Editorial: Looking Outside Ourselves

Aug. 13, 2020 – For far too long, those outside the Jewish community looking in see a group that, for the most part, seems self-interested. Yes, from time to time, we break out of our bubble, understanding that we live in a society that needs all its parts to work in unison in order to maintain balance. But we all need to shove back the curtain even more these days.

And it’s not only Jewish organizations we speak of. Indeed, the CJR must also lift its own eyes and acknowledge that we are part of a world outside our Jewish experience.

It’s easy for us as Jews to condemn anti-Semitism; to speak out against Nazi enablers like Helmut Oberlander, who is still in Canada despite being stripped of his Canadian citizenship several times; to bemoan swastikas scrawled on synagogue walls; to speak out against neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

However, it’s far more difficult to reach into the souls of other troubled communities and walk in their shoes. For example, what do Jewish organizations have to say about Ontario’s plan to send Jewish children back to school amidst this terrible pandemic?

With the exception of philanthropist Henry Wolfond, who personally undertook to fund a program distributing Visa cash cards, in conjunction with Jewish humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta, have we reached out enough to the homeless, the working poor, and the destitute outside our own sphere?

And what of injustices? Yes, we are taking baby steps in trying to better understand communities of colour and the pain that has accompanied their lives for generations. But have we stood our ground with them?

Take the tragic story of Soleiman (Soli) Faqiri. Soleiman was a young engineering student at the University of Waterloo. He was by all accounts a good man and a good student who cared for his family and community. Following an automobile accident, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his world came spiralling down.

Police were often called under the Mental Health Act to intervene. His behaviour became more erratic, leading to assault charges. However, instead of being hospitalized as he should have been, he was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days.

And that was where Soleiman died – or was killed. We simply don’t know the full truth.

There have been two criminal investigations, a probe by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, a coroner’s report, and the media have looked into it. Even an eyewitness appears to have claimed fairly conclusively that no authorities protected Soleiman.

We do know that in prison, a fight broke out between Soli and some guards. Soli was beaten, pepper-sprayed, forced into a “spit-hood,” and thrown into an isolation cell, where he died. To date, no one has been held responsible.

In fact, only recently, the Ontario Provincial Police refused to lay charges, claiming they cannot decide which prison guard or guards delivered the fatal blow. If these guards participated in a group beating, they all should be liable for the acts of their accomplices.

Had Soli been a young white Jew in prison who came to this tragic end, would our community remain silent?

We must see people like Soleiman Faqiri as our brother, our friend as part of a community of communities. We must speak up so that next time, it won’t be our brother, our friend, our neighbour.