TORONTO — More than 2,000 people, many waving Canadian or Israeli flags, showed their support for Israel at a packed rally at Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue Monday night. It was the first of at least eight such events Canada-wide.
Community officials said some 1,100 more watched the Toronto rally at three satellite locations – the Schwartz-Reisman Centre at the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan, the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto, and across the street from Beth Emeth at the Anne and Max Tannenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Wallenberg campus. As well, an additional 1,100 watched online from home computers.
The event was organized by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, with help from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), as a response to Hamas’ ongoing rocket attacks on Israel, which intensified last week. The federation has also set up an Israel Emergency Relief fund (ujadonations.com/Israel).
As of Wednesday,supporters had pledged over $1 million, Steven Shulman, campaign director and counsel, told The CJN.
DJ Schneeweis, consul general of Israel for Ontario and western Canada, said, “I’m here tonight to tell you Israel is strong.” Pausing until applause died down, he said it’s strong because “we are united, because we are helping each other, and because we have the IDF.”
As well, he credited Israel’s many friends, including the Canadian government and “the wonderful Jewish community of Canada.” He also lauded Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, but said Israel is “perhaps most strong” because of its moral compass.
“We will not let our enemies change who we are,” he said. “Israel regrets the loss of civilian life on both sides of this conflict. As our opponents celebrate that, we regret it.”
James Moore, minister of Canadian heritage and official languages, speaking on behalf of the government of Canada, described Prime Minister Stephen Harper as “a man whose support for Israel is unshakeable and unyielding. He sees what’s right and what’s wrong.
“Now is the time when free democratic nations of the world must unite and say clearly and firmly, ‘We stand with Israel,’” Moore said, referring to the thousands of rockets that have been fired at Israel in the past decade, and “its right to defend its very existence.
“Make no mistake,” Moore warned. “Those who pose a threat to the existence of Israel pose a threat to us all.”
York University student Jessica Cherkasov said her heart is “truly broken” when she sees hatred of Israel “being disguised as freedom of speech” by groups on campus.
MC Morris Perlis, incoming senior vice-chair of the federation and vice co-chair of CIJA, expressed pride in Cherkasov and other students “who stand up to defend what is right.”
Author, columnist and investment adviser Theo Caldwell said the response to hatred must be “patience, forebearance and the truth.”
As well, Caldwell, who is Presbyterian, told the audience, “I would urge my Jewish friends to embrace the freely offered friendship of every denomination of the Christian faith… It is written on our hearts to love and support Israel and the Jewish people.”
Julia Koschitzky, speaking by Skype from Tel Aviv, said she doesn’t think she’s ever felt more proud to be Canadian.
An Israeli family of four living on a kibbutz less than two kilometres from Gaza were with her. The parents spoke of the difficulties of life under attack and thanked the audience for its support, including funding for mobile bomb shelters.
IDF spokesperson Lieut.-Col. Avital Leibovitch, who was also with Koschitzky, said, “Today was a relatively quiet day,” explaining that there were only 116 rockets fired from Gaza. Some 3.5 million people – half of Israel’s population – have been under heavy rocket fire from Gaza, she said.
The IDF has put “great efforts” into trying to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza when it targeted rocket launchers and other sites, Leibovitch said. “We dropped leaflets telling the local population where to go. We warned them of getting too close.” The IDF also took over Hamas radio to warn the population, she said.
The effort has been remarkably successful, according to Leibovitch. Hamas leaders have hidden in places like mosques and schools – “all the civilian places that endanger the population” – yet of the approximately 90 deaths in Gaza (at the time of the rally), the majority were terrorists, she said.
Perlis described the four IDF soldiers who were part of the Beth Emeth program as “our heroes.”
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Synagogue, had a message for the Palestinians of Gaza: “If you seek to live beside Israel in peace, you are not our enemy. Rather, your leaders are the enemy… we mourn your loss and ours.”
But, he cautioned, “Do not view our love of life as a weakness… We will continue to fight with all that we have, to defend ourselves.”
Journalist, author and political adviser David Frum, the rally’s keynote speaker, expressed respect for those in the Islamic world who work for peace, as well as sympathy to Palestinians who’ve been used as “human shields” by their leaders, and pride in Canada and its government and in the State of Israel and its people.
He praised Israel for responding to “indiscriminate violence” with restraint, “while Israel’s enemies respect no limits. They’re as happy to kill children as adults. Israel has applied its advanced technology to target as precisely as possible.
“No country in the history of warfare has done more to protect the civilian population in a war those enemies started. Electrical [power] and drinking water continue to flow into Gaza,” he noted.
Frum urged rally-goers to post pictures of the event online to send a message around the world that Israel is not alone.
Other speakers included Elizabeth Wolfe, UJA Federation’s chair of the board, and Rabbi Howard Morrison of Beth Emeth. Cantor David Edwards, also of Beth Emeth, sang O Canada and Hatikvah.
Schneeweis told The CJN after the rally, “It was a wonderful and uplifting event. All credit to UJA Federation for organizing it in such a short space of time and to all the thousands who came out to express their support and love for Israel at this time.”
Rallies were also scheduled this week at Edmonton’s Beth Israel Synagogue (Nov. 20), the Calgary JCC, Ottawa’s Soloway JCC, Montreal’s Théâtre Maisonneuve – Place des Arts, and Vancouver’s Temple Shalom (Nov. 21), Hamilton’s Adas Israel Synagogue (Nov. 22), Winnipeg’s Asper Jewish Community Campus (Nov. 25). As well, the Atlantic Jewish Council will incorporate a solidarity program into its biennial in Halifax this weekend.