On May 15, at least 5,000 people congregated in downtown Toronto to protest Israel’s ongoing colonial oppression of Palestinians. Nathan Phillips Square was full, overflow crowds shut down surrounding streets and even parts of the highway were jammed, as people headed into the city to show solidarity.
The protest was officially scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m., but lasted well into the night. I fell asleep past midnight to the hum of motorists honking in support, which had been going on non-stop for hours.
Polling over the years has shown that the Canadian public supports Palestinians in their struggle against apartheid and colonialism, and this protest served as anecdotal proof. People of all ages, backgrounds and religions attended the protest, and it was filled with Palestinian music, liberation chants, and drums.
If your only awareness of this protest was from corporate media and politicians, however, you’d have a far different idea of what happened on the ground. You would have heard the prime minister, premier, mayor and a range of MPs, MPPs, and senators describe the protests as violent, hateful, antisemitic, a threat to Canadian values, etc.
This difference in narrative didn’t emerge because the politicians were there and saw something the rest of us didn’t. It didn’t emerge because of some sort of genuine confusion on anyone’s part. Instead, the narrative that demonized pro-Palestinian protesters was crafted and promoted by a range of different groups working toward a shared goal: breaking Palestinian solidarity movements, and punishing those who take part in them. This skewing of the narrative wasn’t unique to this protest, and in fact is the product of a well-oiled machine that operates whenever critics of Israel dare to congregate.
The purpose of this machine was well-elucidated by Samer Elatrash, a Palestinian activist, in the 2004 documentary Discordia. Elatrash is told that some people are saying he’s antisemitic, and asked about his response. He replies, “If you’re going to be an apologist for Israel and the occupation, you have to deny that there is any Palestinian suffering, and therefore any legitimate Palestinian grievances. But you have to furnish another explanation to why Palestinians are revolting, and that is of course that Palestinians are simply antisemitic. ‘Why else would they revolt? Because they’re antisemitic. Period.’”
Meanwhile, comments made by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse in a December 2019 panel that recently went viral on Twitter illustrate why Zionists make this effort. Wisse said, mimicking how she suggests Israeli Jews should recruit North American Jews on campus: “Our job is not to make you look good, American Jews, what do you have to worry about? Your job is to make us look good. Every one of us has to serve three years in the army […] You have got to serve two or three years in the army of words. You’ve got to learn to fight the political battle, which is even more important at this point than the military battle. […] You know how we train for the army? We don’t train for defensive warfare. If the war against Israel ever had to be fought on Israeli soil … Do I have to tell you? It’s an impossibility. So it’s the same thing. Don’t let the war of words ever be fought about Israel’s nature. Let it be fought about why you can’t accept Israel.”
I’m going to take an in-depth look at the protest last month, and one in November 2019 at York University (which I’ve written about before and will draw heavily from here), to detail the six steps of what is effectively a pro-Israel pipeline in Canada that manufactures narratives of antisemitism to try to prevent people from talking about Israel’s injustices for too long.
This pipeline plays a crucial role in ensuring Palestinians here, there and everywhere face more obstacles in their path to liberation.
Step 1: The Protest
Summary: Palestine solidarity organizers will announce a protest against something Israel is doing abroad, or that Zionists are doing within Canada. The Jewish Defense League (JDL) will organize a counter-protest, and portray the pro-Palestinians as being antisemitic, terrorist sympathizers, etc. (As I wrote in 2019, “In recent years, members of the JDL have incited violence; attacked journalists; terrorized marginalized communities; been investigated by the RCMP on suspicions they were planning to bomb a Palestinian community centre; brutally assaulted an elderly Palestinian man in what has been labelled by authorities as a hate crime.”) On the day of the protest, the JDL will show up, verbally harass pro-Palestine protesters and sometimes physically attack them as well. They will attempt to elicit a violent response from the pro-Palestine side, which will occasionally defend itself.
May 15 Protest: On May 10, the Palestinian Youth Movement announced they’d be hosting a rally in Nathan Phillips Square on May 15 to commemorate the Nakba and the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, pogroms in Jerusalem and other violence against Palestinians.
