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Building Bridges for Peace

I had a few queries over twitter about the “Building Bridges for Peace” that I am attending in September. As it would be difficult to explain in 140 characters and I would hate to flood the timeline with multiple tweets on the same subject, I decided to provide the information here on my blog.

This event is the 4th in a 6-parts series of events organized jointly by the Mosaic institute and the Canadian Centre for Diversity (which used to be called Canadian Council for Christians & Jews – CCCJ). The full official title of the series is “Building Bridges in Canada: New Perspectives on People and Peace” and its purpose is to create a venue for a better discourse about the Middle East peace for Canadians in general and the Canadian Arab and Jewish communities in particular. The short name is therefore “Building Bridges for Peace“.

Statement of Values

The organizers of this series of events declared that they subscribe to the following values (quote):

  • Canada is a country committed to peace, and diaspora communities resident in Canada have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to Canadian peace building efforts around the world.
  • While governments are vital contributors to peace building, citizens who are informed, and particularly those from diaspora communities originating from regions of longstanding conflict, have an equally important role to play in building peace.
  • It is important for communities of concerned Canadians to enter into difficult discussions about topics as important as the achievement of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. As Canadians, an discussions we have should be polite, respectful and involve listening with open hearts and minds.
  • Any effort that results in increased mutual awareness of the history, perceptions, hopes and struggles of the Canadian Arab and Jewish diasporas is a valuable one. If that effort results in a shard commitment to even one tangible peace building initiative in the Middle East, or in a joint recommendation for enhancing Canada’s foreign policy towards that region, Canada’s mosaic will show its true value.
  • Achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East will require unrelenting goodwill and creativity of good people who believe that it is never the wrong time to pursue peace.

(End of quote)

Session Themes

The six session themes are:

  1. Diaspora Diaries – A Panel Discussion in Cultural Duality (March 4, 2009): The panel featured 4 prominent Canadians (2 from each community) and was moderated by journalist and commentator Noah Richter, author of This is My Country, What’s Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada.
  2. The Business of Peace in the Middle East (April 6, 2009): Keynote address by Sir Ronald Cohen, who among many things is the Chairman of the Social Investment Task Force. He was then interviewed by CBC host/correspondent Susan Ormiston.
  3. Making Peace Personal (June 3, 2009): Featuring as speakers journalist and author Janet Wallach and founder of the Canada International Scientific Exchange program (CISEPO) Dr. Arnold Noyek as well as two special guests, Nousha Kabawat, the first Syrian-Canadian to ever participate in the Seeds for Peace program and Inbal Marcovitch, an intern with CISEPO and founding member of the Health as a Bridge to Peace student club at York University. the event was hosted by Evan Solomon of CBC “one of the top 100 people to watch” according to MacLean’s magazine.
  4. Where Are We Now (September 16, 2009): a scholarly assessment of the current status of peace building in the Middle East hosted by Margaret MacMillan, author of best seller Paris 1919.
  5. Where Do We Go From Here (November 4, 2009): A diplomatic assessment of the current opportunities for peace in the Middle East, hosted by Ralph Benmergui.
  6. Bridging the Cultural Divide (TBD): Special concert celebrating a shared experience, hosted by Sheilagh Rogers.

In a previous attempt to a dialog between the Arab and Jewish communities in Canada, which was sponsored at the time by Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, I had proposed to establish a list of Canadian values common between the two communities before starting the dialog, and to commit to resolving differences in views based on such values and principles. Although that first dialog attempt did not progress far enough, we did establish among other things common values that all agreed to, as well as ample historic precedence for harmonious coexistence and even creative collaboration between these two communities. Not many of these made it through to the values stated above unfortunately. The need for such common ground will be felt when it is time to resolve core differences.

Format

The format of the events held so far has been panels or speakers presenting followed by either interviews and/or question period managed by the host. The attendance is approximately 100 guests mostly from the Canadian Arab and Jewish communities. The events are sometime attended by the Israeli General Consul and the Syrian Honorary Consul in Toronto. After the event there is opportunity to linger a bit and engage in conversations (refreshments are served).

After the first session participants were asked to complete a survey designed by The Strategic Counsel. The survey measured audience perceptions of a variety of issues relating to the Middle East. Surveys will be administered again at various points in the series to track changes in the attitudes of attendees over the course of the series.

The sessions are held at University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies.

My Take So Far

The initiative to bring the two communities in a well designed setting is to be applauded. The profile of the speakers and hosts has been generally high and the perspectives presented interesting. There is also an element of novelty as the content presented is not well known in main stream media.

There have been no dialogs between the attendees as the format consisted mainly of listening to speakers or panelists. While a limited Q&A has been allowed, the format was strictly limited to questions and commentary or multiple-exchange discussions were discouraged.

The attendees from the two communities do not mix enough in their seating order. Many seats are reserved by name and clustered by community, creating a perception of tiered audience and discouraging mixing with the opposite community. After the event a few good conversation across community lines have been possible, but were limited in time and scope due to the constraints of a brief post-event reception.

Having said that I do appreciate that the first 3 sessions have been building up towards the tougher questions. The next session will provide a realistic assessment of where the peace process stands. The 5th session will tackle where do we go from here. That’s where any commonalities achieved in the previous sessions will come to bear.

I have suggested a few things to the organizers such as changing the seating design to encourage mixing and cross conversations, designing time and space for smaller deeper conversations about specific sub-topics, and setting tangible objectives for the outcomes of the series. Come to think of it, my peers at the Design with Dialog group could offer a lot to some of those activities. Greg and I had a brief conversation about setting up a similar dialog. But this is a more complex issue than organizational transformation, and we would need to have a few serious conversations about approach, methods and capabilities. That’s material for a few months of DwD right there, but peace is so important that we must try everything possible all the time. I am in. Who wants to join, DwD Team?

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