The cancelling of culture: What happens when arts and politics collide in Canada during the Israel-Hamas war

Protesters and Israeli attendees of a comedy fundraiser face off outside Yuk Yuk's comedy club in Toronto on Jan. 31, 2024. The demonstration of about 100 people blocked the Richmond St. entrance to the club until police formed a line of officers and bicycles between the protesters and the club for attendees to line up to the door. The protest was over the show "Stand Up For Israel," a fundraiser for US-based nonprofit Friends of the IDF. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

A comedy show fundraiser in Toronto for Friends of the Israel Defence Forces became the site of heated protests on Jan. 31, the latest flashpoint in a series of efforts to cancel cultural events related to the war between Israel and Hamas.

About 100 protesters blocked the sidewalk to keep people from the front entrance of Yuk Yuk’s, shouting “Zionists go home” and preventing attendees from reaching the door. Some of those attending the show waved Israeli flags and sang Am Yisrael Chai in response to protesters’ beats on a handheld drum and chants on a megaphone. The verbal confrontations, rude gestures, and angry words were exchanged for the better part of an hour as the predominantly Jewish attendees arrived.

Protesters and attendees waved flags and confronted one another outside the comedy venue, which demonstrators targeted for hosting the Friends of the IDF fundraiser show at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, Jan. 31, 2024. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Toronto Police meanwhile, deployed a line of officers with bicycles outside the downtown club, forming a path behind police for attendees to enter.

At the back entrance, officers escorted the club’s owner, Mark Breslin, past more protesters, while one shouted “baby killer!”

The show’s start time was delayed at least one hour.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and the subsequent Gaza war, comedy, music, and arts events which have promoted either Palestinian or Israeli causes have made the venues hosting those events the targets of boycotts and protests. The raucous night at Yuk Yuk’s, where a touring show was raising money for a group that funds non-military social support for soldiers, reflects the moment’s fraught cultural landscape.

Canadian bookers and arts producers must contend with potential blowback when programming shows or fundraisers perceived as partisan or controversial. Whether for pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian causes, public outcry and attempts to cancel events is becoming a common theme in the Canadian arts scene.

The sidewalk protest was the culmination of a coordinated campaign of calls and emails to Yuk Yuk’s that started about two weeks ago, demanding they cancel the event.

Speaking with The CJN on Jan. 25, Breslin said he wasn’t surprised the venue had been flooded by angry calls and emails, and confirmed he’d advised Toronto Police.

No stranger to booking controversial acts, Breslin says the comedy always comes first.

“Two months after 9/11, I organized Toronto’s first Muslim comedy festival… clearly I’m a guy who likes controversy.”

Breslin says in comedy, which he calls “naturally controversial,” it’s about comedic delivery more than subject matter.

“I would not stop a comic who I would think has pro-Palestinian views from coming on my stage. As long as they’re funny and not using it to ‘TED talk’ the audience into falling asleep,” he quips.

The campaign targeting Yuk Yuk’s over the fundraiser expanded to Humber College’s comedy program, which runs a weekly student showcase at the club.

Members of the Jewish Antizionist Collective Toronto (JAZCto) published the program coordinator’s name, email, and phone extension online, urging people to call and pressure Humber to cancel the showcase on Jan. 30 and dissociate from Yuk Yuk’s.

Humber College distanced itself from the show, saying the weekly showcases are key professional club performance opportunities that help comedy students grow “as creators and performers.”

In a joint statement Feb. 5 with co-organizers Students for Queer Liberation following the protest, JAZCto reposted the Humber comedy program coordinator’s information, and continued to urge the college’s dissociation from Yuk Yuk’s.

JAZCto wrote that demonstrators had arrived early at Yuk Yuk’s to take space on the sidewalk.

“We held our ground against verbal harassment and physical assaults, all without holding back our contempt for these colonizers,” the statement read. The statement expressed solidarity with protesters who experienced “terrifying and traumatic” situations while “[facing] down white supremacists and their violence.”

