Random acts of peacemaking
Back in 2015, following a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, a group of young Norwegian Muslims decided to take a stand against the violence and express their solidarity with Oslo’s Jews. At sundown on a Saturday, the end of the Jewish Sabbath, more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, held hands in a circle around the city’s main synagogue in a powerful gesture that made headlines around the world. They called their demonstration a “ring of peace.”
The Oslo event left a strong impression on Yael Splansky, the senior rabbi at Toronto’s biggest Reform congregation, Holy Blossom. In late January, when Alexandre Bissonnette entered a mosque in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, killing six men and injuring 19 others, Rabbi Splansky remembered the Muslims of Oslo.
She had an idea: her synagogue already had a relationship with Imdadul Islamic Centre near Jane and Finch, where Holy Blossom students had gone to learn about Islam. So she offered to come with a few congregants to form their own ring of peace on the first Friday prayer after the Quebec terrorist attack. She spread the word, and, by Thursday night, dozens of Jewish organizations and churches were rounding up members to show their support at mosques in Scarborough, Rexdale, Oakville—all over the GTA.
On that Friday, 250 people joined hands with Rabbi Splansky in a ring of peace around Imdadul as Muslims entered. To her great surprise, she was invited into the congregation to address the men after prayer. She wrapped her scarf around her head, offered condolences to the community and expressed a commitment to fight to protect the freedoms that we enjoy in Canada. She was the first woman and the first Jew ever invited to address the congregation.
In a global context, tensions between Jews and Muslims have never been higher. In Israel, the idea of the two-state solution has been dying a quiet death for decades, leading to a toxic hostility that frequently erupts into violence. There’s no sign of a resolution in the foreseeable future. And yet the Trump presidency and the tide of xenophobia that is sweeping the globe are leading to an unexpected coalition between Jews and Muslims (jokingly called MuJews) and many symbolic acts of unity, like the ring of peace.
A January photo from O’Hare International Airport of two men standing side by side protesting Trump’s immigration ban—one a kippah-wearing Jewish father with his son on his shoulders, the other a Muslim father with his daughter on his shoulders—went viral. The two men have since become friends. When 180 gravestones were toppled at a Jewish cemetery outside of St. Louis in February, two Muslims launched an online crowdfunding campaign for money to repair and restore the stones. In three hours, they had raised $20,000. Donations have since reached $120,000.
During the same month, Toronto Jews rushed to condemn an anti-Muslim demonstration that took place outside a downtown mosque, and Toronto Muslims similarly issued statements against the anti-Semitic hate notes left outside Jewish homes in Willowdale. These powerful, media-friendly gestures of support and solidarity are the unexpected silver lining to all the divisiveness in the news. They illustrate how passionate people of different faiths are about safeguarding the religious freedoms afforded citizens in Canada and the U.S. And they’re enough to make even a diehard cynic feel a glimmer of hope.
Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.