by Vicky Tobianah in Toronto 

Making distant readers empathize with historical events they have not experienced is a challenging feat.

Mohamed M. Keshavjee grapples with getting individuals to feel the pain of the global collective and experience events that they have not been touched by in his latest book Into That Heaven of Freedom: The Impact of Apartheid on an Indian Family’s Diasporic History. 

Keshavjee, a second-generation South African of Indian origin, not only takes readers through his own family history, but also through the history of Indians living in Africa over the course of a hundred years. 

The title comes from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the Mind is Free:” 

“Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” 

The poem is part of Tagore’s Nobel prize-winning poetry collection, Gitanjali. The book also has a forward written by Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and is the longest serving human rights prisoner alive today. 

Path to self-discovery 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history.[/quote]

Keshavjee describes the political struggle against apartheid, beginning with his roots – his family’s establishment in 1894 in Marabastad, a settlement in Pretoria, South Africa. He then describes Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against racism during the beginning of apartheid. Keshavjee’s family continues its journey to Kenya and eventually relocates in Canada. 

While Keshavjee writes with authority and knowledge, lurking behind every page is also the realization that he is discovering his own role in this narrative and not merely uncovering the role of his family in history. It is as much self-realization as it is storytelling. We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history. 

At the onset of the book, Keshavjee states: “If I have started a conversation amongst my readers about their own antecedents and their personal recollections, I shall be happy.”

However, as I continued reading his memoir, I began to suspect that the most important conversation Keshavjee would have as a result of this storytelling is with himself, about who he really is as he grapples with finding out who he was not in the country of his birth, and who he was in the country of his ancestors. 

It is by watching his journey that a reader can hope to embark on the same one through their family’s history. 

Recording history 

Where readers might get lost is in the minute details – names of brothers, cousins’ shops, and small communities, each explained in heavy detail throughout, which sometimes feels as if one is reading a classroom history book – ironic for Keshavjee who writes that as a child, he looked forward to the time when he would no longer have to attend school. 

Each new chapter brings with it new characters who are all part of Keshavjee’s history. While the story could have been told without some of those details, it is again evidence of the author's desire to record the names, dates and places of those that came before him, struggled before he did, and persevered to allow him to find his own place, too. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”[/quote]

 

Childhood impressions 

Although the book is very much a journey, it hints at the times in Keshavjee’s life when he did start to locate his place in the world. It’s the 1950s when Keshavjee starts to like school and impresses his teachers with his creativity and talent.

In the childhood stories he writes, “Autobiography of a Penny” and “Autobiography of an Old Shoe,” Keshavjee imagines himself as the coin or shoe and the many places it might have been placed, the people who might have touched it, and the home it ended up in. 

These stories, although only mentioned over the course of a few lines in this almost 300-page book, foreshadow this memoir, as Keshavjee once again describes the life he has and underneath the surface, the life he might have had, had he been born in a different country, to a different race, with a different skin colour.  

Today, Keshavjee is a graduate of Queen’s University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, among several other academic achievements. He was called to the bar at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He also practised law in the United Kingdom and Kenya, and served in the Secretariat of His Highness the Aga Khan. 

His success is apparent as the memoir winds down and Keshavjee seems to find his answers.

“I am no longer a refugee in search of a homeland,” he writes.  Perhaps that is not just because he has found a physical home, but a metaphorical one too in this book. As he notes, “I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”

Vicky Tobianah is an experienced writer, editor and content strategist. She has a bachelor of arts, honours from McGill University in political science and English literature. She is passionate about the future of digital media. Find her work at: www.vickytobianah.com


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Published in Books

by Vicky Tobianah (@vicktob) in Toronto

Israel’s highly contentious elections saw incumbent Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu return for his fourth term as the country experienced its highest voter turnout in almost two decades. While this has been widely covered in the mainstream media, Israeli outlets here in Canada have some other top stories they've been reporting, including their own take on the elections.

Netanyahu Lacks Leadership, Claims Vancouver-based Newspaper

An editorial piece published by the Jewish Independent says Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu lacks leadership. The newspaper criticizes statements released by Netanyahu’s Likud Party just days before the election, that many read as proof he did not support a two-state solution even though Netanyahu had previously said he did.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that any evacuated territory would fall into the hands of Islamic extremism and terror organizations supported by Iran. Therefore, there will be no concessions and no withdrawals. It is simply irrelevant,” read the Likud Party statement. The editorial board also commented on Netanyahu's failure to participate in debates during the campaign and his insistence on speaking to the U.S. Congress without U.S. President Barack Obama’s support.

“It remains to be seen whether he is just grasping at political straws, trying to convince those on the right to vote for him, or he feels so confident that he can finally say what he truly believes,” the newspaper reported.

Anti-Jewish Slurs Used in Real Estate Listings

According to The Canadian Jewish News, the Jewish community was outraged after seeing online advertisements for houses in Brampton, Ontario, that read “You don’t have to be Jewish to buy this house.”

