'One people, one city'

Tensions flare in Windsor, Ontario when things heat up between Israel and the Palestinians.

Windsor mosque 88 248 (photo credit: TORI CHEIFETZ)
Windsor mosque 88 248
(photo credit: TORI CHEIFETZ)
When a billboard praising Hizbullah graced the skyline of Windsor, Ontario, in August 2007, the blue-collar border city made international news. "Lebanese and Arab communities in Windsor city congratulate the Lebanese people for their steadfastness and endeavor to establish peace in Lebanon," read the billboard, which featured Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah prominently sporting his trademark turban. The billboard was put up by Windsor's Lebanese Muslim community in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. For Windsor's Jewish community, the billboard was worrying. For many in the community, the billboard incident brought into sharp focus the possible perils of living in a city with an overall population of 210,000, which is host to around 30,000 Muslims and only 1,200 Jews, according to representatives of the respective communities. With Jewish students having been attacked in February by anti-Israel activists at York University in Toronto, the question remains are Jews in small-town Canada any safer than their big-city counterparts? "As the numbers in our community decrease, our voice could become more of a whisper than a roar, but we're not anticipating any significant issues here," says Harvey Kessler, executive director of the Windsor Jewish Federation and Community Center. IN THE last few years two main incidents have put the Jewish and Muslim communities at variance. In 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, Windsor was host to nightly "peace" rallies in which Lebanese Muslim residents spoke out against the Jewish state while waving Hizbullah flags. At one such rally on July 20, Hizbullah supporters attacked three members of the Windsor Jewish community and a visiting Israeli. According to an individual present, Lebanese demonstrators tore Israeli flags off the backs of some of the Jewish supporters and pushed them around. They shouted anti-Israel slogans, which soon turned into anti-Semitic remarks of "dirty Jews." As the Arab demonstrators turned to leave, they vowed to defile the Israeli flag. Policemen were not present at the time of the incident and no one was apprehended. A little over one year later, the same group put up the Hizbullah billboard very near the area in which the demonstration took place, on Wyandotte Street, where Kessler's family had had a furniture store when he was growing up. "At the time there were over 20 Jewish-owned furniture stores on the street," he recalls, "now there is only one left. There's a very physical Arab presence. There are Middle Eastern markets, restaurants and stores. It's very different than what it was like with all the Jewish stores." ILAN Ishai, president of the Jewish Students' Association at the University of Windsor, says the Arab Muslim presence is also felt on campus. "Things obviously aren't as bad as they are at places like York or Concordia, but there are tensions between individual Jews and Muslims that flare up every time something big happens in the Middle East," he says. "For conveying support for Israel's operations in Gaza last year, one Jewish student was told that he and his whole family deserve to die, along with all the Israelis." For the most part though, he sees relations between Muslims and Jews on campus as cordial and says, "as long as both groups ensure that it's the moderate voices that are heard, the atmosphere on campus between Jews and Muslims should remain calm." For her part, Reem Haidar, a Lebanese-Canadian Muslim and a first-year student at the University of Windsor, calls relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the city "premature. On both sides, we have the educated Jews and Muslims that have come together as a community, as coworkers, as neighbors and as friends. Sadly, we have uneducated, small-minded, ignorant Muslims and Jews who are full of hate for one another." She refers to the recent wars Israel has fought in Lebanon and Gaza, which have resulted in rallying by the Windsor Arab Muslim, mostly Lebanese, population. "Many issues over the past few years have affected the Windsor community and although these are unfortunate events, I hope the Jewish and Arab communities here can put it behind them and be civilized people living under civilized circumstances," she says. Comparing the Muslim community in Windsor to that of nearby Dearborn, Michigan, Haidar says the communities couldn't be any more different. "In Windsor, the community is small and the Arabs here aren't developed yet. We don't have a strong community and there's no money coming in for events or causes. The Arabs in Windsor don't know how to finish something once it's been started," she charges. Haidar's family moved to Windsor from London, Ontario, when she was younger to be closer to her family in Dearborn."The Arabs in Dearborn have a prosperous, well-educated community, with great connections to the city. They are businesspeople in the mind-set of getting things done. There is also a beautiful mosque in Dearborn. The Arab community in Dearborn has really settled down and made a name for themselves." The Islamic Center of America, the mosque Haidar refers to, which opened in 2005 and caters mostly to Shi'ites, is the biggest mosque in North America. Dearborn, a blue-collar city much like Windsor, is home to the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. In 2004, Hamtramck, east of Dearborn, became the first city in North America to allow the call to prayer to be heard five times daily from the loudspeakers of the city's mosques. Windsor's proximity to Dearborn is a big reason why Muslims are attracted to Windsor, agrees Kessler. Asked about the Jewish residents' response to the growing Muslim community, Kessler says, "We had to respond as a community to the changing demographics. Members of the Jewish community have been part of councils created over the last 10 years to make sure that the Arab Muslim community was included in the conversation." ONE SUCH council is the Windsor Race and Ethnic Relations Committee, which has a mandate to advise the mayor and city council on matters of diversity. "We discuss specific incidences of racism and discrimination in the community and network to find ways to change attitudes," explains Noreen Slack, the representative for the Windsor Jewish Federation. Slack's involvement with diversity issues began just after she moved to the city 26 years ago from Ottawa and experienced anti-Semitism at the hands of Eastern European immigrants. "It was a rude awakening," she says. "People were saying to my face, 'I hate Jews,' not knowing that I... was Jewish." Slack stood up to the comments, declared herself a proud Jew and as a result she began to discuss diversity issues within the Jewish community. "At the time I was president of the B'nai B'rith women's group, and we started a program which brought education about Jewish holidays to primary schools in less financially stable neighborhoods." The Race and Ethnic Relations Committee uses the motto "One people, one city." But according to Slack, although relations between different members of the committee are cordial, certain issues are not discussed. "Everything is incredibly politically correct," she says. In addition to her work on the committee, Slack has campaigned for better relations between Jews and Muslims in her own community. "At a Jewish Community Center meeting, we spoke about how important it was to get together with Muslims. I figured in Ottawa the Jewish and Muslim communities are always getting together. I was always trying to get something going, but they were always 'unavailable.'" Asked about her vision of the future for the Jewish community, Slack's outlook is uneasy. "I am fearful. If Israel has problems, we are in trouble in the Diaspora. We've been really lucky in Windsor and we haven't had anything major happen." Rabbi Jeff Ableser, of Temple Beth El, agrees with Slack's evaluation of the Muslim community's desire to interact with the Jewish community. "We see that there is a genuine interaction between Muslims and Jews in places like Toronto, but in Windsor we have meetings for an initiative and then they stop when it's brought to the larger Muslim population." For Kessler, the reason for this lack of progress has a lot to do with the heterogeneity of the Muslim population. "Muslims who live in Windsor come from a number of different countries of origin. This means that we can't have dialogue with a homogeneous group. It's not like the Jewish community, which usually speaks with one voice." DR. ABDELKADER Tayebi, secretary of the board of directors of the Windsor Islamic Association, says there's nothing out of the ordinary about relations between Muslims and Jews in Windsor. "Windsor is a very peaceful and calm city and we want to keep it that way. We haven't had problems in the past and we don't want to have any problems in the future," he says. Asked about the rallies in 2006 and January 2009, Tayebi says that although present at the rallies, he did not witness any disturbances and that, "during the rally against the war in Gaza, there was a call to the Jewish community to take action, but it was friendly and civilized." According to Tayebi, his organization is interested in making relations more significant in the future by building common ground. "There will always be differences and irreconcilable positions, and we have to live with that, as well," he says.