On May 11, the leader of JDL Canada, Meir Weinstein, tweeted, “There is an anti Israel pro Hamas rally planned for Toronto at City Hall on Saturday May 15th at 7:00 pm. JDL will lead a counter protest. We must take a stand and counter protest against this antisemitic incitement and stand with Israel.” Weinstein would send out several more similar tweets over the next few days, although he’d swap out “anti Israel” with “anti Jewish.”
On May 15 in a parking lot north of where the rally was taking place, a group of pro-Israelis, including JDL members, fought with a few pro-Palestinians. Video of the incident shows the two groups arguing until the Palestinian side eventually walks away. Then, one of the pro-Israel people appears to attempt to pull a flag away from a child. The pro-Palestinian side runs back to defend the child, and several people begin fighting.
During this fight, one man swings a club (he’d later claim it was a selfie stick) and then brandishes a knife. He is told to put it down and doesn’t, at which point he is chased by a few of the pro-Palestinian protesters attempting to disarm him.
The man who swung the club and brandished the knife is a member of the Riders of the Covenant (ROC) pro-Israel motorcycle club, which the Canadian Anti-Hate Network describes as JDL-linked, though the club denies the claim. One of the men involved in the fight is the JDL’s “security director.” Two other pro-Israel people involved in the incident, both claiming to be JDL members, were interviewed earlier in the night and described how they came to the protest ready to fight. One of the two tells a passerby: “I used to rape guys like you in prison, bro.”
2019 York Protest: Herut Canada, founded in 2019, is a pro-Israel group associated with the former Herut Party in Israel, which Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and other Jewish intellectuals called “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” An Independent Jewish Voices Canada member labelled Herut Canada a “tiny, extremist faction within the right-wing white Jewish community.”
On Nov. 3, 2019, Herut Canada announced that they’d be “bringing former IDF soldiers to York University in Toronto to discuss Israel, BDS, and more” on November 20. The former soldiers were members of the Reservists on Duty group, which has received high-level support from the Israeli army. The Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York group announced they’d be protesting the event.
The event’s organizer has since said that she “personally appointed a security organizer” with “connections to certain Jewish motorcycle groups,” including the aforementioned ROC. She noted that members of these groups were invited to provide “security” for the event, and that the JDL also planned to show up. York University reached out to the JDL prior to the event giving them formal warning that if they engaged in “threats and intimidation” they’d be asked to leave campus.
On the day of the event, the pro-Palestinian protesters were attacked by JDL members and other hired “security.” As I wrote at the time, “This included a teaching assistant being knocked unconscious and being concussed as a result, a marshal choked with a scarf, several students being spat at and shoved, Palestinian flags being stolen to be used as weapons or urinated on, and racist and homophobic chants being used. Moreover, others have pointed to JDL members allegedly planning the violence in advance, and also celebrating it after the fact, including gloating about the person knocked unconscious.”
In March 2020, Weinstein would be banned (once again) from York University’s campus for the JDL’s actions the day of the protest.
Step Two: The Statements From Pro-Israel Organizations
Summary: Pro-Israel Jewish organizations, who may attempt to get the protest shut down in advance, will monitor the event on social media or in person. They craft a narrative of the event that demonizes the pro-Palestinians, portraying them as violent antisemites who came to the protest to attack innocent Jews. Their narrative is usually similar to the JDL’s, but it typically ignores that the pro-Israel protest or counter-protest was organized by the JDL. In fact, they will typically completely ignore the JDL in their narrative, perhaps because the presence of its members clashes with the story they’re trying to tell. (To be clear, these organizations are not in cahoots with the JDL, and some have condemned the JDL before under different circumstances, labelling them a “small, marginal group that does not receive any substantial support within our community.”) These organizations will then publish a statement containing this narrative on their websites, and pump them out on social media.
May 15 Protest: In the leadup to the protest, B’nai Brith Canada put out a press release noting they were “contacting police in the relevant jurisdictions, urging them to caution rally organizers and issue fines if rallies proceed in violation of provincial health orders.” They added, “We are calling on local police forces to ensure that officers, including those who speak the languages that will be used at these various rallies, will attend the events, take detailed notes about what is said, and enforce all relevant municipal bylaws and anti-hate speech laws.”
Then, on May 16 at 12:07 a.m., while the protest was still ongoing, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto released a joint press release about the night.
The statement was based on a video (linked in the press release) that only showed the tail end of the fight between the group including JDL members and pro-Palestinians. It also portrayed the man with the club and knife (who B’nai Brith would later refer to as a gentleman) as a victim, including a photo of his bloodied face in the press release.
