How many Jews does it take to hold a conference on Diversity, Democracy And Dissent In The Jewish Community? The answer, as it turns out, is 90.
That's how many showed up at Metro Hall on Sunday, November 13, for a counter-event to the 4,000-strong General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) of North America meeting across the street at the Metro Convention Centre.
While the mammoth gathering discussed delivering social services and defending Israel, the tiny 3-Ds confab - hosted by the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation, Yosher Jewish Network for Social Justice and the Morris Winchevsky Centre - aimed to "see Jewish life through a different lens,' one that included a critical view of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
"Whatever happened to two Jews, three opinions?"asks 3-D organizer Sheryl Nestel.
Let's face it, many of us have relatives at the UJC happening across the street. But it feels good to be here, and not there, where Paul Martin has just delivered a keynote praising Ariel Sharon as a peacemaker.
Ben Carniol opens the event, invoking stories of the whistle-blowers of ancient Palestine. These were people spiritually inspired to speak out against power abuses, even those perpetrated by the Jewish elite. They were not called "self-hating Jews" or "anti-Semites" back then. Instead, they were revered.
He asks what the prophetic tradition would say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I find myself frustrated that we aren't having this discussion plunk in the middle of the Convention Centre. Isn't it our Talmudic right to have a thorough argument?
The morning panel includes Dan Freeman-Maloy, known for his expulsion from York U for participating in an anti-occupation demo, and Meir Amor, an Israeli-born Moroccan Jew now living in Montreal who urges that dissenting views on Israel become a legitimate part of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Esther Vise of the Toronto Women's Bookstore presents her Tale Of Two Buttons, an account of what the store went through when asked by the Congress to remove from display a button with a Palestinian flag calling for an end to the occupation. Lilith Finkler, a disability activist, speaks about her research on the limitations of accessibility in Jewish religious institutions.
Daniel Thau-Eleff offers a theatrical musing on the state of his personal relationships and his parallel relationship to the state of Israel. His anti-occupation piece includes playing the role of a Russian Israeli who confronts him: "You write well, you act well, you think well. Why do you come to such wretched conclusions?'
Pomegranate Club, Toronto's all-woman klezmer troupe, welcome us back from lunch with the first-ever hora in the Council Chambers. Their presentation includes a poem by a Palestinian woman expelled from her home in Sachnin set to a haunting klezmer tune.
Later, Palestinian speaker Jehad Aliweiwi tells me he's glad he brought his brother Thaer, who arrived the day before from Hebron. Until today, his only contact with Jews has been with Israeli settlers and soldiers.
Artist b.h. Yael treats us to a sample of her upcoming video trilogy in which she vividly depicts the rage some Israelis feel when confronted with simple signs saying "End the Occupation." In the video, an Israeli woman tells little boys with yarmulkes chanting "Death to the Arabs" to be quiet, not because what they're saying is offensive, but because she wants to yell at the demonstrators herself.
As in most gatherings of Mideast peaceniks these days, the question inevitably comes up of whether a two-state solution is still possible given the way the Wall has fractured Palestinian territory. The familiar overwhelming feeling of a problem too big to solve lies in the room like a white elephant.
Still, poor odds are no excuse for inaction. Networking workshops discuss issues like fair trade, divestment, the Palestinian right of return and anti-oppression work in the Jewish community. Around the room I see the elders among us mentoring the young ones. "Here, try saying it this way - that always worked for me." We are, after all, Jews with a long history of activism behind us.
Heading home, I stop in at the UJC meet to see how the other half lives (okay, okay, so it's more than half). Security is tighter than at Pearson International. I hand over my knapsack, my coat, spread my arms and legs for the metal detecting wand and get the nod.
On the down escalator to the registration area, I take it all in. The signs thanking the sponsors include Toyota, RBC Capital Markets, Danier Leather. The photos and displays here are not of Israeli road closures or brochures advertising fair-trade Palestinian olive oil.
I am struck, however, by the towering pillars proclaiming the UJC's commitment to "creating a sense of social justice and to show the world our commitment to humankind."
Nice sentiments. So why is dissent amongst us relegated to the tiny conference across the street?