Too often, when my daughters were little, we had to run a gauntlet of haters to enter the JCC in downtown Toronto. For a weekend swim. Family fun.
Several blocks away, on one of the busiest streets in central Toronto – home to a community of approximately 200,000 Jews – is the office of the Israeli Consulate. Every Friday afternoon, a diehard gaggle of anti-Israel protesters assembles at the building entrance, often wearing black, in symbolic mourning, handing out leaflets rife with historical lies to passersby, and, generally, looking grumpy and earnest and totally unapproachable, in that righteously indignant kind of way.
Every once in a while, when Israel indulges its fascist proclivities, as occurred last week when it desecrated the Temple Mount by installing metal detectors, the weekly faithful put out a call to their colleagues to fortify their ranks. At such events, there is always a man wrapped in a kaffiyeh, bellowing into a megaphone. And they also add a second demonstration for Saturday, making sure to accost the weekend shoppers who throng to the area.
Typically, after a few hours, the demonstrators walk west along Bloor Street, braying all the way, until they reach the JCC. And there they stop. Mere meters from the front door, they scream at the people who come to enjoy the facility on a Saturday afternoon: young families; seniors; students. Out for a swim class, yoga, spin, workout. Pretty mundane, non-political stuff.
The building, a brown brick, no-nonsense, utilitarian, nondescript block is stuffed to the gills, housing a small theater; a nursery and day school; café; and all manner of fitness facilities. Of course, as with almost all buildings self-identified as having any association with things “Jewish,” it also has a security guard, and additional layers of electronic security “checks.” It’s been this way for many, many years.
Now, I’m all for free speech and freedom of assembly, two constitutional rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s version of the American Bill of Rights. In applying the relevant Charter provisions, Canadian courts are less absolutist than their American counterparts, preferring, as articulated in the document itself, to balance the rights of the individual with those of society. So, for example, if a judge were to look at the protesters outside the JCC, he/she might ask: do the protesters intimidate? Are they violent? Why do they choose to target a religious group? Is the JCC affiliated with or directly related to the State of Israel? If the protesters have a political message to convey, why do they purposely and repeatedly demonstrate aggressively, with a clear intent to intimidate and engender fear? And why do they do this in such a manner and with such a group? What social benefit is protected by allowing this conduct to continue? If their so-called protests are peaceful, then why is it necessary to have police officers present to ensure that JCC patrons may enter and exit the building without physical or other harm?
All good questions, of course, that will likely never be asked – but should be – by our community, civic, provincial and federal leaders. I expect that were such demonstrations regularly held targeting other minority religious groups there would be a vociferous hue and cry. Such conduct would be decried as “hate speech” in a nanosecond, and the whole enterprise shut down.
Yet, for some reason, we have a boundless tolerance in Toronto, and elsewhere, for such activity targeting Jews.
During their “Saturday specials” at the JCC, these “peace” activists yell, threaten and intimidate. Correction: they don’t yell. They scream at the top of their lungs. Rage at Israel. Jews. Zionists. Zionism. Oppressive Fascists. Nazis. All the stuff that has become the standard chants of the modern Jew-hater.
Last Saturday, a friend of mine, who is not Jewish, happened by the Toronto JCC on his bicycle, and found himself terrified as he threaded the narrow bike-lane strip acting as something of a “no-man’s land” between a phalanx of police officers – who were ensuring the steps to the JCC front door were clear for members – and the angry mob chanting, relentlessly: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and other catchy slogans. The usual repertoire.
These people hate Israel and all Jews. For this reason they target both the consulate – a representative office of the State of Israel – and the community center, an apolitical place of culture and fitness. To them, Jews patronizing the JCC are, by definition, evil. To them, it is their duty – they who masquerade as social progressives – to terrify, demonize and isolate Jews, and increase the general public awareness of our insidious beliefs, loyalties and conduct.
How else does one explain their shameful protests, scaring little children going for a swim class with mommy or daddy?
This scourge is not new. Or secret. But it is, remarkably, unremarked upon.The author, Canadian ambassador to Israel (2014-16), is a senior fellow at Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). A Toronto native, she now resides in Tel Aviv.