The statement reads in part: “We condemn in the strongest terms these brazen acts of assault, intimidation, and hate targeting members of Toronto’s Jewish community and supporters of Israel. There is absolutely no justification for political violence in the streets of Toronto, whatever one’s cause may be.”
The statement argued the fight was proof “anti-Israel activists are seeking to use the current violence in the Middle East as an excuse to target Toronto’s Jewish community for intimidation and hate.” The statement didn’t mention the JDL at all, even though someone wearing a JDL shirt was visible in the video they shared, which should have been a red flag.
In effect, the statement transforms a fight started by JDL members and armed pro-Israelis into a mob assault on innocent Jews simply because they’re Jews, and then uses that to attack a peaceful, massive protest nearby as a hateful and antisemitic threat to Canada. It also mistakenly portrays these JDL figures as representative of “Toronto’s Jewish community.”
2019 York Protest: Multiple pro-Israel Jewish organizations releasted statements about the event shortly after it finished.
First came B’nai Brith, who tweeted out their statement at 10:25 p.m. that night. They refer to the pro-Palestine protesters as an “enraged mob” and accuse them of glorifying terrorism. They don’t mention any of the violent attacks on pro-Palestine protesters, nor do they mention the JDL’s presence at the event.
Next was CIJA, who tweeted out their statement at 12:13 p.m. the following day. They wrote, “Last night, a Jewish campus club event at York University was the target of violent protests.” They do not mention the event was held by Herut Canada, and, as even B’nai Brith noted, was a “pro-Israel” event and not some sort of Jewish community event. Their statement is misleading, as the only group it names is Hillel, giving the impression the protest was targeting one of their events. They don’t mention any of the violent attacks on pro-Palestine protesters, nor do they mention the JDL’s presence at the event.
Then, FSWC tweeted out their statement at 1:39 p.m. They said that they are “pressing law enforcement, government and university leaders to investigate and condemn a shocking case of violent antisemitism last night at York University.” Their president said, “We are urging these leaders to take immediate steps regarding the environment that York University has created over the years that has led to what can only be described as an antisemitic, violent, racist mob sentiment toward Jewish students on this campus.”
They don’t mention any of the violent attacks on pro-Palestine protesters, nor do they mention the JDL’s presence at the event. It’s important to note also that the FSWC helped Herut Canada get student club status.
Step Three: Statements From Politicians
Summary: Many prominent Canadian politicians meet with these pro-Israel Jewish organizations privately or even go on trips to Israel they fund. (There is nothing illegal about these activities, and all sorts of groups do it to an extent, not just those with a pro-Israel agenda.) It’s unlikely politicians would speak out based on information passed on to them directly by the JDL. However, the narrative from pro-Israel Jewish organizations about the protest is typically similar. Politicians would now no longer be sharing the narrative of a violent far-right group, but rather one from a well-known pro-Israel Jewish organization that they respect. As such, after the pro-Israel organizations release their statements, politicians quickly follow suit and condemn the pro-Palestine protest. Some politicians will directly link to or reference the statements from the pro-Israel organizations, but all will parrot their narrative. This will likely be the only comment from politicians on the protest as a whole.
May 15 Protest: Within 24 hours of the pro-Israel organizations releasing their statement, the pro-Palestine protest had been condemned on Twitter by: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole, Senator Linda Frum, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Ontario MPP Stephen Lecce, Toronto Mayor John Tory and others. Frum’s condemnation linked directly to the joint press release. O’Toole and Lecce both quote-tweeted Frum. Here are snippets of the condemnations on Twitter the day after the protest:
- 7:25 a.m.: “I join with these Jewish Organizations to condemn the violence that occurred at a Toronto protest yesterday. Horrified that such an open display of antisemitic violence happened on the streets of Toronto.” – Linda Frum
- 11:04 a.m.: “Acts of violence and anti-Semitism on the streets of Toronto and elsewhere in Canada are disturbing and unacceptable.” – Erin O’Toole
- 11:18 a.m.: “Hate, anti-Semitism and violence have no place in our city. Any violence against our city’s Jewish community or members of any other community in Toronto is absolutely unacceptable. I have been in touch with [Toronto Police] Chief Ramer and have made available to him a video of a particularly disturbing incident which had been sent to me.” – John Tory
- 5:18 p.m.: “These acts of violence and expression of antisemitism have no place in Ontario.” – Doug Ford
- 6:41 p.m.: “Here at home, antisemitism is on the rise. The violent attack on a Canadian Jew this weekend is yet another appalling reminder of this historical scourge.” – Stephen Lecce
- 9:18 pm: “Everyone has the right to assemble peacefully and express themselves freely in Canada – but we cannot and will not tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia, or hate of any kind. We strongly condemn the despicable rhetoric and violence we saw on display in some protests this weekend.” – Justin Trudeau
These condemnations parroted the pro-Israel organizations’ statement, described JDL members as mere members of the “Jewish community” and ignored what really happened on the ground. Some of these statements specifically portrayed the knife wielding man as a victim. None of these statements discussed any violence faced by pro-Palestinians.
