By Sean Fine for The Globe and Mail
Inspired by a group of Muslim and Jewish law students who drafted a statement of mutual support at the University of Ottawa, nearly 1,000 members of the legal community, including retired chief justice Beverley McLachlin, have signed a letter urging Canadians to reduce the level of emotion and anger in public comments on the war between Israel and Hamas.
The student statement was initiated by law student Arjun Gupta, who is Hindu and was raised in both India and Canada. He brought together the leaders of student groups representing Muslims and Jews at the university. An executive member of each group lost a close friend, one in the Hamas massacre inside Israel on Oct. 7, and one in Israel’s attacks on Gaza afterward, their leaders told The Globe and Mail. But they came together to insist on respectful dialogue. Their statement aims for an even-handed tone and does not mention Israel, Hamas or Gaza.
It urges all professors, lecturers and students to exercise their freedom of expression with “sensitivity and tact,” given the context of grief on all sides, including Christian and Druze communities.
“We call upon our Ottawa Law family to focus on how our shared pain unifies us, instead of letting hatred divide us,” the statement from the Muslim Law Students Association and the Jewish Law Students Association said.
Their statement, posted on social media, was endorsed by a group of Canadian lawyers and former judges, led by lawyer Mark Sandler of Toronto, who is Jewish. Their public letter acknowledges “profound differences in how the events in Israel and Gaza are perceived,” and says the legal community can be instrumental in promoting open-mindedness and critical thinking.
Signatories to the letter of the broad legal community include the treasurer of the Law Society of Ontario, Jacqueline Horvat (she says she signed in her personal capacity); retired Ontario appeal-court judges Harry LaForme, Dennis O’Connor and Gloria Epstein; and legal luminaries such as Walied Soliman, the Muslim chair of Bay Street firm Norton Rose Fulbright, as well as Jeffrey Leon and Linda Rothstein.
Mr. LaForme, who was the first Indigenous person to be appointed to an appeal court in Canada, said people are responding in the moment to the latest incident or speech or social-media post. And he said he did much the same when he was a student before the social-media era, and only learned later how wrong he had often been.
“You know, you’ve got to put some of these things behind you and you’ve got to start talking. And nobody’s talking,” he said in an interview.
He said it’s the legal community that needs to start the dialogue. “Before we decide issues, we hear from both sides, and we try to make sense out of that, and we try to apply what we say is the rule of law – and that’s supposed to be a civilized version of how we’re supposed to live.”
The letter spearheaded by Mr. Sandler has not been universally well-received.
“The letter does not engage with what I consider essential elements of context underlying the Israeli occupation of Gaza,” Joshua Sealy-Harrington, who teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, said in an interview. Prof. Sealy-Harrington is a signatory to a separate letter last week from a group of 715 lawyers and a dozen law groups denouncing what they called a “new McCarthyism” in the suppression of pro-Palestinian voices.
The University of Ottawa, like many Canadian campuses, has had several incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
“That hatred should not be coming here and making us feel uncomfortable within the campus,” Hasan Ferdous, a co-president of the Muslim Law Students Association with Hanaa Ameer, said in an interview.
By “us,” he was referring to Jewish and Muslim students. He said incidents have included swastikas daubed on a university building and Muslims being spat on and called terrorists.
“We just wanted to lower the temperature of the school, and the community,” Shayna Horvath, president of the Jewish Law Students Association, said in an interview. Her friend, Ben Mizrachi of Vancouver, was murdered on Oct. 7.
She, too, cited incidents of Muslims being called terrorists, and of lecturers who went beyond the scope of the law courses they were teaching to make comments in the days following the Oct. 7 atrocities that made Jewish students feel uncomfortable.
Mr. Sandler, a former chair of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights, said the signatories hold widely divergent views on Israel and Gaza, but joined in common cause in support of the rule of law and respect for different viewpoints.
“We had to reject physical or verbal intimidation. We had to reject incitement to violence and the celebrity or glorification of violence and barbarity.” He said the letter on suppression of pro-Palestinian voices signed by Prof. Sealy-Harrington and others did not mention “suppression through intimidation and demonization of Jews and others who wish to defend the State of Israel.”