Anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 9, 2023 (Cole Burston / AFP)
Anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 9, 2023 (Cole Burston / AFP)
'We’re dealing with fear we’ve never experienced before'

Toronto Jews anxious amid unprecedented antisemitic spillover from Gaza war

Members of the city’s Jewish community of 200,000 say they see little support from Justin Trudeau’s government as Jewish people and businesses are targeted post-Oct. 7

Anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 9, 2023 (Cole Burston / AFP)

TORONTO — Amid surging antisemitism in Canada, a short, nondescript bridge over a highway in Toronto has become Ground Zero in the battle between the country’s largest Jewish community and increasingly brazen anti-Israel protesters.

In recent weeks, the latter have staged repeated hate-filled pro-Hamas rallies on the contested overpass, targeting the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Armour Heights, far from downtown. Police continue to stand guard over the site after chief of Toronto Police Service (TPS) Myron Demkiw announced last week that such protests would no longer be allowed there.

“Our commitment to keeping our city’s Jewish community safe is unwavering,” Demkiw told a TPS board meeting on January 11 after the situation had reached a boiling point. That day, he said to reporters: “Considering all the factors that have transpired in recent weeks, it’s quite clear our communities feel unsafe… particularly our Jewish communities in the immediate vicinity of the Avenue Road bridge [next to Armour Heights].”

It didn’t take long for demonstrators to test Demkiw’s resolve. Two days later, on January 13, despite a heavy police presence, two dozen protesters returned to the site, resulting in several arrests.

“Things are most definitely not over at this bridge,” says Sharlene Wilder, 58, a longtime resident of the tightly knit neighborhood of Armour Heights, whose mostly Jewish population remains exasperated after weeks of major disruptions and taunting from protestors. “We are dealing with individuals who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and will defiantly return over and over again as they feel their human rights are being violated.”

Since early December, anti-Israel demonstrators have held regular protests on the bridge leading to Armour Heights, referred to by some protestors as a “Zionist-infested area.” They paraded with placards, including swastikas, photos of Hitler and other antisemitic content, set off smoke bombs, and festooned the sides of the overpass with Palestinian flags and banners, all of which could dangerously distract drivers below traveling at high speeds on Highway 401, or, even worse, fall on unsuspecting motorists. During their rallies, often held on Saturdays when many local residents walk to nearby synagogues or are at home for Shabbat, protestors used loudspeakers to bellow their incendiary chants.

Jewish community member Sharlene Wilder stands on the contested overpass near Toronto’s Armour Heights neighborhood,January 12, 2024. (Courtesy)

The antagonistic choice of this particular bridge for anti-Israel protests is part of a larger picture in Toronto of unprecedented anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric in the streets and on university campuses — not to mention the tsunami of vile antisemitism on social media — that has erupted after thousands of Hamas-led terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel and kidnapped 240 more to the Gaza Strip on October 7.

Following the massacre and even before Israel launched its ongoing military campaign to remove the Hamas terror group from power in the Gaza Strip, pro-Palestinian masses around the globe took to the streets to celebrate the massacre. In the months that have followed, Jewish communities have reported a radical increase in antisemitic incidents.

While some Jews feel local police have been too lenient with anti-Israel protestors, many laud Demkiw for being particularly responsive to the Jewish community’s safety concerns in recent months, during which he’s deployed greater resources, including mobile command posts, in Jewish areas. At its major annual event in early November, the Toronto-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center [full disclosure: the writer of this article works there] presented Demkiw and two other regional police chiefs with a special certificate of appreciation for their extra efforts to safeguard the Jewish community following October 7. Since then, Demkiw has maintained regular contact with Jewish leaders, some of whom he met with publicly at a popular Jewish restaurant a few days after the Hamas onslaught.

Jewish counter-demonstrators on the contested overpass near Toronto’s Armour Heights neighborhood, December 2023. (Courtesy)

Demkiw’s engagement with Toronto’s Jews reflects his recognition of the sobering reality they face. Police just published new statistics showing that reported antisemitic incidents in the city over the past three months are up 168 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. Of all hate crimes in Toronto reported in 2023, those targeting Jews represent 37% of the total, despite Jews accounting for only 4% of the city’s population. In 2023, reported antisemitic hate crimes more than doubled from 2022.

If some Jews view the police ban on the anti-Israel demonstrations in Armour Heights as a victory of sorts for their community, many, if not most, remain on edge due to the level of antisemitism, both in number and severity, never seen before in Canada and which shows little sign of abating.

