I donned a headscarf and sunglasses, and removed the Star of David I wear around my neck. I knew that I was taking a risk by going undercover to the Al-Quds Day rally in Toronto on July 2. Al-Quds Day is marked by annual demonstrations around the world, opposing the existence of the state of Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, and supporting the Palestinian cause. In Toronto, there is usually a large Al-Quds Day protest and a strong counter-protest.
In years past, I have proudly waved my Israeli flag at the counter-protest. Police always set up barriers between the two groups of protesters, in order to keep the peace. I had thus never had a chance to experience the Al-Quds side for myself — until this year.
I arrived early. The first thing I noticed was the signs the protesters were holding. Several claimed the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) are equivalent, saying, “ISIS and IDF are the same: Only difference is their name” and “Humanity devastated, Zionist collaborated, ISIS & IDF activated.” Some read: “Boycott IsraHell.” Others showed graphic images purporting to be bloodied Palestinian children being abused by the IDF. I later searched for these images online and found that they were from other conflicts, unrelated to Israel.
The large crowd chanted “Zionism is racism is terrorism,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Black, red, green and white, Palestine is going to fight.”
The speeches were also deeply unsettling. Speakers said there should be no “so-called” state of Israel, that Israel is committing ethnic cleansing, that “Zionists gun down women as their income” and that “Zionism is racism.” One speaker said that Israel had executed a 17-year-old boy, referring to the Palestinian who slaughtered a 13-year-old Israeli girl while she was sleeping and was shot by the IDF while trying to murder her family. Another said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not a true Canadian, claiming he was too pro-Israel. The crowd cheered each speaker, while constantly shouting, “Down with Israel.”
After I left, and took the scarf off, I was profoundly disturbed that there were people allowed to espouse this hatred outside the Ontario legislature. I was cautiously optimistic when B’nai Brith launched an investigation, both into the public school teacher who spoke at the event and the event itself. I was pleased when the Toronto District Catholic School Board suspended the teacher during its investigation.
But, as I head back to school this fall, I know I will continue to see these messages and tactics used frequently by anti-Israel organizations on campus. In my experience, most university students are anti-Israel. A major contributing factor is the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda spread on college campuses. I wish the Al-Quds Day event was an anomaly, but, as many students will attest, events like these occur far too frequently on campuses across the country. Simulated Israel apartheid walls are erected, “die in” protests are staged and demonstrations of fake IDF soldiers attacking students posing as Palestinians are all-too commonplace.
Even students who have no connection to the Middle East end up supporting the Palestinian cause, because anti-Israel groups often form coalitions with other groups of students who feel they have been oppressed in some way, by arguing that they have common cause. The fault in this logic is that Israel is comprised mostly of Jews. Canadian Jews have the largest number of religiously motivated hate crimes perpetrated against them. And Jews have been subjected to great injustices, including the Holocaust and various pogroms, around the world for centuries. It is the Jews, in other words, who are often oppressed. And the reality about Israel is, of course, that it is the sole liberal democracy in the region — the only country the offers legal protections to minorities — not the evil oppressor its enemies portray.
Canada has laws against hate speech, and targeting identifiable groups for intimidation. Having now spent time inside an Al-Quds rally, it’s hard for me to imagine that these events do not cross the line where free speech becomes something else, something far more sinister and dangerous. More Canadians, particularly those in positions of power and influence, need to know what is being said at these events. Until they do, they will not understand why Jewish students such as myself no longer feel safe wearing our Magen Davids on campus, even right here at home in Canada.
This article was written by Aedan O’Connor, a student studying pre-med at Ryerson University in Toronto, and published by the National Post Sept. 8, 2016.