When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Israel in January, his unprecedented speech to the Knesset and some of the other events of his tour elicited much praise, but also much criticism.
In the Knesset, the response to his speech was overwhelmingly positive with the majority of the members rising to their feet in a standing ovation.
While many in Canada’s Jewish community were proud to see just how strong the relationship is between Canada and the Jewish homeland, there was cause for concern following controversial remarks at the Western Wall by Mark Adler, the Conservative MP for the Toronto riding of York Centre, who wanted a photo-op with Harper at the Wall.
“It’s the re-election. This is the million-dollar shot,” Adler was caught on video telling an aide to the prime minister.
Inevitably, reaction to those words was polarizing: ranging from thinking the comments were harmless political posturing, to full-on frustration or outrage that an MP might try to capitalize politically on Harper’s time at Judaism’s most important religious site.
Bringing together groups with different experiences and viewpoints can be a fantastic way to approach a lively discourse about Israel and the Canada-Israel relationship. However, some of the strongly worded online debates and outright verbal attacks I have read and witnessed call into question whether the right environment exists for a positive discussion to thrive.
Without safe and respectful forums for individuals to voice their opinions, the conversation all but stalls. And, with global public opinion currently reflecting a decline in support for the State of Israel, constructive dialogue within and between communities is necessary to maintain and build upon existing relationships.
According to the BBC World Service’s world public opinion poll for 2013, 52 per cent of respondents viewed Israel negatively, a two-point decline from the previous poll. In Canada, according to the poll, 57 per cent of respondents offered a negative perception of Israel, while only 25 per cent of Canadians held a mainly positive view.
So, is now the time to divide as a community by not respecting those whose opinions we may disagree with? Cracks in community cohesiveness do begin to form when respect for those with differing opinions begins to falter.
One of the many messages we can take away from Harper’s speech in the Knesset is that criticism in and of itself is not necessarily indicative of malicious intent.
Criticism and constructive feedback – however unpleasant – is the cornerstone for improving society and ensuring everyone has a voice.
Hillel Ottawa, which has campus chapters at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, still reaches out to invite other campus groups (even those that may not support the right for Israel to exist) to their events, and promotes dialogue between them.
While the feedback may not always be easy to hear, this kind of dialogue in a safe space is what ultimately can spark a conversation that leads to understanding, peace, and even friendship. Both parties just have to be willing to listen and, when they speak to one another, at least attempt respect.
As always, the process is evolving constantly. It is of the utmost importance to treat our peers with dignity and respect, no matter how much we may disagree with them. Who knows? We may just foster unlikely new relationships that, like Canada and Israel’s, are special, important, and very strong.