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Shul backs out of hosting controversial rule of law conference

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Beth Tikvah Synagogue (Jarrodpq/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A prominent synagogue in Toronto has pulled out of a controversial event that it was scheduled to host in March.

Canadians for the Rule of Law (CFTRL), whose board includes high-profile members of the Jewish community, had planned an “All-Day National Teach-In” on March 17 at Beth Tikvah Synagogue.

But after the event was criticized due to some controversial figures who were scheduled to speak at it, the congregation withdrew, citing security concerns.

The topic to be explored was “the new taboo: respect for the rule of law in Canada.”

There are organizations and “political tribes” that threaten the rule of law in Canada, the group explained on its website. Those include the radical left, radical Islamists and the radical right. “These groups include free speech disruptors and deniers on campuses, terrorist-funded Canadian jihadi organizers, Muslim Brotherhood public curriculum developers, hate speakers on social media, returning ISIL fighters, victimized me-first exceptionalism that overrides the survival of Canadian values, violence-promoting anti-Semites and deniers of religious pluralism and freedom.”

The program promised “extensive, in-depth and sensitive content about who those disruptors are, the threats they pose to traditional respect for the rule of law and how new measures can be taken by law-abiding Canadians to address these threats.”

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The organizations listed as supporting the program were B’nai Brith Canada, Canadian Citizens for Charter Rights and Freedoms, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Mozuud, ACT! For Canada and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.

Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue with 1,100 member families, was contacted on Dec. 9 by Karen Mock, the president of the progressive Jewish group JSpace Canada, who asked the shul’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jarrod Grover, for a meeting to discuss “potential damage control” over media interest in the event “because of the Islamophobia and bigotry associated with some of these groups and individuals.

“The last thing our community needs at this stage is more divisiveness,” Mock wrote.

On Dec. 11, Rabbi Grover issued the following statement:

“Beth Tikvah Synagogue, in addition to serving as a house of worship, regularly rents its space to community groups for the public benefit. We agreed to rent out space to Canadians for the Rule of Law for the purpose of hosting their teach-in conference this coming March. Beth Tikvah was never a sponsor or organizer of this event, only a rental facility. Taking into account security and police concerns, we have decided that our synagogue is not an appropriate venue. We have advised the organizers to find an alternative location.”

The rabbi’s statement came a day after a story was published in NOW magazine, in which journalist Michael Coren alleged that some of the groups behind the event and some of the scheduled speakers have a “disturbing” history of anti-Muslim and anti-gay rhetoric, and support for far-right causes.

Rabbi Jarrod Grover
Rabbi Jarrod Grover

Donald Carr, president of the CFTRL, said in a statement that, “We champion free speech and we promote the rule of law. That’s what the teach-in is all about. We reject any attempt by those who wish to stifle free speech. Their aims will ultimately be thwarted and rejected by the many communities who need positive programs like this one.”

He added that, “We’re going ahead with the teach-in in March and there are alternate plans being made.”

CFTRL board member Brooke Goldstein, the founder and executive director of the Lawfare Project, said that, “CFTRL was established to shed a light on the persistent discrimination that minority communities face in Canada and to provide free services to these communities, which are suffering. This event will take place. We will not succumb to bigoted attempts to deny Canadian minority communities their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.”

David Nitkin, the group’s secretary, said that, “The event is not cancelled.” He circulated an email on Dec. 12, saying the event was proceeding, as advertised, on March 17, “at a Toronto venue to be announced.”

A follow-up email from Nitkin said the conference will be “a first,” as it will gather “leaders of prestigious litigation centres from Canada, the U.S., Israel, the U.K. and France, (who will examine) hate speech, anti-terrorism, campus free speech and rule of law.”

The content “is certainly controversial,” he acknowledged. Security “will be tight and all tickets holders will be pre-screened by the Toronto police and our own contracted security firm.”

Media covering the event will face restrictions. Outlets “cannot take their cameras or other devices outside the media room and cannot interview attendees in the hall outside any live sessions.”

Among the scheduled speakers and moderators are: Calgary lawyer John Carpay, founder of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms; Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College; Benjamin Ryberg of the Lawfare Project; Robert Walker, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada; and Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada.

Also slated to speak is broadcaster Christine Douglass-Williams, who last year was fired from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s board of directors over comments she made about Islam.

In a statement to The CJN, Mostyn said that, “This is not a B’nai Brith event.” The purpose of the conference was “to attract different individuals to discuss topics they are experts in,” while the session Mostyn was asked to moderate “did not strike me as questionable in any way.

“If there is a smear-by-association campaign going on here, it’s very unfortunate.”

Mostyn said he finds it ironic that the subject of free speech “seems to be drawing a co-ordinated campaign to have free-speech discussions shut down.”