Real estate agent Jazz Samra of Homexperts Real Estate Inc. said he used a third-party for his advertisements and doesn’t review every ad that gets posted. The ads were posted on online sites such as kijiji and craigslist but were taken down after the matter was brought to their attention. They still appeared on Trovit and Mitula, and the craigslist ad was changed to “You don’t have to be rich to buy this house.”

Homexpert’s president and CEO apologized for any offense the ad caused and said he was looking into the matter.

Jews Urged to Immigrate to Israel

Following last month's attacks on Jewish communities in France and Copenhagen, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to immigrate to Israel – much to the dismay of European Jewish leaders   reported the Jewish Independent.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Once Israel was established as a Jewish state in 1948, some argued Zionism’s goals had been achieved and thus there was no more need for it.[/quote]

The article questioned the purpose of Zionism (the nationalist movement for the return of the Jewish people to Israel), citing Copenhagen’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, who said that increased terrorism should not be the reason European Jews immigrate to Israel. “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism. Not because of terrorism. If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island,” he is quoted as saying.

The term Zionism was coined in 1896. Ever since then, the movement has been a divisive issue within the Jewish diaspora (outside Israel). Once Israel was established as a Jewish state in 1948, some argued Zionism’s goals had been achieved and thus there was no more need for it, noted the Jewish Independent’s editorial board.

But Zionism soon took on a different meaning; as Jewish groups outside Israel began allocating their fundraising efforts to support the Jewish state, especially during times of war. This, they noted, is another reason why Netanyahu’s comments were uncalled for – the country itself is not immune to terrorism, so why promote the idea of leaving Europe after terrorist incidents?

Although Zionism is contested, especially amongst Jews, the newspaper argued that, “it is not quite time for Zionism to wind up its affairs.” 

Did Denmark Live Up to Its Reputation? Photo credit: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen

Over 30,000 Danes gathered for a vigil to commemorate the victims of a shooting at a Denmark synagogue in early February – a show of support that fits the country’s history, reported the Jewish Independent.

In 1943, the country helped successfully evacuate the country’s Jews to Sweden, saving almost the entire Jewish community at a time when Jews were being annihilated across Europe. The Danish resistance, as it came to be known, was organized by ordinary citizens and was one of most successful resistance efforts during the Nazi era.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The motive, argued the reporters, was clear; terrorists went to a Jewish place of worship to murder its inhabitants, specifically targeting a certain group of people.[/quote]

But the newspaper claims the support ended there. Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called the murders a “cynical act of terror” while discussing the motive. But then added, “we don’t know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

The motive, argued the reporters, was clear; terrorists went to a Jewish place of worship to murder its inhabitants, specifically targeting a certain group of people. The article went on to question, why then did the Prime Minister refuse to call out these clear motives? The fact that over 500 Danes attended the attacker’s funeral gave the reporters more reason to question Danish support towards its Jewish population.

Rabbi David Stav and his wife, Aviva, sign a prenuptial agreement after decades of marriage. Canadian Jewish News.

Israeli Prenups Won’t Help “Chained Women” in Canada

Under Jewish law, a woman can only get a divorce (called a get) if her husband grants her one. When a husband refuses, his wife is considered an agunah – a chained woman who cannot remarry until granted a divorce.

To combat this phenomenon, Israeli rabbinical and legal experts unveiled a legal prenuptial agreement that would prevent husbands from withholding divorces. But these agreements will likely not hold up in Canada, reported Paul Lungen from The Canadian Jewish News.

According to the Israeli agreement, introduced by Tzohar (an Orthodox Zionist group whose goal is to enforce “moderate, rabbinic leadership and sharing public policy”), if a husband refused to grant a divorce, he would be required to make maintenance payments until a religious divorce is issued.

That agreement won’t help “chained women” in Ontario, though, since Ontario courts don’t enforce the decision of religious courts when it comes to matters of family law, rendering the prenups legally ineffective.

“It appears the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) document will not be upheld by a Canadian court, because the courts in Canada will only allow monetary penalties imposed by courts, not by rabbis [or] panels,” said Rabbi Michael Whitman of Adath Israel Poale Zedek synagogue in Montreal.

For many Orthodox Jewish women, being unable to get a divorce from their husband can have lifelong implications, preventing them from remarrying and leaving them “chained” to their husbands.


Vicky Tobianah is an experienced writer, editor, and content strategist. She has a Bachelor of Arts, Honours from McGill University in Political Science and English Literature. She is passionate about the future of digital media. Find her work at: www.vickytobianah.com 

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Published in Israel
Tuesday, 08 April 2014 14:04

Fair Elections Act May Hurt New Canadians

by Amira Elghawaby, Vicky Tobianah and Janice Thiessen

Canadian immigrant service providers are worried that the Conservative government’s proposed election bill will potentially impact the voter participation rate of new Canadians and ethnocultural communities in future elections. Currently, citizens who don’t have proper identification can vote if someone else can vouch for their identity. If the new bill passes, vouching would be banned – a problem for new Canadians who want to vote but may lack proper identification simply because they’re new to the system.

