June 2, 2019
Yesterday, over 1,000 protesters gathered outside the United States Consulate in Toronto to demand justice for Palestinians.
In so doing, they defied a bevy of pro-Israel politicians, lobby groups and media, including Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, and John Tory, the mayor of Canada’s largest city.
Ford, Tory and other pro-Israel politicians have repeatedly vowed to bring an end to the Al Quds Day rally.
On June 10, 2018, within days of his election, Ford tweeted that “Our government will take action to ensure that events like Al Quds Day… are no longer part of the landscape in Ontario.”
Two days earlier, Toronto’s Mayor vowed to take “strong action” against the Al Quds Day organizers, while Liberal MP Michael Levitt, Chair of the Canada-Israel Parliamentary Group, urged the City and Province “to hold the organisers accountable for this hateful event.”
No politician, however, has been as relentless in attacking Al Quds Day as Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak. For years, the fanatically Zionist Pasternak has waged a veritable jihad against the Al Quds Day organizers.
In November 2017, the Ward 6 Councillor, whose constituent offices are steps away from the headquarters of pro-Israel lobby group B’nai Brith Canada, declared he was seeking “a legal framework” to make sure that Toronto “is not enabling hate rallies and racist marches by either neo-Nazis, white supremacists or Al-Quds Day supporters.”
In that month, Toronto’s executive committee voted to refer Pasternak’s concerns to the city manager, who was to consult with legal experts, police, Ontario’s attorney general and human rights groups on the city’s legal responsibility “with respect to preventing public gatherings that promote hate and incite discrimination from taking place on the city’s property.”
Pasternak’s crusade was aided and abetted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada and the Jewish Defence League Canada. Together, they have conducted a multi-year smear campaign against the Al Quds Day organizers.
On March 17, 2019, after more than a year of internal and external consultation with stakeholders, legal experts and others, city staff delivered a report to Toronto’s Executive Committee in which they advised the Committee that “the City did not identify any additional capacity to prevent public gatherings that promote hate and incite discrimination from taking place on City property.”
Pasternak was not happy. In comments to Canadian Jewish News, Pasternak insisted that staff must provide “a legal framework for preventing and responding to hate rallies, notably Al-Quds Day events and neo-Nazi and white supremacist gatherings.”
On March 21, 2019, with the support of Mayor Tory, Pasternak persuaded the Executive Committee to send city staff back to the drawing board.
On April 15, 2019, city staff issued a second report to Toronto’s Executive Committee. In it, they expressed their view that the “City’s current policies regarding hate activity are robust and adequately address the aim of preventing hate speech on public property.” In their second report, staff also reminded the Executive Committee of Canadians’ constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and association, and that the “City is legally obligated to respect those rights.”
Staff’s second report also revealed that, in response to a complaint from pro-Israel partisans about statements made at the Al Quds Day rally in June 2018, Toronto police officers and a police Superintendent had reviewed the statements complained of and had concluded that “the words spoken during the rally, which were captured and posted to YouTube, did not fit the criteria of a Hate Crime.”
At the Executive Committee’s meeting of May 1, 2019, Pasternak and Tory decided to ignore the advice they had twice requested and received (at significant taxpayer expense). They brought forward a resolution designed to deter the organizers of the Al Quds Day rally from proceeding with their rally scheduled for June 1, 2019.
Their resolution, which was adopted by City Council on May 14, 2019, encouraged City staff to require those who protest on City property to first obtain a permit to do so. It also directed staff to refuse to issue permits for events on City property which, in staff’s opinion, advocated “hatred” against any faith or race, and requested City staff to issue trespass or trespass warning letters to persons engaged in “hate activities” at rallies on City property.
Finally, their resolution directed City staff to make efforts to obtain reimbursement for all City-incurred expenses from organizers of events engaged in “hate activities.” This was a particularly onerous provision, because for sizeable protests, the City can incur expenses running into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Following the Executive Committee’s adoption of this resolution on May 1, the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy – a shameless promoter of Israel – was triumphant, but could not resist yet another opportunity to denigrate Toronto City staff. In an article entitled “Mayor puts Al Quds organizers on notice,” she wrote:
The organizers and supporters of the annual Al Quds Day hatefest were put on notice Wednesday that they could face trespassing charges if they spewed their anti-Israel venom this year in a city park.
Doing what the city’s high-priced human rights and legal bureaucrats failed to do over the past two years, Mayor John Tory and his executive committee approved a series of measures directed at the organizers of any questionable protests– not just Al Quds Day — that they’d better obtain a permit to rally on city property and that permit won’t be granted if they incite hatred or violence against a particular faith or race.
As these events unfolded at Toronto City Hall, a bill targeting the Al Quds Day rallies was winding its way quietly through Ontario’s legislature.
Bill 84 is entitled “An Act to amend the Legislative Assembly Act respecting demonstrations that promote hatred on legislative precinct grounds.” It was sponsored by Israeli-Canadian MPP Roman Baber, a member of Doug Ford’s Conservative party. It provides that “No demonstration, rally or other activity that, in the opinion of the Speaker, is likely to promote hatred against any identifiable group shall be permitted on legislative precinct grounds.”
On April 4, 2019, Bill 84 passed second reading and was referred to the Ontario legislature’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy.
The key questions raised by all of these legal initiatives are: what constitutes “hate speech” and who gets to decide whether speech is hateful?
In the case of Bill 84, that decision-maker would be the Speaker of the legislature, Ted Arnott of Doug Ford’s Conservative Party. As I have previously written, Arnott has demonstrated a strong bias in favour of Israel. Most notably, in 2010, Arnott supported a resolution condemning the term “Israeli Apartheid Week” on the grounds that that term allegedly “serves to incite hatred against Israel.”
Equating legitimate condemnation of Israel’s apartheid regime with hate speech is not only profoundly immoral, it is also a frontal assault on human rights advocacy.
That is why the organizers of the Al Quds Day Rally declined to seek a permit from the City or legislature for their rally this year. They refuse to have their speech constrained by a City and province whose leaders have a demonstrated bias in favour of Israel. (Only weeks ago, the Mayor himself made the outlandish claim that “Israel is a beacon of respect for democracy and human rights…”)
But these provincial and municipal measures to shield Israel from richly deserved condemnation have implications that extend far beyond the realm of Palestinian solidarity activism.
The notion that citizens should have to obtain a government permit to protest on public property should offend all those who care deeply about our rights of free expression, association and assembly. Such a permitting requirement is the sort of Orwellian restriction one would expect to find in a dictatorship, not in a constitutional democracy.
Ultimately, the question that loomed over this year’s rally was how city staff, and particularly Toronto police, would respond to the resolution adopted by City Council on May 14, 2019.
The answer, fortunately, is that the Al Quds Day rally was allowed to proceed in an orderly manner. City staff and Toronto police acted professionally and in accordance with the constitutional rights of the protesters. For this, City staff and Toronto police amply deserve our praise and credit, and not the kind of vitriol that a bitterly disgruntled Sue-Ann Levy has repeatedly levelled at them for respecting our constitutional rights.
At yesterday’s Al Quds Day rally, speakers included Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss, peace activist Ken Stone (who is also Jewish), Palestinian-Canadian Robert Massoud, a representative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, author and activist Yves Engler, and yours truly.
After speeches were delivered across the street from the United States Consulate, the protesters peacefully marched northward on University Avenue, then east on Dundas Street, then south on Bay Street and then west on Queens Street toward the protest’s point of departure on University Avenue.
The last two segments of their protest route lie immediately to the east and south of Toronto City Hall. That route was chosen specifically with the goal of sending an unambiguous message to City Council: we will not be silenced.