Since early July, the Jewish Defence League (JDL), B’nai Brith, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and other organizations have been waging what Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) describes as a “campaign of intimidation” against Foodbenders, a restaurant in Toronto.
Owner Kimberly Hawkins started receiving hate messages in December, after painting an “I <3 Gaza” sign on the restaurant’s window in protest of Israel’s illegal blockade on the territory and killing of protesters during Palestinians’ Great March of Return. The onslaught against Foodbenders began in earnest in July, when Hawkins posted on Instagram that the restaurant was “open now for non racist shoppers … #freepalestine #zionistsnotwelcome.”
Since then, the JDL, described by the FBI as a “right-wing terrorist group,” has been staging protests outside the restaurant. The restaurant has been vandalized repeatedly, including with a Star of David spray-painted on its windows and “Allah is Satan” on the sidewalk outside, which is also in front of a mosque. Multiple delivery apps, including Uber, DoorDash and Ritual, now refuse to deliver Foodbenders’ food. A fundraising page set up to support the restaurant was disabled by GoFundMe, the same platform that refused to take down the donations campaign that raised more than $220,000 for Gerald Stanley, who killed Cree youth Colten Boushie in 2016.
Some of Hawkins’ social media activity targeting Zionists did indefensibly invoke antisemitic tropes. IJV, for example, noted that one of her posts described the JDL as “controlling” Canadian media. On another occasion, she wrote that Zionists had “infested” a particular Facebook page. Hawkins also referred on Instagram to “connections” between notorious sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and the “zionist Mossad,” an echo of antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Significantly, after a meeting between IJV Toronto and Hawkins, IJV Toronto issued a statement indicating that “Ms. Hawkins was open to hearing this criticism, expressed regret, and made it clear that she did not want to offend or encourage antisemitism.”
It’s obvious from the media coverage and hate messages, though, that Hawkins’ major crime is daring to express solidarity with Palestinians under occupation. For instance, a Forward article referring to Foodbenders’ “anti-Semitic signs” is accompanied by a photo of the “I <3 Gaza” window, implicitly representing empathy with Gazans as an act of anti-Jewish hate.
Much of the hate mail Hawkins has received, some of which she has shared with us, is effectively genocidal against Palestinians. For example: “Palestine is full of terrorists;” “Palestine doesn’t exist;” “Palestine isn’t real;” “you are pieces of shit and will be wiped off the face of the earth;” “I hope someone Gazas you and your store while all your pathetic excuses for human patrons are inside.” This last one acknowledges the annihilative violence inflicted on Gaza by Israel’s military, but perversely exalts it as an exemplar to be emulated.
The vitriol targeting Hawkins personally has also been unrelenting. She has been inundated with thousands of death, arson and rape threats, and racist and misogynistic messages, such as: “BURN BITCH BURN;” “Muslim loving c*nt;” “f*cking hateful little c*nt;” “Nazi;” “dirty Palestinian whore;” “terrorist scum;” and “infidel woman” with “a weird fetish fantasy to be sharia’d by some Mustafa.”
One of the authors of this piece (Azeezah) witnessed a protester outside the store with a poster depicting Prophet Muhammad as a rapist of “6-year-old virgin” pigs, mirroring the same centuries-old libels of pig bestiality and sodomy used to demonize Jewish communities in Europe. Without any apparent sense of irony, the same protester also proudly advertised his support for antisemitic dog-whistler-in-chief, United States President Donald Trump.
Similarly, the JDL — so adamant in harassing Hawkins and Foodbenders — has previously made common cause with white supremacist groups such as the Soldiers of Odin, and individuals such as Faith Goldy, who once promoted a book that advocates the “elimination of the Jews.”
Equally disturbing as the hate itself — against Hawkins directly and Palestinians and Muslims by proxy — is the double standard evident in the public and official response.
Hawkins is facing an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal complaint for $25,000, yet the people caught on camera vandalizing her restaurant front haven’t been charged. Politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory, have castigated Hawkins as an antisemite, without acknowledging, let alone condemning, the avalanche of abuse she has been forced to endure. Corporate media has also failed to adequately report on the hate campaign — most of the coverage has been by the Toronto Sun, which has been fanning the flames.
