TORONTO — Jewish gays and lesbians are mobilizing against plans by anti-Israel gay activists to try to turn Toronto’s 2009 Pride Parade into a public forum for bashing Israel.
One of the Canadian gay community’s most celebrated events, the annual Toronto Pride Parade and Pride Week – scheduled this year to run from June 19 to June 28 – is supposed to showcase the community’s commitment to “equality, human rights, respect, diversity, honour, love and acceptance,” according to Pride Toronto’s website.
Example of anti-Israel messages displayed at the Toronto Pride Parade in previous years.
However, members of the Jewish gay communities in both Toronto and Montreal have voiced concerns over the increasing presence of virulent, anti-Israel political messaging that has sprouted up at the parade since the middle part of the decade.
In recent years, anti-Israel groups in Toronto have slipped into the parade without permission from organizers, their members bearing signs denouncing Israel as an apartheid state.
But one of those groups, calling itself Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), will be officially welcomed by Pride Toronto as a participant this year.
Last week, Tracey Sandilands, executive director of Pride Toronto, confirmed that QuAIA’s application has “been accepted” and the group will participate in the 2009 Toronto parade.
Word of the news spread quickly to Montreal’s Jewish gay community, with some members afraid that Montreal Pride week – scheduled to run Aug. 13 to 16 this year – could suffer a similar fate in the future. So far, however, there has been no such messaging at Montreal Pride, according to Joey Waknin, president of Ga’ava, the fledgling non-profit group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Jews in Montreal.
“I personally find that using the social status of queers as a medium to advance [an] Israel apartheid [agenda] is an irresponsible confrontation on their end,” Waknin said.
The Toronto situation has also prompted the creation of a new group called Holy Queer – a Montreal-based, national Zionist queer group promoting gay life in Israel through political activism. It emerged last week on Facebook and Twitter, seeking representatives across the country to counter fallacies about gay rights in Israel.
“We are still formulating our response to both Toronto’s decision and potentially Montreal. We do plan to respond in one way or another,” said Josh Fagan, vice-president of Holy Queer. He added: “Would Ms. Sandilands think it was right for individuals to attack Canada at a Pride parade in Europe for its alleged ‘apartheid policies’ towards aboriginals? There is a time and place for everything. Let’s keep it relevant. Gay pride is meant to commend those who support and condemn those who abuse the rights of LGBT communities.”
Although QuAIA sparked controversy among Jewish participants over its appearance at the 2008 Toronto Pride Parade, for Pride organizers, the controversy wasn’t due to the group’s political message, Sandilands said. Rather, as an unregistered group, it posed an “insurance liability.”
Asked whether she felt her organization has now opened itself up to the potential for hateful messages in the parade and the usurpation of Pride’s traditionally peaceful, inclusive vibe, Sandilands told The CJN that security will be augmented this year.
“We have no intention of allowing anyone to be harassed at any point and have every intention of ensuring the safety of all participants in any aspect of the festival,” she said.
Sandilands said the number of parade marshals has been increased from 25 to 80 this year and that any unregistered marchers trying to sneak in will be “removed.”
Martin Gladstone, a Toronto-based Jewish gay lawyer who has witnessed the anti-Israel messaging in past parades, implored Pride organizers to remain apolitical, arguing that allowing any group with a political mandate to march in the parade is contrary to Pride’s non-profit “LGBT human rights mandate,” and that “gay pride has nothing to do with anti-Israel advocacy.”
Gladstone said he feared that the rise of anti-Israel, “and by extension anti-Jewish,” political messaging could threaten Pride’s existence and funding if legally challenged.
“The law is clear,” he wrote to the Pride council this year. “You cannot allow a non-profit corporation to facilitate political advocacy unrelated to its charter.”
Sandilands countered, telling The CJN that “allowing all sides in any political debate to be part of our parade demonstrates the non-partisan nature of our event.”
She added: “If we allowed QuAIA but refused another that represented a pro-Israeli position without good reason, that would be taking a partisan position. Even then, such a move would not threaten our non-profit status. There are no restrictions on political activity by non-profits. Only those entries that actively contravene the hate crimes laws of the country or our anti-discrimination policies will be removed.”