A barrage of antisemitism

Since October 7, in Toronto alone, Jews have experienced a litany of disturbing antisemitic misdeeds.

These include vandalism and boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, mobs converging on branches of Israeli brands Café Landwer and Aroma, protests outside a Jewish community center and children’s daycare, bomb threats against synagogues and Jewish schools, assaults on Jews and the recent vandalization and arson of a Jewish-owned deli and grocery store, its windows smashed and “Free Palestine” spray-painted on a wall. In recent weeks, activists entered shopping malls shouting anti-Israel slogans, and disrupted a New Year’s ice skating party, hosted by Mayor Olivia Chow on a public rink outside City Hall.

“In nearly three decades of working for the Jewish community, I’ve never seen our community this alarmed about our security and secure place of belonging in Canadian society,” says Adam Minsky, 52, CEO and president of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the official body serving and representing the community. “As Jewish Canadians, we’re generally very engaged in Canadian society. But many have felt a sense of isolation since October 7, in some cases because they haven’t seen friends from other communities stand up for us in our moment of need.”

The Times of Israel spoke to numerous members of the community, all of whom, to varying degrees, are aghast and deeply troubled by what’s been happening in Toronto of late.

“I think it would be impossible for our community not to feel nervous and concerned about safety issues amid the current reality,” says Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, 45, vice president for the greater Toronto area at The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “Given the dramatic uptick in hate-motivated crime that we’re seeing, given that visible Jews are being attacked on the street, Jewish businesses being targeted by boycotts, campaigns of intimidation and now arson, it’s only natural the community is worried.”

Clockwise from left: Police Chief Myron Demkiw, Michael Levitt of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Police Superintendent Mandeep Mann, Jaime Kirzner-Roberts of the Centre for Israel, and
Police Inspector Paul Rinkoff at United Bakers, a Jewish restaurant in Toronto, Ontario, on October 13, 2023. (Courtesy)

For its part, the UJA is in a heightened state of alertness. Last week, in response to growing apprehension in the community, it held an online briefing on the situation in Toronto. The city is home to 200,000 Jews, half of Canada’s total Jewish population. (The country’s next-largest Jewish community is in Montreal, where 90,000 Jews live.) In addition, about 1,000 Israelis who came to Canada after October 7 are temporarily residing in Toronto, including some who lost their homes in the Hamas massacre.

“We’re here to discuss the vicious — and increasingly dangerous — rise of antisemitism, right here in our city and in our neighborhoods,” said UJA chairman Jeff Rosenthal while opening the online session. “We all know that spreading fear, celebrating violence and terrorism, screaming at people in malls and skating rinks, blocking critical infrastructure again and again, and targeting the Jewish community with aggressive and intimidating tactics… none of this is about freedom of expression. It’s about Jew-hatred, pure and simple. But our community won’t be bullied and we won’t be intimidated.”

A rude awakening

The day after the briefing, this sense of unease and disquiet was palpable at a tension-filled town hall meeting for the community that took place at a large synagogue not far from Armour Heights. It was organized by the Yalla grassroots organization formed in the aftermath of October 7, assisted by Jewish City Councillor James Pasternak.

Before introducing the panel of Jewish and non-Jewish elected officials from all levels of government — including deputy opposition leader in Canada’s Parliament, Melissa Lantsman — moderator Jamie Gutfreund shared his perspective with the 500 people in attendance and many more watching live online.

“My life changed after October 7 and I think for many of us, we’ve felt we’re dealing with fear we’ve never experienced before,” said Gutfreund, 43, a popular TV news anchor. “I would also argue that our lives changed on October 8, because that was the day we saw people in this city and elsewhere in our country and around the world take to the streets to celebrate the slaughter of over 1,200 Jews and foreign nationals, and that woke us all up.

“It was unnerving to see people in our city celebrating with joyous elation the slaughter of our people… We all know, as history has proven, when hate goes unchecked, it never works out well for the Jews, and what’s happening now should scare every one of us.”

Canadian Cabinet minister Ya’ara Sacks, left, meets with Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, Deborah Lyons, at Cafe Landwer in Toronto, January 14, 2024. (Courtesy)

Among those who spoke was Ya’ara Saks, a Canadian-Israeli Member of Parliament and cabinet member. She received a frosty, if not outright hostile, reception as a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which has alienated many Canadian Jews for its policies and statements concerning Israel.

