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Rally against anti-Semitism draws passionate crowd to city hall

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About 100 people attended the demonstration at Nathan Phillips Square.
About 100 people attended the demonstration at Nathan Phillips Square.

TORONTO – The wet weather did not dampen the passion of the 100 people who turned out for a community rally against anti-Semitism on Sunday afternoon at Nathan Phillips Square.

The people in attendance included Christian and Jews, and represented all age groups. Many participants carried signs and placards, while others draped themselves in Canadian or Israeli flags.

The rally was hosted by Aedan O’Connor, vice-president of programming for Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at Ryerson University, and Robert Walker, Canadian director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada.

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The roster of speakers included university students who talked about anti-Semitic activity on local campuses, advocacy leaders such as Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, and Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Centre for Jewish Culture and Education (CJCE), as well as Jewish community activist Vivienne Ziner and First Nations activist Ryan Bellerose.

Robert Walker, Canadian director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, left, and and Aedan O’Connor, vice-president of programming for Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at Ryerson University BARBARA SILVERSTEIN PHOTOS
Robert Walker, Canadian director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, left, and and Aedan O’Connor, vice-president of programming for Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at Ryerson University BARBARA SILVERSTEIN PHOTOS

O’Connor, a second-year biomedical sciences student at Ryerson, said there is anti-Israel activity at Ryerson, but the situation is much worse at other universities. She said a lecture at the University of Toronto on April 29 by Kenneth O’Keefe, an U.S.-born pro-Palestinian activist, spurred her to organize the May 1 rally.

What was most disturbing, she said was to see the hundreds of business people attending the lecture who “cheered O’Keefe’s blatantly anti-Semitic” remarks, adding that she was outraged tax dollars paid for the facility where he spoke.

Another student who addressed the rally was Aidan Fishman, a first-year U of T law student.  He acknowledged that a university, which values free speech, couldn’t prevent O’Keefe from speaking there.

But he said he was particularly disturbed that U of T’s Graduate Student Union, which is funded by a levy on all graduate students, paid speaker Amanda Lickers, who he said gave a “racist diatribe” against Jews in February.

He said she was supposed to talk about Israel, but all she did was attack Ashkenazi Jews, whom she likened to Nazis. “She called Ashkenazim ‘Ashken-Nazis’… she said Jews were inherently racist colonials and parasites.”

Rena Silver, president of Hasbara at York University, said she feels victimized and marginalized by anti-Semitism at York. She asked rhetorically how is it that all York students can study in a safe environment except Jewish students?

Cohen of the CJCE told stories of anti-Semitism from academics at McMaster University. She said when she took a course on peace and wrote a paper in support of Israel, she was given a failing grade. She said the mark was changed by the university administration when she agreed to drop the course.

Benolo told the gathering that anti-Semitism is rampant worldwide. “Over 1 billion people on the planet dislike Jews. We are such an insignificant number, and Israel is just a sliver of land, yet Israel is the heart of the world.”

Nevertheless, he said he’s encouraged by the many non-Jews who support Israel and the Jewish People. “We are supported by friends and allies – people who are standing with us. That warms my heart.”

Bellerose, a strong supporter of the Jewish community, said First Nations have a lot to learn about survival from the Jewish People. But he said Jews must be more active in fighting anti-Semitism. “One of the biggest problems is that Jews are too apologetic. ‘They say, the other guy [Palestinians] has a good story, too.’”

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In a rousing speech, Ziner warned against the tendency for complacency among Jews, and especially indifference to flagrant anti-Semitism on campuses. “Anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitism,” she said.

She accused the left of perverting the meaning of Zionism. “The left is making anti-Semitism palatable to the public.”

Former York student Willem Hart, echoed Ziner’s call to action. “I look around and I see all the same faces. Tell your kids to get involved.”