Together, these statements were retweeted and quote-tweeted more than 6,700 times, providing a laundered JDL narrative with a massive audience and the perceived legitimacy of being verified by the highest ranking officials in Canada. The politicians have yet to issue any sort of correction or retraction on the issue. In fact, when asked by CBC about why they failed to mention what had really happened, both Tory and Ford said they stand by their remarks.
Meanwhile, a “JDL Alert” sent by email after the protest read: “JDL Success Having Mayor John Tory And Many Other Political Leaders Condemn The Anti Israel Protest As Antisemitic And Make Arrests.”
2019 York Protest: Shortly after the pro-Israel organizations began releasing their statements, politicians followed suit. The pro-Palestine protest was condemned on Twitter by Trudeau, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, Ford, MPs Michael Levitt (who is now the president and CEO of the FSWC) and Michelle Rempel, MPPs Lecce and Roman Baber, Tory, Toronto city councillor James Pasternak and others. Pasternak referenced B’nai Brith directly in his statement. Tory mentioned that he had “heard concerns from several Jewish groups in our city today.” Here are snippets from all of these statements on Twitter the day after the protest:
- 9:57 a.m.: “Ontario’s Jewish Community is shocked, saddened and outraged by yesterday’s occurrence at York University.” – Roman Baber
- 11:54 a.m.: “The fact that Jewish students are threatened and feel unwelcome and uncomfortable on university campuses because of anti-Israel, BDS-related and antisemitic intimidation is intolerable and must be addressed.” – Michael Levitt
- 1:32 p.m.: “I am disappointed that York University allowed for a hate-filled protest to take place last night at Vari Hall. I stand with the Jewish students and the Jewish community.” – Doug Ford
- 2:47 p.m.: “I have heard concerns from several Jewish groups in our city today. Anti-Semitism and violence is totally unacceptable.” – John Tory
- 3:29 p.m.: “Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak condemns anti-Israel, anti-Semitic mob violence at York University.” – James Pasternak
- 5:33 p.m.: “Free speech is one thing, but anti-Semitism violently targeting Jewish students is indefensible & unacceptable.” – Stephen Lecce
- 7:27 p.m.: “I unequivocally condemn the acts of antisemitism faced by the members of the Jewish community at the event.” – Andrew Scheer
Trudeau put out his statement the next day, saying, “What happened that night was shocking and absolutely unacceptable. Anti-Semitism has no place in Canada.”
Like the statements responding to the May 15 protest, most of these condemnations either directly referenced or parroted those from the pro-Israel organizations, erased the presence of JDL members and mislabeled the event as a Jewish community one, failed to mention any of the serious violence inflicted upon the pro-Palestinian protesters, and alleged antisemitism without any proof of such.
Together, these statements were retweeted and quote-tweeted more than 4,700 times, and, to the best of my knowledge, these politicians never followed up with corrections, retractions or even concern for the JDL-inflicted violence.
Step Four: The Media Coverage
Summary: Prompted by the statements from pro-Israel organizations and politicians, media outlets now begin to report and comment on the protest. These stories typically will quote the pro-Israel organizations as well as at least a couple politicians. Very few will quote anyone on the pro-Palestine side, and almost none will question the pro-Israel frame instead of assuming it to be true. As a result, a wider audience of Canadians gets fed a misleading narrative of what happened at the protest, which just so happens to reinforce racist and Islamophobic notions of Palestinians and their supporters as antisemites.