This was the second time JAZCto has targeted a pro-Israel comedy fundraiser for cancellation and protest within about five weeks. Both shows were raising funds for pro-Israeli organizations and both featured an all-Jewish lineup.

JAZCto does not speak with media. The CJN’s messages to speak with a representative were not returned. The group first appeared on Instagram late in 2023 calling itself Jews Against White Supremacy-TO (JAWS-TO). 

In December, they led a campaign to force Comedy Bar, a Bloor Street club, to cancel a Boxing Day show called Laugh it Up 4 Israel that was donating some of the proceeds to Allied Voices for Israel (AVI), a pro-Israel Jewish identity and advocacy organization for high school and post-secondary students.

Comedian Ronen Geisler has produced a Dec. 26 show at Comedy Bar for 10 years.

Flooded with “hundreds” of messages, Comedy Bar told Geisler they’d have to cancel, but he secured another club, calling ticket holders with the new location the day of the sold-out show.

Ronen Geisler, producer and host of Toronto Jewish Comedy Festival, hosts his annual Boxing Day show on Dec. 26, 2023. An organized campaign to cancel his show at the venue he has used for 10 years forced a move to Backroom Comedy Club after the original venue, Comedy Bar, faced overwhelming public pressure to cancel or be boycotted. (Credit: Toronto Jewish Comedy Festival)

JAWS-TO (now JAZCto) called the event “dangerous and irresponsible” for making light of “ongoing crimes against humanity in Gaza.” (The group also objected to the show’s title.)

Neither the Boxing Day nor the Jan. 31 shows involved jokes about war.

“They just went on the AVI website, saw the word Zionist, got upset about that, and because of the partnership, they went after the show,” says Geisler.

“They started a spark that [turned] into a fire.”

The boycotts and cancellations have happened across the country. Theatres in both Victoria and Vancouver cancelled performances of the play The Runner, a one-man show about a member of the Israeli rescue operation ZAKA who saves the life of a Palestinian woman, after petitions and protests. Vancouver’s PuSH Festival, the second of two to cancel, said the decision hinged on an ultimatum by a Palestinian festival artist to pull his work if The Runner was not cancelled.

The cancellations have not been limited to Jewish cultural productions. In Montreal, Cinema du Parc cancelled a November film screening of a Palestinian series called From The River to The Sea after a Jewish community petition to strike the event over the series’ title. 

Another Toronto campaign being discussed in Facebook groups involves pro-Israel Jews potentially organizing against a Feb. 11 screening of Israelism, a film they perceive as being too critical of Israel.

Independent Jewish Voices and If Not Now Toronto, left-wing Jewish groups, are organizing the screening. Last year, a Hamilton, Ont. screening of Israelism was cancelled after Jewish community members voiced concerns to the cinema board; the decision was later reversed, CBC News reported, and the film was screened in December.

Then there’s the boycott of and social media backlash against Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern by some bands after the venue’s last-minute cancellation of a pro-Palestinian fundraiser in December. The Horseshoe claimed the event had been booked under non-political pretences.

In a statement about the cancellation, co-owner Jeff Cohen wrote the club was getting equal numbers of calls about cancelling and going forward.

The proceeds were to go to Palestine Red Crescent Society humanitarian aid and a legal defence fund for protesters who disrupted the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 11 people arrested on mischief charges for splashing paint and fake posters on an Indigo bookstore. 

Organizers called out the venue for cancelling last minute, sharing the venue and booker’s contact information. Several bands and concertgoers called, emailed, and made noise about the cancellation. Fucked Up, a veteran Toronto-based punk act, posted “we won’t be playing the Horseshoe again so long as they deny their venue to Palestine solidarity fundraisers.”

Some touring acts have moved away from the Horseshoe for upcoming concerts, though not all explicitly connected the change to the boycott.

