not supported by all Jewry, they stress. "There's a long tradition of anti-Zionism,' Wall says, but it's not an easy position to take in the Jewish community, especially at a time like this.
While there is much condemnation of Israel for its out-of-whack response to soldier kidnappings, a response that has taken the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians, similar criticism of acts that have taken the lives of Israelis are few. Indeed, there's not a single mention of the bombing of Haifa and civilian deaths there, and the references to the group responsible are more idolatrous than condemnatory.
Hazem Jamjoum of the Toronto Right of Return Coalition calls Hezbollah, the fundamentalist, authoritarian and anti-Semitic Shia group inspired by Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, "freedom fighters who were victorious in kicking out Israel' from Lebanon in 2000.
When I ask Zafar Bangash, representing the Muslim Unity Group, a coalition of Muslim organizations, Islamic centres and mosques, about the citizens movement in Lebanon to rid their country of Hezbollah, he counters that the organization has enjoyed widespread popular support and, were it not for the country's political system, would be running the country.
In the end, there's one lone voice on the panel calling for an end to violence on both sides. It's that of Reverend Vicki Obedkoff, a United Church minister active in the Israeli disinvestment campaign who's appearing tonight as an individual. "I support a non-violent response,' she says tentatively, as the room goes silent. "I support dialogue and negotiation with duly elected governments.'
While she opposes the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah, she also says she opposes the Harper government's decision to cut off aid to the Palestinian government led by Hamas. "All governments moderate once they're in government,' she says, and if Canada were playing its traditional role of honest broker, it could encourage that trend.
Come question time, Laurentian University student Nilgiri Pearson says he just happened to see a poster for the meeting and came. He congratulates the reverend on her speech. "Both sides are killing and both sides are wrong,' he says, but he's shouted down.
Here, as there, Mideast passions are hard to keep in check.