'My presentation isn’t about the war. It’s about life'

Canadian cyclist disinvited as speaker at women’s event because of past IDF service

Leah Goldstein booted from Ottawa International Women’s day event after pro-Palestinian activists discover her military background 3 decades ago

Leah Goldstein, the 2021 winner of Race Across America, had her invitation to speak at a Canadian women's empowerment event rescinded after Oct. 7 because of her past IDF service. (Screenshot used in accordance with article 27a of the Copyright Law)
Leah Goldstein, the 2021 winner of Race Across America, had her invitation to speak at a Canadian women's empowerment event rescinded after Oct. 7 because of her past IDF service. (Screenshot used in accordance with article 27a of the Copyright Law)

JTA — Leah Goldstein seemed like a natural fit to be the keynote speaker at an International Women’s Day event in Ontario, Canada, next month. A Canadian cyclist, she made history as the first woman to win a grueling 3,000-mile bike race across the United States.

But in January, five months after accepting the invitation, Goldstein was told she was no longer invited to speak.

The cause, the event organizers said, was “a small but growing and extremely vocal group” that took issue with Goldstein’s service three decades ago in the Israeli army.

“Our focus at INSPIRE has been and will always be to create safe spaces to honor, share, and celebrate the remarkable stories of women and non-binary individuals,” the women’s empowerment group said in a statement. “In recognition of the current situation and the sensitivity of the conflict in the Middle East, the Board of INSPIRE will be changing our keynote speaker.”

The revoked invitation comes amid widespread turmoil over the Israel-Hamas war, including in local communities far from the Middle East. The war broke out following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which saw 1,200 people killed, mostly civilians, and 253 kidnapped.

Marina Rosenberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president of international affairs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Goldstein’s case reflects a troubling trend.

“We’re seeing more and more instances of Israeli speakers being disinvited simply because of their nationality or IDF service,” Rosenberg said. “Let’s be clear: Boycotting Israeli speakers is hurtful, antithetical to free speech and ultimately counterproductive. It fails to recognize the complexities of the situation.”

Leah Goldstein (right) during her IDF service. (Courtesy of Leah Goldstein via JTA)

Goldstein, 54, was born in Vancouver to Israeli parents and lived in Israel as a child and served in its military, as is required for most citizens. She first broke onto the international sports scene as a kickboxer, winning the 1989 World Bantamweight Kickboxing Championship. As a cyclist, Goldstein overcame a potentially career-ending crash in 2005 and shifted to ultra-endurance racing.

In 2011, she won the women’s solo category in the Race Across America. She finished second in the women’s group and fifth overall in 2019, and in 2021 made history by winning the overall solo division. Goldstein completed the 3,000-mile race in 11 days, three hours and three minutes — beating her closest opponent by 17 hours.

Goldstein is a frequent motivational speaker who shares how mental strength helped her overcome injury, discrimination and bullying throughout her experiences in sports and in Israel, where she says she was both the first female elite commando instructor in the IDF and an Israeli undercover police officer.

Goldstein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she had planned to stick with her usual message for the March 8 event.

“I am zero political when I speak,” she said by phone from her home in Vernon, British Columbia. “Honestly, there is nothing political about my presentation. I just talk about the crap that I went through and the crap that most women go through, and they still do, and how I handled it.”

But pro-Palestinian activists took issue with her biography after her keynote slot was announced. Heather Doughty, INSPIRE’s founder, told JTA that Goldstein’s critics had targeted other speakers associated with the event, which is expected to draw about 100 participants, as a way to press for her exclusion.

“We are equally upset,” Doughty told JTA. “We’re just this tiny little not-for-profit that is trying to do a nice thing, and we were literally attacked. We had speakers [from INSPIRE] verbally attacked. They went to do their grocery shopping, and people came up and were attacking them.”

Doughty said Goldstein’s critics “were demanding to know what Leah’s position was” on the Israel-Hamas war and that INSPIRE sought to get answers for them. After the group did not receive an immediate response, it rescinded the invitation to speak.

“We reached out to ask these questions,” said Doughty, a photographer who runs INSPIRE as a volunteer. “We can’t speak for another human.”

Goldstein called INSPIRE’s request that she issue a statement “ridiculous” — and signaled that she did not think her critics would be happy with what she would have to say.

“If I were to make a statement, I would say that I’m very proud of my training with the IDF, being the first woman to train the commando soldiers,” she said. “So yes, if they want that kind of statement, I’d be happy to say it. But to dis Israel and say, it’s genocide, we’re killing 20,000 innocent children and women and whatnot — it’s a freaking war. That’s what happens.”

Goldstein continued: “I didn’t want to go down that path because that’s not what I do. They didn’t hire me because I was an IDF soldier. They hired me because I inspire. I motivate. They’re making this political when it shouldn’t be. My presentation isn’t about the war. It’s about life.”

Since October 7, numerous Israeli teams and athletes have faced consequences on and off the field because of anti-Israeli protests or their own public support for Israel.

An Israeli national hockey team was recently temporarily banned from a youth world championship, before being re-invited to the tournament. Last month in Turkey, an Israeli soccer player was briefly detained for writing a message on his wrist marking 100 days since October 7. And in South Africa, a Jewish cricket star was removed as captain of a national team due to fears of anti-Israel demonstrations.

Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel displays a message of solidarity with hostages held in Gaza while celebrating a goal for Turkish club Antalyaspor on January 14, 2024. (Antalyaspor/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Goldstein said that since the conflict began, she’s noticed a slight decrease in the number of speaking engagements she’s been able to book but that until this incident, she had not counted anti-Israel sentiment as the reason.

Goldstein says she’s not angry over the organization’s decision; she’s just shocked and disappointed and would have welcomed the opportunity to talk directly with event organizers.

If such a dialogue had taken place, Goldstein said she knows the question she would ask first: “You didn’t hire me because I’m Jewish, so why are you firing me because I’m Jewish?”

Now, INSPIRE’s March 8 event will feature a Canadian women’s hockey player. Doughty said the change was essential to meeting the group’s mandate around offering a “safe space” for local women. She also said the episode had been personally challenging for her.

“This has been so traumatic for me,” Doughty said. “I just wanted to put on a really nice event for the women in this area, and it turned into something that I don’t even understand.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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