MONTREAL — The appearance of three people in face-concealing burka-like costumes carrying signs reading “Mort à Israel” on St. Denis Street on a busy Saturday afternoon Oct. 22 has highlighted a difference of opinion over how best to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in Montreal.
The incident occurred outside Chaussures Naot, at 3941 St. Denis St., which has been the target of an ongoing boycott campaign initiated by Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU) because it sells footwear made in Israel.
The three, apparently all men, were, in fact, from the pro-Israel side, but they weren’t from the Jewish community, said Jack Kincler, a leader of the grassroots counter-protesters since PAJU’s picketing began in October 2011 outside another shoe store across the street, Boutique Le Marcheur.
They have not revealed themselves, and Kincler said he doesn’t know who they were. “And if I did, I would not say. It’s up to them to come forward.”
While he said he was somewhat “uncomfortable” with the stunt, he added, that it “was theatre of the absurd, funny,” and a legitimate means of expression in a free country. The three were using irony and a little showmanship to gain attention to counter “the lies” that are being spread unchecked by the other side week after week, he maintained.
The PAJU demonstrators display banners accusing Israel of practising apartheid and other human rights violations.
In smaller lettering, the masked men’s signs carried slogans – in French – such as “Beating your wife is criminal in Israel,” “Israel does not kill political dissidents like in Iran,” and “Israel is a refuge for gay Arabs.”
A video that was posted on YouTube by PAJU shows the trio ululating like Muslim women as they hand out pink flyers. A man attempts to throw a pie in one of their faces.
The videographer also chases one of the burka-clad protesters into a lane asking him to show his face, but he refuses. A police officer intervenes, warning the videographer to back off and saying that it’s just “theatre.”
PAJU called a press conference Oct. 25 accusing the anti-boycott demonstrators of acting in a “threatening and racist” manner, and claiming the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Réseau Liberté-Québec (RLQ), a conservative political group founded by journalist Eric Duhaime last year, of being behind the stunt.
CIJA vice-president Luciano Del Negro vigorously denied the charge and affirmed that the organization believes the counter-demonstrations now serve no purpose and may cause harm because of the potential for confrontation and the disturbance they’re causing shopkeepers and residents in the area.
CIJA’s predecessor organization, the Quebec-Israel Committee (QIC), originally advised supporters of Israel to avoid going to Le Marcheur when the first PAJU picketing began Oct. 2, 2010, but instead to patronize the store or lend moral support in other ways.
Later, QIC did join the counter-demonstrations, but Del Negro said there has been no organized Jewish community participation since June. As far as CIJA is concerned the battle has been won.
Del Negro pointed to the Quebec media’s overwhelmingly negative response early on to the picketing of Le Marcheur, a business of more than 25 years owned by Yves Archambault, who has steadfastly resisted PAJU, and especially to Quebec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir’s appearance there last December, as well as the resolutions in support of Le Marcheur tabled in the National Assembly (but blocked from debate by Khadir) and adopted by Montreal city council.
Del Negro also confirmed at that the RLQ is no longer taking part in the counter-protests either.
CIJA is concerned that the pro-Israel camp may be associated in the public’s mind with activism that mocks traditional Muslims or associates Muslims as a people with repression. At least one media outlet failed to pick up on the the burka-clad trio’s ironic pro-Israel message.
A significant number of other pro-Israel francophone Quebecers are still going to the demonstrations. In fact, most weeks, they outnumber the Jewish participants. Among the most consistent are members of Amitiés Québec-Israel, which has been around since 1976.
Others apparently have no organizational affiliation, notably Daniel Laprès, a blogger who describes himself as a humanist, first and foremost.
“The message that these people [the burka wearers] circulated on their placards was pure parody… They were parodying the hate for Israel spread by PAJU for a year while it poisons the life of numerous merchants on St. Denis Street and passersby,” he wrote, claiming that this “parody” was supported by “an ad hoc committee of citizens of diverse allegiances.”
Kincler, an Israeli-born businessman, is not perturbed that the pro-Israel camp has attracted such individuals. “I’ve lived here 37 years and rarely saw much interaction of a meaningful kind between Jews and Québécois… We are building bridges between the communities.”
One stalwart of the counter-protesters has had second thoughts about tactics. Sharon Freedman, who had faithfully attended the demonstrations from the beginning and was instrumental in getting former MP and now Ottawa-based human rights activist David Kilgour involved this summer, stopped going a couple of months ago.
She said she believes CIJA’s approach is appropriate at this point. Freedman would prefer that those who are against the boycott picket outside the office of Québec solidaire or Khadir to protests its pro-BDS policy, adopted two years ago. Joel Lion, Israel’s consul general in Montreal since August, injected some levity into the situation.
“I do not know who is behind this affair, but it reminds me of Tina Fey’s satirical portrayal of Sarah Palin,” he e-mailed. “In that case, Sarah Palin laughed it off as humour.
“It would appear that PAJU, who just until now had the sin of wanting to prevent two Québécois merchants from making a living, also has the sin of not having a sense of humour.”