Since Israel launched its genocidal war on Palestinians three months ago, Israel’s apologists have launched an unprecedented assault on Canadians’ right to protest.
In Calgary, a protester was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance with a hate motivation. His ‘crime’? He chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. Eventually, the charges were stayed, but the message to the public was clear: if you use language to which the pro-Israel lobby objects, you risk being charged with a hate-motivated criminal offence.
In Canada’s capital, the city’s pro-Israel administration is now fining Palestinian solidarity protesters for using megaphones during day-time protests held on public property. Ottawa’s police are issuing these fines after allowing anti-vaccine mandate protesters to drown the city in deafening noise for weeks on end in early 2o22.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Israel’s apologists are pressuring the police to shut down protests in ‘Jewish neighbourhoods’. Thus far, that tactic has failed, and for one simple reason: no Canadian law bars protests against genocide in ‘Jewish neighbourhoods’.
The Avenue Road overpass controversy
For the past several months, Palestinian solidarity activists have protested regularly on major overpasses around the country. Generally, the activists wave at passing motorists with Palestinian flags and banners denouncing Israel.
I regularly receive call-outs for these protests. Here’s a typical example of the call-outs sent to me by activists in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA):
Any observer who is familiar with the GTA would understand that most of the locations chosen by the organizers of these protests are not situated in neighbourhoods that have a relatively large proportion of Jewish residents.
Moreover, the 2021 census determined that nearly 400,000 persons in Canada identify as Jewish by either religion or ethnicity, and that nearly one-half of them live in Toronto, a city of 2.7 million. Thus, if one were to select five Toronto overpasses randomly, there’s a decent chance that at least one of them will be situated near a neighbourhood where there is a relatively high proportion of Jewish residents.
None of this matters, of course, to genocide apologists like Michael Levitt. The former Liberal MP and current CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center blew a gasket after Palestinian solidarity activists appeared on the Avenue Road overpass in Toronto.
On December 31, following a protest on that overpass, Levitt claimed that an “anti-Israel mob” had “targeted” the overpass for reasons that were “far from random”. Levitt fulminated that the overpass was “a few hundred metres” from a “predominantly Jewish neighbourhood”.
Within hours of Levitt’s tweet, Canada’s pro-Israel lobby erupted in indignation.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – Canada’s most influential pro-Israel lobby group – claimed that Toronto’s Jewish community had been ‘targeted’ with “an obvious effort at intimidation”.
The controversy surrounding the Avenue Road overpass descended into the absurd after a video emerged of a Toronto police officer handing coffee to pro-Palestinian protesters standing on the overpass. The coffee was not a gift from the police to the protesters. As the video makes clear, the coffee was purchased by another protester who was prevented by the police from joining those who had already taken positions on the overpass. All that a police officer did was pass some coffee from one protester to another protester.
The pro-Israel lobby was so outraged by this insignificant act of professional courtesy that it almost accused the police of being pro-Hamas. Coffee-Gate quickly became an international scandal after Fox News picked up the story:
In a panic, Toronto’s police chief Myron Demkiw rushed out a statement in which he apologized for the “interaction”. Demkiw revealed that, upon learning of Coffee-Gate, he had “immediately convened Command meetings and ordered a thorough review of the days events…”:
What is a “predominantly Jewish neighbourhood”?
Predictably, none of the genocide apologists who have denounced the Avenue Road protesters acknowledge that the intersection of Avenue Road and Highway 401 experiences huge amounts of vehicular traffic and is centrally located. Thus, there is a perfectly innocent explanation for the ‘targeting’ of this overpass: a flag-waving protest on this particular overpass is relatively easy to access and is likely to be noticed by a large number of motorists.
Similarly, critics of these protests ignore that the protests are taking place on public property.
Moreover, none of the critics explain what they mean by “Jewish neighbourhoods” or “predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods”. Specifically, what proportion of a neighbourhood’s population must identify as religiously or ethnically Jewish for that neighbourhood to constitute a “Jewish” or “predominantly Jewish” neighbourhood?
In his tweet denouncing the protest on the Avenue Road overpass, Levitt implied that the overpass is situated in his former riding, York Centre. (In fact, the overpass is situated on the southern boundary of York Centre.) According to Canadian Jewish News, only 19% of York Centre is Jewish. Does that make Levitt’s former riding “predominantly Jewish”?
No Canadian law bars protests against genocide in a “predominantly Jewish” neighbourhood
Let’s put aside the question of whether York Centre can be described fairly as “predominantly Jewish”.
The fact is that more than 80% of the riding’s population is non-Jewish. Does Levitt seriously contend that the non-Jewish residents of York Centre should be banned from protesting Israel’s actions in their own riding because one in five of their riding’s residents is Jewish?
Moreover, what about the Jewish residents of York Centre who are opposed to Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians? Are they too barred from protesting against Israel’s crimes in their own riding?
I have participated in dozens of protests in support of Palestinian human rights. At almost all of them, a significant proportion of the participants identified as members of the Jewish community. In fact, many of the protests in which I have participated were organized by members of the Jewish community.
Fundamentally, Levitt and CIJA are insinuating that protests against Israel’s crimes and in support of Palestinians’ human rights are inherently offensive to Jewish persons. Clearly, that is false. Moreover, and in my view, that claim is anti-Semitic. A large and growing number of Jews proclaim that their values oblige them to oppose racist oppression, even if the oppressor is ‘the Jewish state’. Implying that Jewish values oblige Jews to support Israel’s crimes is a smear against the Jewish people.
For these and other reasons, there is no law in this country that bars protests against Israel’s crimes in “Jewish neighbourhoods”. That is precisely why the police have not shut down the protests on the Avenue Road overpass, and are highly unlikely to attempt any such thing. Indeed, nowhere in his panicked apologia did Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw state that Toronto police would prevent further protests from taking place on the Avenue Road overpass or in any other “Jewish neighbourhood”.
At the end of the day, the pro-Israel lobby’s complaints are more theatrical than real. They shift the public discourse away from the horrifying facts on Palestinian ground and focus our attention on fabricated or exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism in our own country.
The goal of Canada’s pro-Israel lobby is to distract Canadians from the truth.
The horrifying truth is that Israel is committing genocide, and Canada’s elite is enabling it.