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Hamilton Federation pulls out of Gandhi Peace Festival

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Laura Wolfson, left, and Gustavo Rymberg.

The Hamilton Jewish Federation is pulling its sponsorship of a major peace festival because of the anti-Israel positions of some invited speakers.

In an Aug. 28 news release signed by president Jacki Levin and chief executive officer Gustavo Rymberg, the Federation said it initially agreed to sponsor the Gandhi Peace Festival, which is taking place from Oct. 4-5, because of its stated goal of “Waging action on hate and racism in Hamilton.”

“Our decision to support the festival was based on the festival’s objectives of promoting nonviolence, peace and justice; providing an avenue for peace and human rights organizations within Hamilton and Burlington to become collectively visible and exchange dialogues and resources; and building local interest and dialogue in peace and human right issues,” wrote Levin and Rymberg. “We believe these goals are laudable, particularly given the increase in hate incidents in Hamilton, the majority of which target members of our community.”

The decision was made after Federation officials saw the agenda for the two-day event.

“However, since we made the decision to sponsor the festival, we have done further due diligence, which has revealed that the agenda includes speakers who hold views about Israel and Jews that are deeply problematic, and antithetical to our core values. As a result, and after consulting broadly within our community and engaging our advocacy partner, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), we have decided to withdraw our formal sponsorship of the event,” they continued.

Rymberg refused to elaborate on the release and Levin did not return a request for comment.

Although the Federation did not specify which speakers it was concerned about, at least one of them – Azeezah Kanji, an Islamic law scholar and director of programming at the Toronto-based Noor Cultural Centre – has a history of making anti-Israel comments.

Kanji has been outspoken in her condemnation of Israel. As one example, an opinion piece she wrote for Al Jazeera condemned an Australian group for withdrawing a speaking invitation to Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory for writing that “the creation of the State of Israel entailed a human rights crime.”

To Kanji, that statement “should hardly have been considered radical, let alone grounds for a disinvitation, given that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that accompanied Israel’s founding has been well-documented, including by Israeli historians.”

Kanji also attacked journalists who “fixate on the fabricated rights of Israel, while the actual rights of Palestinians enshrined in international covenants, such as the right to self-determination, the rights to be free from discrimination and collective punishment, and the right of return for refugees, are completely erased from the picture. Clearly, what is being demanded of activists like Mallory is not an affirmation of Israeli people’s rights, but a denial that Palestinians have any rights at all.”

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In an email to The CJN, CIJA spokesman Martin Sampson said the agency “fully supports our partner, the Hamilton Jewish Federation, in its decision on this matter.”

In its release, the Federation said that despite pulling its sponsorship of the event, it would still send representatives “because we believe we can make a valuable contribution to any discussion about waging action on hate and racism in Hamilton. Further we believe attending the event is important to ensure that those who do hold views that are antithetical to our core values are challenged should they attempt to use this event as a platform to advance their agenda.”

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