The Dec. 18 fundraiser show was at first rescheduled to Jan. 10 in a new venue but was again cancelled after Toronto police visited Jan. 9, asking staff about event security plans and metal detectors. A second make-up show happened Feb. 4 at a third venue.

Being the subject of a boycott or protest can be devastating to a club, says Ronen Geisler, who organized the Boxing Day show in partnership with Allied Voices for Israel.

The messages and Instagram tags urging Comedy Bar to cancel the show came with what Geisler calls a “review bomb” campaign.

“Once they start attacking a business’ social media, they can really do damage,” he said. Large numbers of one-star reviews of a business on Google can affect how patrons learn about venues or decide to go, and drive whether users are shown its listings at all.

Google reviews for both The Horseshoe Tavern and Yuk Yuk’s Toronto appear to now require the business’ approval before publishing.

Geisler says he hasn’t faced these cancellation demands before, and that “online blackmailing” situations force clubs to make hard decisions.

“It’s a lose-lose situation. The venue didn’t want to cancel. They had a sold-out show, they lost income… venue rental, food, drinks… they took a big loss.”

Comedy Bar said third-party fundraisers must now be disclosed when booking.

When The Horseshoe Tavern faced similar issues with the cancellation of the Dec. 18 fundraiser show, the calls and emails to the venue both supported and blasted the cancellation. (Cohen declined to be interviewed, replying to The CJN with his online statement.)

“We started getting phone calls and emails asking what time the ‘political rally’ commenced? And/or if the event was strictly ‘anti-Zionist’—at the same time we got an equal amount of phone calls asking why we were hosting a potential antisemitic event,” he wrote.

Cohen says he contacted organizers to clarify if the event was “a music fundraising concert or a political rally supporting Palestinians and specifically anti-Israel.”

When the response confirmed “it was an ‘Anti-Zionist’ political rally… We no longer felt comfortable hosting this event.”

“We will be accused of antisemitism and hate against Jews/Israel for having booked the event, then similarly accused of being anti-Palestinian for having cancelled the political rally,” wrote Cohen. “Each divisive side will ask you to boycott the venue.”

Matters went from bad to worse, effectively launching the boycott, when Cohen’s foul-mouthed “reactive responses” to the “baiting” emails he wrote he’d been bombarded with over cancelling were shared online. Critics called Cohen’s words homophobic and racist; he apologized, but the boycott was already on.

Brandon Lim organized the fundraiser for the Red Crescent and legal funds for protesters that finally took place Feb. 4 after two cancellations.

Lim is representing musician friends he says fear reprisals impacting their careers or relationships if they call out Cohen, The Horseshoe, and the booker. 

Lim says the Jan. 9 unannounced police visit rattled staff at the Black-led multi-arts space on Queen Street West, which asked The CJN not to name it, leading the venue to cancel over safety concerns. Cancellations like these are “unprecedented,” Lim says, including the “police surveillance.”

Toronto Police Services (TPS) spokesperson Stephanie Sayers says officers sometimes contact community organizers. Sayers says TPS “did not dissuade organizers from holding the event.” 

The Feb. 4 show’s location was shared via private messages and the “ask a punk” system Lim says he sometimes uses to coordinate events. The word-of-mouth approach “helps us control who’s aware” of the show’s location, he says – not unlike Geisler’s venue solution on Boxing Day. 

There’s a lot to navigate now for anyone running shows and events, Lim acknowledges. While he may be no fan of Cohen’s, he says a boycott impacting the bar’s staff creates a dilemma.

“The last thing I wanted was for The Horseshoe to get cancelled over this,” he said.

“I don’t envy any venue that takes on an event like this… you’re inviting controversy directly to your doorstep. That being said, they should have been well aware of that when they first agreed.”

Lim posted screenshots of the booking email exchange to show he specified the nature of the event and its fundraising efforts.

“This is a new political landscape right now that we’re all learning to deal with. And clearly [Cohen and The Horseshoe] learned the very hard way,” said Lim.

