TORONTO — A so-called “Al-Quds” rally at Queen’s Park on Aug. 18 was mostly peaceful, despite the presence of Jewish protesters and Iranian expatriates who sought to counter the event’s anti-Israel message.
Toronto police were on hand to separate the sides, with Israel’s supporters – represented mainly by Jewish Defence League members and expatriate Iranians who favour regime change in Tehran – pitted against a collection of anti-Israel demonstrators, including rally organizers as well as anti-Zionist, Palestinian supporters and members of the haredi Neturei Karta sect.
Minor verbal spats between individuals broke out during the rally, but no arrests were made, Toronto Police said.
The annual “Al-Quds” rally is part of a larger campaign to protest what organizers call “the usurpation of the Holy Land by the Zionist regime.”
The rallies, which have been held in a number of Canadian and American cities, were created by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Zafar Bangash, president of the Islamic Society of Toronto and one of the demonstration’s organizers, told the crowd outside the legislature that the rally had been vilified “by the Zionists and their right-wing, fascist, Islamophobic media” in the run-up to the event.
Last year’s “Al-Quds” rally at Queen’s Park saw anti-Israel protesters waving Hezbollah flags and calling for the Jewish state’s destruction, which prompted Jewish groups to urge Queen’s Park sergeant-at-arms Dennis Clark and his boss, Speaker of the Legislature Dave Levac, to cancel the permit for this year’s event.
But earlier in the week, Levac refused to overrule the sergeant-at-arms’ decision to allow the controversial anti-Israel rally.
Howard English, senior vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said CIJA monitored the protest “very closely,” and would ask Queen’s Park to investigate if there was hate speech, with an eye to banning such events in the future.
English said he met with Levac on Aug. 17 in an attempt to convince him to reverse Clark’s earlier ruling.
CIJA provided both Clark and Levac with information about last year’s rally, during which speakers called Israel and Zionists cancerous, barbarians, parasitic and malevolent.
In an Aug. 17 statement, Levac said the legislature grounds are there for people to exercise “their right to assemble and to freedom of speech and are not subjected to censorship by the legislative assembly, except to ensure that Canadian law and our guidelines are observed.”
He added: “I have listened carefully to the concerns raised [by the Jewish community and others] and agree that we all have a duty to promote tolerance and oppose discrimination at every turn.
“However, I also have a responsibility to protect the right of citizens to assemble and exercise freedom of speech on the grounds. This demonstration will be monitored very carefully, and I will be looking to the organizers to honour their word and to ensure the event proceeds with tolerance and civility without promoting hate, discrimination or violence of any kind.”
The speaker is the only one who can reverse rulings made by the sergeant-at-arms.
“We’re deeply disappointed with the decision, but we respect the fact [Levac] had a great deal of difficulty in making it,” English said.
“But we really don’t understand why the behaviour of these same demonstrators last year, and their despicable language, was not an indication to both the speaker and the sergeant-at-arms about what kind of protest they’re dealing with.”
Speaking to The CJN last week, Clark said that he had met with rally organizers and told “them what they can or can’t do. It has to be lawful.”
However, he said, “it’s important that we don’t censor events, as long as they stay within the law.”