May 15 Protest: A review of some news coverage of the protest reveals that the vast majority focused on the aforementioned fight, with little reporting done on what the protest was about. With the exception of one article from the CBC, the articles all adopted the pro-Israel narrative on the fight. Most of them quoted the statement put out by the pro-Israel Jewish groups, as well as several of the politicians that advanced their narrative. Meanwhile, only the CBC article quoted anyone from the other side. The media coverage effectively boosted the laundered JDL narrative, with little consideration for the truth.
2019 York Protest: Back in 2019, I wrote, “I analyzed articles and videos about the event from Global News, City News, Toronto Sun, CP24, National Post, Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Individuals or organizations, not including York University staff, were quoted on 26 occasions throughout these articles and videos, and 23 of the occasions quoted people defending the event and smearing protesters. But these quotes didn’t come from mere bystanders, and instead were typically from groups such as B’nai Brith, or politicians. This is gross incompetence at best, intentional misrepresentation at worst.”
Step Five: The Blacklist
Summary: Eventually media outlets and politicians will move on from the discussion of the protest. Pro-Israel organizations, however, do not. A group known as Canary Mission will find people involved on the pro-Palestine side and add them to their database. They will create profiles of them that portray them as antisemites, and will update them for years to come. They will also do their best to interfere in these peoples’ lives, for example by trying to get them fired or actually prevent them from getting jobs.
May 15 Protest: It’s not yet clear if anyone involved in the protest has been newly added to the Canary Mission database. However, several people involved at some point with the Palestinian Youth Movement, which organized the protest, are already on the blacklist. Canary Mission has also tweeted about the protest.
2019 York Protest: Several members of the group that organized the protest are on the blacklist, though it’s not clear when they were all added. Canary Mission has also tweeted about the protest.
Step Six: The Historical Record
Summary: Each year, B’nai Brith releases an “Antisemitism Audit” that compiles all the reported cases of what they consider to be antisemitism in Canada. (Their reports were recently critiqued in a must-read study by Sheryl Nestel from Independent Jewish Voices Canada.) They will include the protest in this report, with the same flawed narrative they crafted when it happened. This narrative now gets recorded in the historical record for researchers to read in the years to come. B’nai Brith boasts that the report is, “Cited regularly by Canadian and international mainstream media outlets, public officials, NGOs, and government bodies.” Moreover, the release of the report usually prompts widespread, uncritical news coverage and comments from politicians, often mentioning the original protest again.
May 15 Protest: B’nai Brith’s report for 2021 won’t be released until at least the spring of 2022.
2019 York Protest: The protest at York was included in B’nai Brith’s “Antisemitism Audit” for 2019. Here is how it’s described: “In late November 2019, at Toronto’s York University, an angry mob unsuccessfully attempted to shut down a speaking engagement by Reservists on Duty, an Israeli organization that tours North American campuses. Estimates of the number of protestors in some cases exceeded 100, some of whom called for violence by chanting ‘Viva, viva intifada!’ This chant refers to the two historical waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, which began in 1987 and 2000, respectively. Police had to intervene and ensure the safety of the speakers and students, and even escorted several people out of the building.”
An April 29, 2020 press release from B’nai Brith boasts that Trudeau mentioned this report when discussing antisemitism. They also note that “media outlets who covered the Audit’s findings so far this week have included CBC, City News and CTV in Canada, as well as several US-based publications and prominent Israeli newspapers such as the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.”
As I’ve demonstrated, the pro-Israel apparatus crafts misleading and sensationalist antisemitism narratives about protests against Israel and its supporters. The groups involved do so in order to enlist the media and politicians in efforts to smear the Palestine solidarity movement as a whole, and shift attention away from indefensible Israeli actions.
This has the impact of obstructing the Palestine solidarity movement’s ability to increase support among Canadians for government action against Israel to punish it for its decades of illegal occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Moreover, it also can cause those involved in the movement to stop their participation due to the fear, or impact, of baseless defamation from media, politicians and others. The end result is that the Canadian government receives less pushback for its support of Israel, and the apartheid state can continue killing and dispossessing at will.
Eventually, much like the increasingly pathetic pro-Israel arguments, the apparatus will likely no longer be effective. But this won’t happen without a concerted effort to identify the groups behind these efforts, refuse to fall into their traps, and protect and support those they target.