MONTREAL – Normally, when a dual-passport Canadian accidentally perishes in the chaos of war abroad, sympathy is duly expressed, and the news treadmill pushes on. But when almost an entire Canadian family is wiped out simply for being in their former home at the wrong time, shock waves ripple beyond sympathy to wariness, even fear, of grim consequences in Canada.
Eight members of the Al-Akhras family of Montreal, vacationing in their ancestral village of Aitaroun in southern Lebanon, died Sunday as collateral damage in an Israeli bombing raid against Hezbollah infrastructure. Half of Canada’s nearly 500,000 Lebanese Canadians live in and around Montreal. The city is no stranger to politically-motivated reprisals for Israel’s perceived sins, so local Jewish antennae were set a-quiver by this news.
Hassan Al-Akhras, son, nephew and cousin to the victims—four adults, four children aged one to eight—had been planning, with his sister, to join his family yesterday, before all flights to Lebanon were cancelled. News of the tragedy reached the 31-year old Al-Akhras by cellphone. At the time, ironically enough, he and his sister Hanan were marching in downtown Montreal, one of a 1,000-strong anti-war protest, organized by the ad hoc Montreal Lebanese Committee. Many fellow marchers made odd bedfellow, Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah supporters united in common enmity against Israel, George Bush—and Stephen Harper.
Some Montreal demonstrators, holding or wearing Lebanese flags, brandished placards shouting, “Israel assassin, Canada complice!” Others held signs with Stephen Harper’s image: “We were stupid for voting for you.” “[My family] are all martyrs”, Hassan declared after hearing the bad news, and in a direct statement to Harper, “Tell Israel to stop the bombing.”
It is one of those strange historical coincidences that at the very moment the Al-Akhrases were felled as a result of reaction to terrorist aggression, their survivors were publicly engaged in implicit support for the terrorist group that provoked Israel’s fatal attack. (The next day, the support was made explicit when an angry Al-Akhras family member told media: “Everyone says it’s the fault of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is our protector”.)
Many Canadians will, unfortunately, take their first reading of the whole Lebanese-Canadian community’s mood from these accounts of Hassan and his comrades’ bitter reactions. This is indeed an ironic coincidence, because the great majority of Lebanese-Canadians don’t share Hassan and Hanan Al-Akhras’ views. One swallow doesn’t make a spring, and 1,000 disaffected demonstrators from a community of 250,000 is hardly a critical mass.
Three quarters of Canadians of Lebanese descent are Christians. They strongly support the Harper government’s Middle East policy, and in particular appreciate Stockwell Day’s championing of human rights in Lebanon. Virtually all of them loathe Hezbollah—indeed, they loathe all terrorist groups—and approved Hezbollah being so classified by the Canadian government. The remaining Shiite Lebanese-Canadians are on the whole liberal-minded and, if not so vocally anti-Hezbollah as the Christians, quite cognizant of Hezbollah’s deviant presence in Lebanon.
Most encouragingly, relations between Lebanese and Jews in Montreal are active and warm (A robust Arab-Jewish dialogue, majoritarily Lebanese, was recently initiated by a prominent Jewish business leader).
On Monday I spoke to Elias Bejjani, who heads the Lebanese-Canadian Coordinating Council, umbrella organization for Lebanese-Canadian cultural and religious interests across Canada. He emphasized that all Lebanese-Canadians feel intensely Canadian, and put Canada first in their loyalties. Indeed, they see Canada as a model for a future democratic Lebanon. “We don’t support Israel, but Israel is not our enemy,” he added. “Syria and Iran are our enemies.”
He directed me to his group’s Web site, www.10452Lccc.com, which declares: “We appeal to the Lebanese people in Diaspora countries … While they should feel empathy for their own suffering people in … every corner of Lebanon… that empathy should not be confused with sympathy for Hezbollah … We call on the Lebanese people everywhere to demonstrate in front of Syrian and Iranian embassies to tell them to stop supporting Hezbollah and stop shipping weapons and providing political cover for the Hezbollah Group … Its Leadership only obeyed Tehran’s and Damascus’ orders. This is treason and violates the Lebanese constitution.”
The condolences of all Canadians go out to the surviving Al-Akhras family. May all Lebanese-Canadians be spared further sorrow from this terrible but necessary war.