CIJA and B’nai Brith have rightly raised concerns about the tarring of Jewish communities through guilt by association and the use of dehumanizing language.
At the same time, B’nai Brith Canada has co-hosted or helped sponsor events with speakers such as Daniel Pipes, infamous for “promot[ing] rabidly anti-Muslim views” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Ben Shapiro, who has claimed that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” Meanwhile, articles published by contributors on CIJA’s website — with the accompanying stock disclaimer that they “do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of CIJA, its staff, or Board of Directors” — declare that “Islam” is the “great antagonist,” describe “modern Islamic practice” as “barbaric” and deem “carnage and destruction … the Islamic manifestation of Tikun Olam [the Jewish concept of ‘healing the world’].”
And yet, these groups continue to be treated as esteemed anti-racism experts, throughout the Foodbenders furor and beyond. They were even consulted and quoted as witnesses in Canada’s Parliamentary study on Islamophobia following the Quebec mosque shooting.
In Canada, a cone of silence envelops the regular acts of aggression and intimidation against Palestine solidarity activists, as well as the violence perpetrated by the Israeli state itself.
For example, in April 2018, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CFJE) issued a statement condemning Israel’s attacks on demonstrators and media during the Great March of Return. The extreme backlash from prominent journalists that ensued eventually resulted in the statement being scrubbed from CJFE’s website and Kevin Metcalf, the journalist who wrote it, being sacked. (Metcalf had previously been beaten bloody by JDL members and other right-wing extremists at an anti-Muslim rally in Toronto.)
In September 2018, lawyer Dimitri Lascaris exposed a video of two women identified as B’nai Brith supporters calling for the death penalty against Trudeau and several racialized and Muslim members of parliament. Yet it was Lascaris alone who was impugned on social media, including by the prime minister.
In November 2019, when students at York University protested an event featuring Israel Defence Forces representatives — organized by a group since revealed to be funded by an Israeli government front organization — politicians and media smeared the protesting students as antisemites. At the same time, the documented physical assaults and rape threats against the protesters themselves were largely ignored.
These are just a few of the most notorious incidents; further examples abound.
The suppression of Palestine solidarity by blatantly misidentifying it as antisemitism threatens to be further exacerbated and even legalized by the entrenchment in Canada of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — a move the Foodbenders situation is being used to promote.
A July 2018 letter from more than 40 Jewish organizations worldwide warns that the IHRA definition “is worded in such a way as to be easily adopted … to intentionally equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism.” Tellingly, the IHRA definition’s examples of antisemitism predominantly pertain to criticisms of Israel, but make no specific mention of the more prevalent violence of resurgent neo-Nazism and the far-right.
Kenneth Stern, the original drafter of the IHRA definition, has spoken against enshrining it into law due to the danger of legally conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Yet this definition is being used as the basis for the Human Rights Tribunal complaint against Foodbenders — the first time in Canada it has been so employed.
The complaint alleges that Hawkins’ #zionistsnotwelcome post is discriminatory, even though political identity is not a prohibited ground of discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code. (Notably, the Toronto Sun’s usually inflammatory columnist Sue-Ann Levy announced herself as a “Zionist” when ordering at the restaurant and has acknowledged she had no trouble being served.)
The groups leading the anti-Foodbenders campaign are also citing the situation to urge Ontario politicians to fast-track Bill 168, which prescribes use of the IHRA definition and examples to interpret anti-discrimination and anti-hate laws, and mandates the codification of this misleading understanding of antisemitism within the province’s regulations and policies.
A recently released legal opinion by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard for human rights organization Yesh Din confirms, once again, that Israel is perpetrating the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians — an injustice being “crystallized” with the impending annexation of Palestinian territory, as 48 United Nations human rights experts have warned. At the same time, the ability to protest this oppressive reality is being crushed, including with the creeping institutionalization of the IHRA definition in law.
As for the Palestinians subjected for decades to this violently racist regime, where is the Canadian political and media outrage for them? The active silence — and silencing of voices and initiatives for justice for Palestinians — constitutes complicity in the crime.