But current Jewish registrants and some potential parade attendees remained fearful for their safety, as well as disappointed and skeptical of Pride’s decision last week to allow QuAIA to participate.
Wendy Lampert, Canadian Jewish Congress’ director of community relations, said she hoped the Pride organizers understand the potential “discomfort” they would cause Jewish community members by including the group.
“There is an irony in that the LGBT community that was marginalized for so long… would now, in this moment, permit other communities to be marginalized at one of its own events,” Lampert said.
Justine Apple, executive director of Kulanu, a Jewish LGBT social group affiliated with Hillel of Greater Toronto, said her 300-member organization sought a meeting with Sandilands and the Pride executive prior to this year’s celebrations to explain their concerns and requested that their parade position be moved “far away” from QuAIA’s.
Sandilands has agreed to meet with Kulanu, but a date had not been set as of The CJN’s deadline.
“We decided that for the first time, this year, we will march and hold Israeli flags… to show our pride as Jews, gay Jews and in solidarity with Israel,” Apple said, acknowledging that while not normally a political one, her organization reluctantly decided to counter QuAIA’s political message with one of their own.
As of last week, Kulanu was the sole Jewish group registered to march in the parade, although representatives of Jewish Family and Child will be marching with group members.
But Apple said Sandilands offered to “open up” the registration process beyond the official application deadline if other Jewish organizations decide they want to participate.
Adding to the concerns of Jewish community members is the fact that the parade’s grand marshal, El-Farouk Khaki – a Toronto lawyer and political activist – is an outspoken critic of Israel.
When questioned about the choice of Khaki as grand marshal, Sandilands said Khaki has assured Pride Toronto that he won’t deliver anti-Israel messages while in his Pride role.
“But [outside of Pride] his opinions are his own,” Sandilands added.
Last month, QuAIA convened a meeting at a Toronto theatre titled “Coming OUT Against Apartheid: 20 Years of Queer Resistance from South Africa to Palestine.”
The event’s stated aim was to encourage members and like-minded individuals to turn out for Pride week and “reignite Toronto’s queer community in the fight against [Israeli] apartheid” according to an online flyer for the event.
Khaki was scheduled to deliver the opening remarks at the meeting and his organization, Salaam – a Muslim gay community support group – co-sponsored the meeting along with the University of Toronto chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG).
OPIRG has 10 other chapters across the province and has refused to work with Jewish campus groups in the past, because it doesn’t believe Zionism fits within its social justice and human rights mandates.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East with gay rights enshrined in state law, but QuAIA and OPIRG claim that “Israel has now begun to frame itself as a tolerant, queer-positive democracy. This can never be reality under occupation.”
Jake Peters, a Jewish AIDS activist, attended the QuAIA meeting and said he was stunned at the “one-sided… hypocritical attacks on Israel” and the calls for protests and boycotts against the Jewish state that were made at the event.
“I think that people who wish to demonstrate against Israel have every right to do so, but not in the Pride Parade. I don’t think they should be allowed to manipulate Pride in this way, to turn it into an ugly, scapegoating spectacle,” Peters said.
In addition to corporate sponsorship, Pride Week 2008 received public funding in excess of $450,000 – $300,000 from the province of Ontario through the Ministry of Tourism, $119,000 from the City of Toronto and another $35,000 from Heritage Canada.
It will receive no funding from Heritage Canada this year, but only because Pride didn’t apply for funding in time, a Heritage Canada spokesperson said.
Ontario has once again given $300,000 to Pride this year.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism said the ministry had “been assured that [anti-Israel messaging at the parade] last year was an isolated incident and understand from Pride Toronto that they have mitigation plans in place for this year.”
Attempts by The CJN to speak with a representative of the City of Toronto were unsuccessful.
Amy Hanen, senior manager of community relations for TD Canada Trust, one of the major sponsors of Pride Week, said the bank was aware of the political nature of some of the parade’s participants, but said that “TD would not be associated with any event or initiative with an agenda founded on racism or anti-Semitism.”