A protest directed at an Israeli real estate expo at a Thornhill synagogue brought on a Jewish counter-demonstration—and the chaos led to three arrests

Protest outside the Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue of Toronto, March 7, 2024 (Credit: Lila Sarick)

Hundreds of people taking one side or another in the Israel-Hamas war faced each other across a suburban street on Thursday, creating a scene that involved blasting music at ear-splitting volumes and chanting for hours in front of the Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue (BAYT) of Toronto in Thornhill, Ont.

York Regional Police reported that three people were arrested. A 40-year-old man was seen carrying a knife and was charged with possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose. A 32-year-old man was charged with assault. A 48-year-old woman threatened to spray coyote repellant—similar to pepper spray—when she became involved in an altercation with a man and was charged with assault with a weapon and possessing weapons dangerous to the public, according to a news release from police on Friday afternoon.

Clark Avenue W. was closed for several blocks by police who attempted to keep the two factions of protesters separated on facing sidewalks. Later in the day, officers on horseback from Toronto Police Services were stationed at one end of the street.

The scene on the steps of the BAYT in Thornhill, Ont., on March 7, 2023.

The synagogue was the site of the Great Israeli Real Estate Event where representatives from property ownership firms, moving companies and mortgage brokers met with potential clients.

Palestinian supporters had advertised their intention to protest at the event; in turn, Jewish organizations mobilized to show up en masse as well.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, leader of the modern Orthodox synagogue, said the shul never contemplated cancelling the expo’s booking, even though demonstrations were planned.

“The vast majority of the Jewish community is fed up. We’re not going to capitulate, we’re not going to roll over,” he said in an interview with The CJN Daily’s Ellin Bessner.

The idea put forward by the initial protesters, that the event was promoting the sale of stolen Israeli land was false according to Rabbi Korobkin.

 “It’s ridiculous because the Jews are the indigenous people of that land. We were there 3,000 years ago,” he said.

Inside the synagogue, booths promoting new building projects in Israel, lined the walls of a second-floor social hall. Most of the developments advertised were inside the pre-1967 border (Green Line) in cities like Tel Aviv, Hadera, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. One company represented projects in West Bank communities as well, including in Efrat and Ma’ale Adumim.

The expo, which features 25 vendors, was in Montreal two days earlier. Protests were also encountered there. The Great Israeli Real Estate Event is travelling to New York and New Jersey next week.

Gidon Katz is the organizer of the event that has regularly visited Toronto for the past 20 years. The latest event had originally been planned for Oct. 31, but was delayed because of the start of the war.

Two weeks ago, he started receiving “harassing emails” about his venture. Interest in Israeli real estate, however, is at a record high, he said.

“Since a month into the war, there’s more and more Jews from around the globe, Canada included, considering their second home in Israel.”

Most of those who are interested in making aliyah and moving permanently to Israel are people with young families, or those close to retirement who are following children already in Israel. People in their 40s and 50s are more likely looking for a second home or vacation home, he said.

For the vendors, the raucous protest outside the synagogue was, as one agent called it, “publicity.”

 “At the end of the day, these people are seeing however nice life is here in Toronto, it’s not necessarily the safest place for Jews,” said Gershon, an agent who did not want to give his full name, who is representing a real estate project in Jerusalem.

Meir Dombey, an agent for a project in Beit Shemesh, said recent sales have been better than he’s ever seen in his 14 years in the business. “It’s not just people talking, it’s people buying.”

“Some people are shaken by what’s going on and they feel there’s no place safer than home,” he said.

Last week in New York City, Dombey said he encountered a an anti-Israel protest. “The police were standing and stopping people from yelling at you. It’s scary. In Beit Shemesh I don’t feel threatened walking with a kippah on my head.”

One man perusing the booths who didn’t want to give his name, said he and his wife have always considered buying a retirement property in Israel, but since Oct. 7, he felt it was time to look more seriously into housing options.

 “It’s not an emergency, I’m not running to get out of Toronto, but the amount of antisemitism, not only the people protesting… but the non-Jewish Canadians, we’re all in shock that no one has stood up and really come forward,” for the community.

The protests have crossed the line from freedom of expression to harassment, he said, pointing to a demonstration last week that blocked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Italian prime minister from attending a formal dinner at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“I thought I’d grow old here, but my concern is if this continues and no one does anything about this, in 10, 15, 20 years, these people are going to be running the country.”

The real estate event was held at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal on March 5, where it was also the scene of demonstrations.

After a protest in front of  Federation CJA in Montreal that prevented people from attending an event where three former IDF soldiers were speaking on March 4, and the demonstrations at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue the following day, Federation CJA applied to the court for relief.

On March 6, a 10-day injunction was issued by Quebec Superior Court that bars a number of groups from protesting within 50 metres of several Jewish community buildings, including schools and synagogues.

Another real estate seminar, organized by a different company, was also the scene of protests and counter-protests on March 3 in Thornhill, just a few blocks from the BAYT.

One man was arrested in front of Aish Thornhill Community Shul for threatening pro-Palestinian protestors with a nail gun and is facing several charges including assault with a weapon. If the accused is found guilty, “hate-motivated aggravating factors will be presented in court at sentencing,” York Regional Police said in a press release.

Thornhill-area politicians, including MP Melissa Lantsman, mayor Steven Del Duca, MPP Laura Smith and councillor Gila Martow, signed a joint letter expressing their concerns about the protests at the BAYT.  

“It is unacceptable that a place of worship or nearby schools and day cares be targeted in this way. The right to peaceful protest is an important freedom afforded to all Canadians. But this freedom does not give people the right to incite hate, make threats or engage in acts of violence,” they wrote.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs issued a statement urging the Ontario provincial government to enact legislation that “guarantees safe access” to places of worship, community centres, schools and hospitals.

“We cannot allow mob-driven demonstrations to obstruct our right to participate fully in society.”