When I was studying for my Ph.D in South African literature, I became fascinated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). After the end of apartheid there was no feasible way to bring all perpetrators of crimes and violence to justice. Firstly, many of the acts that should have been illegal were sanctioned by state policy. Secondly, there was so much secrecy and such a lack of transparency in government, military, and other institutions that there was no way to find evidence for the numerous crimes committed. And the sheer number of crimes meant that no system could possibly address and redress it all. So instead of trying to foster a model of punishing those responsible, the model became one of peace-building. Rather than pursuing punishment, the TRC’s goal was to pursue truth. If one testified as a “perpetrator,” and sufficiently convinced the tribunal of full disclosure, there was to be no punishment. There was no requirement to show remorse. And, of course, victims could also come forward to tell their stories.
My work focused on women’s testimony (the lack thereof and then, after special encouragements were made for women to speak their own stories, their handling, representation, and impact). But that is a story for another day. Except to say that it fascinated me that this tribunal provided a space for the previously voiceless to have a voice. And a model of restorative justice that, while problematic in many ways for many people, really did bring forth a national narrative of healing. In Canada, we have been undergoing our own process of finding truth and reconciliation with a TRC of our own. Our TRC is focused on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities. The treatment of Aboriginal/Indigenous Canadians has been abhorrent. In particular, the history of the residential schools, where thousands of children were taken from their families, mistreated, and robbed of their culture, has never been fully understood or addressed. Up until this day, there are missing and murdered Indigenous women whose disappearances have not been properly investigated. And there are many other examples. My brother is a criminal lawyer who recounts many stories of being shocked by the mistreatment of Aboriginal Canadians in our criminal justice system. And the statistics are clear. Nationally, 1/3 of all prisoners are Aboriginal Canadian. In some areas in Western Canada, that figure is closer to 1/2. It is clear there are systemic and widespread issues that need immediate attention.
There have been many comparisons made between the treatment of FNMI communities in Canada, and the groups classified as “African” under apartheid’s system of classification. Our reservations are a lot like their Bantustans, which are under-funded and lacking in resources. Our institutions, including health care and education, have a history of discrimination and violence towards these populations. Our government has little representation from members of these communities, as South Africa’s government reflected only a tiny minority of the make up of its citizens.
My work in South African literature eventually turned to the Jewish experience. At once part of the “white” majority, which had clear and obvious privilege, but also a targeted minority, on the receiving end of antisemitic violence and discrimination, the double-edged position fascinates me. And in Canada, again, I see similarities. We as Jews are, generally speaking, both a tiny minority still exposed to antisemitism and, simultaneously, part of the privileged race/class groups of our society. Just as I could never understand Jews who could reconcile themselves to living in apartheid South Africa, knowing what we know about oppression, I could never understand anti-Aboriginal racism amongst Jews here. I see it as a Jewish imperative for reasons coming from our history, from our traditions of pursuing tzedakah (justice) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and loving/living with/respecting the “strangers” we live amongst (nevermind that from the Indigenous point of view, we are the stranger!) to understand and honour FNMI peoples.
This past week, the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism hosted a Tu B’shvat Seder alongside an Anishinaabe teacher/consultant named Kim Wheatley, with support from Ve’ahavta, a Jewish social justice organization. Tu B’shvat is a holiday focused on trees (a new year for the trees), and in modern times has become a Jewish earth day. The number four is significant on this holiday, particularly for those following the Kabbalistic tradition of a Tu B’shvat Seder (four glasses of wine, four types of fruit). It occurred to me that in Indigenous cultures, the number four is also of significance: four colours, four directions, four seasons. And much of those teachings resonate with the meaning of our holiday.
The partnership was beautiful! Eighty people came together in the spirit of sharing and community. We incorporated cedar tea and maple syrup into the Seder, we heard Jewish songs as well as Kim’s powerful singing and drumming. We ate fruits and nuts representative of our holidays, and we got to know one another. One evening, of course, cannot completely foster reconciliation. Our community has also been engaged in social action and advocacy projects in support of FNMI communities such as letter writing through Amnesty International to clean up polluted air and water, clothing drives for Toronto’s Native Men’s Residence, and apple picking in support of the Native Women’s Resource Centre who used the apples to bake pies to benefit advocacy towards an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. As Jews, as Canadians, as Humanists, we care about these issues and wish for our country to pursue justice and peace for all who live here and, in particular, Canada’s first inhabitants.