If the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, it’s a safe bet that this year’s Al-Quds Day rally in Toronto will feature anti-Semitic comments and perhaps even calls for violence against Israel and Jews.
The rally for the “liberation” of Jerusalem, an annual event held in hundreds of cities worldwide, was started by Iran in 1979. In Toronto, it’s scheduled for Saturday, June 9, at 3 p.m., beginning in Queen’s Park North, just north of the Ontario legislature. Despite its name, the park is municipal property.
Marchers then plan to head south, traversing the grounds of Queen’s Park, en route to the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue.
Over the years, Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto have sparred over who’s responsible for granting permits for the rally and whether trying to block it would violate the protesters’ rights to freedom of speech and of assembly.
Just about every year, Jewish advocacy groups have complained that the rallies called for hate and violence directed toward Israel. Toronto police are still investigating a music video from last summer’s rally that glorified violence against Jews. That event also featured a speech by U.S. Holocaust denier Kevin Barrett.
Two years ago, a Toronto-area teacher was suspended for praising terrorists and calling for violence against Israelis. And a hate crime complaint was filed in 2013, after one speaker urged people to shoot Israelis if they don’t leave Jerusalem, but it did not result in charges.
Knowing what’s happened in the past, is the City of Toronto ready for this year’s rally?
In a statement to The CJN, Mayor John Tory’s office said city staff and police have assured the mayor that they are “aware” of this year’s rally and “will be monitoring it.”
The statement said the event does not have a permit from the city.
“Generally speaking, Mayor Tory believes in free speech and the right to public protest,” the statement said, “but he also believes that any kind of hate speech or discrimination has absolutely no place in our city.”
Toronto Councillor James Pasternak, who has been vocally opposed to the annual march, said he’s working with Tory “to put this hate rally to an end. We are also working with staff to use every legal means possible to disrupt, impede and stop this appalling display of racism and inciting violence.”
He called those behind Al-Quds Day “a reprehensible group of people” who should face financial and legal “consequences.”
We are working with staff to use every legal means possible to disrupt, impede and stop this appalling display of racism and inciting violence.
– Coun. James Pasternak
Pasternak’s battle against the march officially began last September, when he submitted an “administrative inquiry” to the city, seeking options on preventing “hate-sponsored rallies” from taking place on city or provincial property.
He said the Al-Quds rally was “originally created to call for the destruction of the State of Israel,” and that its speakers are “spreading hatred, inciting violence and supporting terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”
The city manager’s office replied that it “will not tolerate, ignore or condone illegal discrimination or harassment, including any rally that incites hatred and/or violence against groups or persons.”
Groups wanting a permit to use city facilities must sign a declaration of compliance with anti-harassment and discrimination legislation, including Ontario’s Human Rights Code, it added.
But at the same time, “Sometimes there are rallies and protests (on) city property without staff knowledge or without the issuance of a permit. The public has the right to assemble on city squares and to express their views. If activities occur at a rally on a city square that jeopardize public safety or if the rally incites hatred or violence against a group, these actions will not be tolerated. City security staff will call Toronto Police Service for assistance, investigation and appropriate action.”
In its reply to Pasternak’s inquiry, the Toronto Police Service said its special events section is notified about most events, including demonstrations, but that notification is not mandatory.
The police also noted that events, even if controversial, are protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They added that, to date, police have not been aware of any “planned hate-sponsored event.”
Last November, Toronto’s executive committee, with Tory’s support, voted 8-2 to refer Pasternak’s request to the city manager, who was asked to consult with police, human rights groups, legal scholars and others to devise a strategy that would prevent public gatherings “that promote hate and incite discrimination from taking place on the city’s property.”
The public has the right to assemble on city squares and to express their views.
– City Manager’s Office
The manager’s report isn’t due until the end of June, after this year’s rally. But that “doesn’t mean we can’t take action afterwards and discourage it from (taking place) next year,” said Pasternak
In any event, the city does not issue permits for protests or rallies in Toronto parks, city spokesperson Jane Arbour told The CJN. In an earlier message to The CJN, Matthew Cutler, a spokesperson for the city’s parks, forestry and recreation department, said protests in Toronto parks are not allowed in the first place.
Ideally, Pasternak would like to see a city bylaw officer inform the Al-Quds crowd that they cannot gather in a Toronto park. If participants do not disperse, police would be called.
“If I had my way, that’s (the) way we would do it,” he said.
But fearing escalation, police are “very reluctant to break up a rally as it’s taking place,” Pasternak pointed out, while park staff “do not have expertise to try and block it or stop it.”
He said the “most effective strategy” is to institute punitive measures after this year’s rally that would include billing organizers for such costs as police services and waste disposal, issuing peace bonds and violations for trespassing, and freezing bank accounts.
“Those are the kinds of legal tools I can see working,” he said.
In a May 17 letter to Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, Premier Kathleen Wynne, Tory and other officials, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre CEO Avi Benlolo said that allowing this year’s rally to proceed would be “reckless and dangerous.” He urged officials to uphold provisions of the Criminal Code and local bylaws, “which have repeatedly been broken by this annual display of hatred, division and intolerance.”
Given the Jewish community’s “frustration” with how Al-Quds Day has been handled in the past, B’nai Brith is pursuing “novel approaches, which we hope will impede the annual hate-fest this year,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. He did not elaborate.
Said Pasternak: “We need our legal department and police to step in front of this abuse and twisting of the Charter and take decisive action. The political will is there to stop this hate.”
The Jewish Defence League is planning a counter-protest.