The dwindling number of live music venues in Toronto may complicate the impact of a boycott. Numerous smaller arts venues have closed in Toronto in recent years, and fewer options for artists puts extra pressure on their relationships with club bookers—especially if they might not agree on politics. 

Lorie Wolf, a Toronto drummer, composer, and teacher, wasn’t sure she wanted to keep playing at one club that had displayed a poster that equates the war in Gaza with genocide. (It was later removed.)

“It certainly does hurt when I see [that venue] putting on shows,” that support calling Israel genocidal, she says. 

“It’s divisive, and it makes some of [the venue’s] clientele feel like they’re not welcome there anymore.”  She recently sent some people there for a show who she says won’t be returning after they saw that sign on the wall.

The venue is alienating some people, she says.

“If they thought most of their clientele was Jewish, they wouldn’t behave that way.”

Despite the poster, Wolf had said her great relationship with the venue might make it complicated to close the door on future bookings there. The poster was gone the next time she played the venue, she later told The CJN in an update.

Wolf says she would never ask a venue to book a pro-Israel show, to avoid subjecting the staff to disruptions or worse.

“I don’t want to burn my bridges in Toronto,” she says. 

Boycotting The Horseshoe, she says, might close doors for bands.

“Where do you think you’re going to go and play your shows, now that you’ve burned that bridge? How many venues are there? They’re closing at, like, one a month.”

In some cases, despite the complaints, the show does go on. In December, pro-Israel Torontonians called and emailed BSMT 254, a west end club, over a Gaza solidarity fundraiser whose flyer depicted a Palestinian keffiyeh superimposed over Israel.

Co-owner Vas C. says the calls he received about the image were “a little more grounded and had a little bit more weight in the argument.” 

“People were saying that to them this image [represents] the destruction of the Jewish state and by extension, wanting to kill another 7 million Jews.” 

While Vas C. agreed the image was provocative, he called the interpretation “a bit of a leap.”

One caller asked if BSMT 254 would host an Israeli community event, and Vas C. said the venue would not reject it out of hand, especially for a cause like releasing the hostages.

Dan Seligman, the creative director of the Pop Montreal music series and festival, says he hasn’t seen shows disrupted in Montreal other than the cancelled Cinema du Parc screening.

He says The Horseshoe was attacked after making a hard decision, and that he’s willing to give consideration to independent promoters, because they offer an alternative to the large multinational companies like Live Nation.

That said, he finds it curious when Israel is singled out for criticism while other nations are not. He recently saw a post in a queer-positive musicians Facebook group where one band’s call for a guitar player stipulated: “No Transphobes or Zionists.”

He says that dialogue through art and performance is more helpful than boycotts.

“We need to approach each other through humanity, and art is such an important, fundamental part of the human experience. It’s obviously an intense emotional time, and it’s a hard time for dialogue and understanding. But in my head, the only solution is compromise, speaking to each other… trying to understand each other’s positions and narratives and human experience.”

The CJN contacted several Canadian Jewish musicians and DJs, club bookers, festival programmers, arts consultants and artist managers (and non-Jewish ones) who declined to comment for this article. Many said they feared a backlash over saying the wrong thing, impacting work relationships.

One programmer said it feels impossible to mount a festival this summer without setting up “landmines” around Israel-Palestine over bookings, or positional statements.

Backing down to public opinion isn’t Mark Breslin’s style, no matter the opinion, he says. The Yuk Yuk’s owner says the comedy always comes first and he stands on his bookings.

“The only reason we would cancel [a show is if] there was a severe threat of violence.”

Discussing The Runner’s cancellations in B.C. last month, Breslin says the best theatre, like any art, should challenge audiences. 

“We go to the theatre to be entertained, but we also go to be outraged,” he says. “Just because I’m outraged doesn’t mean I can’t… simply disagree with you.” 

The Runner sounds like the kind of work that “raises good questions and grey areas of humanity, as artistic work should,” says Breslin.

“Good theatre should make people go for coffee afterwards and argue about the play.”