Following the October 7 atrocities, Trudeau was the only G7 leader not to visit Israel in solidarity with the grieving ally. In mid-October, after Hamas made an evidence-free claim that Israel had bombed a Gaza City hospital killing 500 people, Canada immediately joined the chorus of voices implying Israel was to blame.

After Israel and other countries provided proof that the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket — and that the hospital itself wasn’t hit, rather its parking lot — it took days before Canada acknowledged the truth, without apologizing to Israel.

A few weeks later, Trudeau angered many Jews with remarks they considered overly critical of Israel and its war against Hamas. “The world is witnessing the killing of women, children and babies,” he said sternly. “This has to stop.”

Anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags during a protest in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 9, 2023 (Cole Burston / AFP)

In mid-December, Canada backed a motion at the United Nations for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” which went against Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. In so doing, it contradicted Trudeau’s earlier refusal to call for a ceasefire, violating his earlier vow not to join Israel’s enemies in the UN in singling out the Jewish state.

And late last week, after multiple delays in releasing a promised statement about Canada’s position on South Africa’s claim before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza, Trudeau failed to unequivocally condemn Pretoria’s dubious case against Israel.

For Saks, who serves as Mental Health and Addictions Minister in the Trudeau government and fully supports her boss, the hostility she faced at the town hall wasn’t new. When asked by The Times of Israel about the resentment many Canadian Jews have for Trudeau and his government, she skirted around it.

“Canada’s Jewish community has extremely close ties with Israel,” says Saks, 50, who spent 11 years in Israel. “As many Canadian Jews have direct ties to victims, many in the community are going through trauma, heartbreak, deep loss and fear, especially with the shocking and pervasive rise in antisemitism across Canada. But even with the diversity of feeling across the community, there’s an ironclad unity in standing together for the Jewish community’s safety and for Israel’s right to self-defense.”

‘When hateful people say hateful things, listen’

Last week, following months of growing indignation among many Jews, Trudeau had a private, off-the-record meeting in Toronto with 30 Jewish leaders at Beth Tzedec, the country’s largest synagogue. According to those in attendance, the encounter did little to mend relations with the Jewish community.

As a member of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, Michael Levitt served two terms in Parliament before becoming president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in 2020.

“The reality for Canadian Jews post-October 7 has been an alarming and unfathomable rise in antisemitism,” says Levitt, 53. “Making matters worse, at a time when we need our federal government to be living up to their pledge of ‘We will always have the Jewish community and Israel’s back,’ that’s not been the case.”

Eynat Katz, at right with sign, poses with members of the Toronto contingent she helped organize to travel to the March for Israel rally in Washington, DC, November 14, 2023. (Ella Langer)

Since October 7, Eynat Katz, an educational consultant in Toronto, has been highly active in helping organize events and other initiatives in the community showing support for Israel, especially advocating for the hostages still held in captivity in Gaza by Hamas.

“As the anti-Israel protests have continued, it’s become abundantly clear they’ve unleashed a deep-seated hatred not only against the Jewish state but against Jewish people as a whole,” says Katz, 53, a representative in Toronto of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. “I was certain these demonstrations were fostered by fringe groups and we just needed to let them die down. Sadly, I discovered I was wrong… I learned from my many years of involvement with Holocaust education that when hateful people say hateful things, listen to them. We must stand up against it.”

Back in Armour Heights, residents remain resolute in holding their ground, despite the formidable challenges before them.

“As a Jewish resident of Toronto, I’ve never seen such open antisemitism before,” says Loren Cohen, 25, who works in marketing. “Unfortunately, this is the reality now in Toronto, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

“If our government and city officials don’t act quickly, this could keep escalating and potentially lead to violence. I’m personally not letting these people get to me, although I have friends who have told me they will not be open about their Judaism and feel unsafe to go out. I can’t speak for how I’ll feel in the future if things keep going the way they are,” says Cohen.

Loren Cohen on the contested bridge near the Armour Heights neighborhood of Toronto on January 11, 2024. (Courtesy)

Earlier this month, Marsha Lederman, a well-known Jewish columnist for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, published a piece titled, “For Jewish Canadians, the number of places we feel unwelcome keeps growing.” It was a dispiriting reflection of the current situation.

“You can whatabout this all you want,” she wrote. “But why Canadians who happen to be Jewish should be targeted for what the Israeli government is doing in Gaza is beyond me. Well, it’s not really. I think we all know what’s happening here.”

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