Thousands of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators turned up on Saturday and Sunday at Queen’s Park under the watchful eye of police for mostly peaceful rallies that were punctuated by moments of tension and low-level violence.
On Saturday, as the temporary ceasefire in Gaza had broken down, both sides waved signs and shouted “terrorist” at one another across a metal barrier guarded by dozens of police officers.
One pro-Palestinian supporter who rushed the pro-Zionist side was beaten and placed in a chokehold before organizers pulled his attackers away. He appeared to sustain minor head injuries.
The pro-Palestinian event, known as “International Day of Al-Quds” is held at Queen’s Park every year at the end of the month of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Though groups such as the JDL, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center had urged the Queen’s Park sergeant-at-arms to cancel the rally, around 3,000 people demonstrated in support of “a free Palestine.” Opposing them were a group of about 500 pro-Zionist counter-protesters organized by the Jewish Defence League.
Organizers from both sides repeatedly called for non-violence, but tempers continued to flare and the two groups nearly came to blows at the south end of Queen’s Park as protesters pressed nose to nose. Police along with organizers from both sides were able to pull the clashing groups apart.
“We didn’t start it, but we’ll finish it,” said JDL member Aaron Hadidah, who called the pro-Palestinian rally a “hatefest” and said he was there to defend against anti-Semitism.
Despite the JDLs insistence that they were there to demonstrate peacefully, pro-Palestinian demonstrator Yves Engelman said about 20 JDL members and their supporters spat on him and threw his bicycle into the street.
Harold Pomerantz a non-JDL-affiliated counter-protester said he didn’t mind that Queen’s Park hosted the rally, as long as it remained peaceful. And while he expressed sympathy for the loss of civilian life in the conflict, which has claimed more than 1,000 Palestinians and 43 Israelis so far, Pomerantz said, “We have to stand up for Israel. How can people expect Israel not to defend itself?”
The pro-Israel ralliers danced and waved Israeli and Canadian flags, and shouted “Free Palestine from Hamas.”
On the other side of the police barrier, demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Palestine.”
“This is not a Muslim cause or Arab cause, this is a cause for justice,” said Zamir Rimaz, a law-student at the University of Ottawa who spent the day talking to people on both sides of the fence. “I’m sure if I go and ask [those on the other side], ‘Are you supportive of civilian deaths?’ they will say no.”
In video of the protest supplied to The CJN by documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht of Chutzpa Productions, one anti-Israel protester can be heard shouting, “Go to hell. Go where you come from. Go back to Germany where they can kill you again.”
Though the vitriolic voices were by far the loudest, the majority of people demonstrated peacefully.
The Al-Quds Day rally organizers, a coalition of over 70 groups, claimed several times to have many Jewish supporters in attendance, though this was difficult to confirm.
One of the more visible Jewish supporters was Vera Szoke, the daughter of Auschwitz prisoners. “I’m the child of two Holocaust survivors, and they have taught me that trying to destroy another people is wrong and that ‘Never again’ does not just refer to the Jews and the Jewish Holocaust,” she told The CJN.
Sunday’s event drew more than 1,000 supporters of Israel. It had been organized five days earlier by a newly formed grassroots group, Canadians for Israel, which co-founder Vivienne Ziner – president of Canadian Friends of Tazpit, the news agency – described as “a coalition of concerned Canadians who are committed to protecting the security of Israel and the Jewish People.”
It consists of members of various organizations, such as the Legal Forum for Israel and Stop Sponsoring Hatred.
“This group of us just went, ‘Oh my God, we have to do something to support Israel and let Israel know we are with them. We need to have a rally that is outdoors and visible,” Viner said.
Speakers included Don Valley West Tory MP John Carmichael, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin from Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, a representative of the evangelical International Church of Jesus, and Tahir Gora, Pakistani writer and founder of a think-tank that tracks Islamic radicalization and anti-Semitic incidents in the Muslim diaspora.
Carmichael conveyed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “strong and unwavering support for Israel,” condemned Hamas’ “reprehensible acts of terror” and emphasized “Israel’s right to defend itself.”
His mention of Harper drew impassioned chants of “Harper, Harper” from the crowd.
Rabbi Korobkin read a prayer for the Israeli Defence Forces and spoke about his recent experience visiting Israel as part of a UJA solidarity mission.
“We experienced first hand the rockets exploding over our heads… we ran to the shelters with Israelis… sometimes we only had 15 seconds to get there,” he said.
He stressed that the people of Israel do not hate Gaza, but “we simply want to live in peace beside you… it is your leaders that are sowing your destruction, not Israel,” adding that Israel mourns the loss of life on both sides of the conflict.
Despite organizers’ call for a peaceful demonstration, a brief fistfight broke out when two young men attending the pro-Israel rally, one of whom was a JDL member, got into an altercation with one of a handful of counter-protesters gathered behind a barricade who was holding a sign bearing a swastika in the middle of a depiction of an Israeli flag.
A witness said one of the pro-Israel ralliers approached the man holding the swastika sign and yelled something at him. The man dropped his sign to face the two men, and the JDL member punched him. The two exchanged blows before the man with the sign fell and and police moved in to break it up. No charges were laid.