TORONTO — Toronto has officially condemned the term “Israeli apartheid” as part of a compromise to fund the city’s annual Pride festival.
On June 7, city council voted unanimously to grant nearly $104,000 to Pride Toronto. It also voted 26 to 7 in favour of denouncing the controversial term that forms part of the name of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), an anti-Zionist group that has been participating in Pride events since 2008.
QuAIA didn’t take part in Toronto’s 2011 Pride Week, bowing to pressure from Pride organizers and the city’s gay community to ensure the city’s grant flowed to the festival after an acrimonious public debate threatened to see the city cut its funding.
Pride Toronto also instituted a new dispute-resolution mechanism last year as a result of the controversy surrounding QuAIA’s participation in prior parades.
Justine Apple, executive director of Kulanu Toronto, the city’s main Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered organization, told The CJN she was happy with council’s decision to condemn the term “Israeli apartheid,” and that hers would be the first group to trigger Pride Toronto’s dispute-resolution process regarding QuAIA.
Kulanu was scheduled to file its complaint with Pride late in the day on June 8.
The dispute-resolution committee, made up of legal experts and community members, has been empowered by Pride Toronto to examine any complaints against parade applicants and decide whether they can officially participate.
Apple was hopeful her complaint would be reviewed before Pride Week, which this year begins on June 22 and culminates in the annual Pride Parade on July 1.
However, the committee has 30 days to review any complaint, which could mean QuAIA’s status as a participant might not be decided until well after Pride Week this year, Apple said.
Some on council grudgingly accepted granting city funds to Pride despite the possibility of QuAIA’s participation this year.
“Next year, I’ll be the first guy out to say ‘no funding ever’” if politically motivated groups such as QuAIA cause problems at Pride, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told Metro News after the vote.
It remains unclear how the city could legally ban QuAIA from the festival as long as its anti-discrimination policy doesn’t indicate the term “Israeli apartheid” as a form of hate speech.
In 2011, council ordered city manager Joseph Pennachetti to report on whether QuAIA’s messaging violated Toronto’s anti-discrimination bylaw.
Pennachetti’s report ruled that the term “Israeli apartheid” did not constitute hate messaging under city bylaws, since the term had never been judged as hate speech by a court or tribunal.
Council then requested the bylaw be rewritten. The revised version of the city’s anti-discrimination policy is scheduled for review at the city’s executive council meeting on June 12.
James Pasternak, city councillor for Ward 10 -York centre, called the new policy “a mish-mash” and said that on the whole, he and his fellow city councillors find QuAIA to be “repugnant and have no place in a city-sponsored event.”
“Today we overwhelmingly condemned the repugnant term ‘Israeli apartheid’ being used by groups in civic-funded events. We sent a strong message to these groups that their message of bullying and demonization has no place in city-funded events. The City of Toronto has a responsibility to promote respect and tolerance,” Pasternak said in a statement.
“There is more work to be done. I am confident that members of the [executive] committee will vote to tighten up the policy to ensure that ‘Israeli apartheid’ groups do not participate in city funded events.”
According to Pasternak, the new policy is no better than the old one, and he said there is some concern on council regarding Uzma Shakir, the city’s director of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Human Rights, one of the main departments responsible for drafting the anti-discrimination policy.
Shakir is allegedly an anti-Zionist and until 2010 was a contributing blogger to Rabble.ca, a far-left online blog that routinely characterizes Israel as an apartheid state.
In one 2009 post, Shakir wrote that Hamas and Hezbollah “allegedly question Israel’s right to statehood” in a screed against Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney’s decision to stop funding the Canadian Arab Federation’s immigrant settlement programs.
In another she wrote: “Israelis invade, occupy and wage wars in the name of defending a Jewish homeland, and Americans continue to defend their policies of aggression in the name of a state that is firmly grounded in Christianity.”
Asked by e-mail where she stands on the term “Israeli apartheid,” Shakir responded that her personal opinion was “not relevant” in her role at City Hall. She also said she was not solely responsible for revising the city’s pre-existing policies on discrimination.
“My office was one of the parties involved in writing, editing and reviewing that report,” Shakir wrote, noting that it was co-authored by the city’s social development, finance and administration division.
“Senior human rights, access and equity and policy staff, including myself, were involved in writing and editing this report in consultation with the economic development and culture division, the city solicitor’s office, executive management division and purchasing and materials management division. It was further vetted by deputy city managers and the city manager who signed the report,” she wrote.
Asked what sources or experts were consulted to determine whether the city’s anti-discrimination policy should list the term “Israeli apartheid” as discriminatory, she cited all the departments in co-authoring the report, as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Shakir also said no pro-Israel groups had contacted her office to offer opinion or input on the revised policy.
Howard English, senior vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), greater Toronto region, said CIJA was “very happy” the city condemned the term “Israeli apartheid,” but that it was still forming its strategy on how to advise the city about modifying its anti-discrimination policy.
“We thank city council for recognizing that this erroneous term is worthy of public condemnation. It is hurtful, hateful, divisive and a distortion of history. Pride is meant to be a safe and respectful environment. Groups that bring messages of hostility should not be given license to hijack the parade and turn it into a propaganda tool for such inflammatory viewpoints that are clearly out of step with the vast majority of Canadians,” English said.
Frank Dimant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said council’s condemnation was a signal to Canadians that “hate and intolerance are not welcome at Canada’s largest Pride festival.”