“We know that many folks who tend not to be on the voters list and/or have ID that is deemed to be appropriate are folks who are low income or new to the system,” said Debbie Douglas, executive director of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), based in Toronto, whose member agencies provide a variety of services for new Canadians, including professional development services, tools to help newcomers learn about Canadian citizenship, and language services. “The fact that they will be showing up to vote and not find their name on the list or have a voter’s card and not have appropriate ID will absolutely disenfranchise them,” she argued.

“Folks tend to vote for those that have their interests at heart and if a large number of new Canadians are disenfranchised or aren’t able to participate, than their interests aren’t able to be represented politically,” she added.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The fact that they will be showing up to vote and not find their name on the list or have a voter’s card and not have appropriate ID will absolutely disenfranchise them.[/quote]

Mixed views

The Conservatives maintain the bill will improve the electoral process. “The Fair Elections Act is improving the integrity of the election. We’ve found with reports that the vouching system is full of errors and mistakes. Forty-two per cent of Voter Information Cards were filled out incorrectly. The electoral process is very complex, it’s open to abuse,” said Conservative MP Andrew Saxton in an interview. Even with the changes, he pointed out that there are still 39 pieces of identification for Canadians to prove their identity and where they live.

However, even with vouching in place, a report by Statistics Canada found that new immigrants are less likely to participate in elections than more established immigrants. Data from 2011 indicated that only 51% of recent immigrants voted, compared to 66% for more established immigrants. The numbers also differ greatly among various ethnic communities and among genders.

Further to the controversy around vouching, the new legislation will also ban Elections Canada from running education campaigns that promote voting. According to Elections Canada spokesman John Enright, the federal body undertakes comprehensive strategies to get out the vote among ethnocultural communities and new Canadians prior to and during election season (see the list below). Under the proposed bill, the responsibility to educate Canadians about voting would fall to the federal parties.

Elections Canada CEO Marc Mayrand has vocally opposed the new bill on several of its proposed changes. "In our attempts to improve the electoral system, we should not lose sight of our shared goal of ensuring the right to vote for all Canadians. Our democracy belongs to all Canadians, and should be accessible to all Canadians, and be seen as fair and trustworthy," said Mr. Mayrand in a statement. "I hope that the final bill reflects a broad consensus that secures the confidence of all electoral participants."

Summary of Elections Canada outreach

If the proposed bill passes, Elections Canada would no longer be able to educate Canadians about voting. This change may hit new Canadians the hardest, as they often have questions about the voting procedures when they come to a new country, and it may lower the voter participation rate of new immigrants even further.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Elections Canada would no longer be able to educate Canadians about voting. This change may hit new Canadians the hardest.[/quote]

Here’s a list of the outreach and advertising that Elections Canada does prior and during elections:

Outreach prior to elections:

  • Citizenship guide: Elections Canada supplies information to Citizenship and Immigration for inclusion in “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship” which is used by newcomers to study for the citizenship test.
  • Upon request from community-based organizations representing ethnocultural communities and/or new Canadians, Elections Canada presents to groups about the Canadian electoral process.

 Outreach during the 2011 federal general election:

  • Community outreach: Community relations officers (CROs) provide ethnocultural communities with important information on how, when and where to exercise their right to vote. Officers deliver their messages by setting up information kiosks, making presentations, hosting discussion groups and distributing communications material. In the 2011 election, 129 CROs were hired for ethnocultural communities.
  • Information and advertising campaigns: Special efforts were made to inform and engage groups and communities that were likely to experience difficulty in exercising their right to vote, or those who could not easily be reached through Elections Canada’s general advertising campaign.
    • Outreach was conducted with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship who reach new Canadians. They put a link and button on their web site for first-time voters.
    • Voter information was (and remains) posted on the Elections Canada web site in 27 heritage languages. This information was also available in print form and more than 24,500 voter identification information sheets and over 24,800 voter information guides were ordered in heritage languages.
    • Email bulletins were sent to over 550 ethnocultural organizations across Canada informing them about registration, voting rules and Elections Canada’s services, and inviting them to distribute the e-bulletins through their networks, on their web site, blog or social media pages.
    • Almost 2,000 information kits (hard copy) were distributed to organizations representing members of the ethnocultural communities. Information kits included samples of various informational materials available in multiple languages, and/or an order form and a request that the organization assist Elections Canada in disseminating information to their membership.
    • Electors could obtain information directly from Elections Canada by phone about registration, voting procedures, polling locations and other common topics. A three-way language interpretation service was offered in over 100 languages.
    • Complementing Elections Canada’s main advertising program to help reach ethnocultural communities, ads were also featured in multiple languages on specialty television and radio, in community newspapers and as Internet banners.

 Source: Elections Canada

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Published in Top Stories

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