Champion cyclist and IDF veteran Leah Goldstein felt ‘angry and heartbroken’ after being disinvited by a women’s festival

Cyclist and motivational speaker Leah Goldstein (Supplied photo)

UPDATE 2/21/24: The organizers of Inspire: The Women’s Portrait Project confirmed the event will not be taking place “due to circumstances beyond our control.”

A championship bicycle racer and motivational speaker says she is “angry and heartbroken” after her appearance at an International Women’s Day festival was cancelled because of her service three decades ago in the Israel Defense Forces.

Leah Goldstein, of Vernon B.C., was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Inspire Women’s Day event in Peterborough, Ont. on March 8, International Women’s Day. A professional cyclist, she served in the IDF as an instructor in a commando unit and then worked with undercover anti-terrorism forces, 30 years ago.  

Last month, she received a text from the festival organizers first telling her that they might need a statement from her about Israel—and the next day they cancelled her appearance.

Goldstein says the decision was “a slap in the face.”

“It has taken me a while to wrap my head around your decision to remove me as Inspire’s International Women’s Day ‘Inspire Inclusion’ keynote speaker. I was hurt. I was angry. But most of all I was heartbroken,” Goldstein wrote on her social media account.

“My presentation is not political. It’s clear they only fired me because I’m Jewish. There’s no other reason why. I’ve spoken in front of Palestinian women, Iranian women. I talk about my life, my athletic career,” Goldstein said in an interview with The CJN.

“The statement they would have gotten from me is I’m very proud to have served in the IDF and if the IDF needed me today, at 55, I would buy a plane ticket tomorrow. That’s the statement they would have gotten from me.”

Goldstein says her speech is about overcoming obstacles, injuries and sexism and persevering.

Born in Vancouver to Israeli parents, she was a world kickboxing champion by 17 and then enlisted in the IDF, where she was introduced to the world of professional cycling.

“I’m not going to take out part of my life—they didn’t hire me because I worked for the IDF. They hired me because I inspire, I motivate.

“If I was a Palestinian woman, I would not have been cancelled—100 percent.”

The organizers of the festival did not respond to The CJN’s requests for comment on Goldstein’s cancellation. By the weekend of Feb. 19, a few days after the story was first widely reported via Jewish Telegraphic Agency, all of the festival’s social media posts had been scrubbed from the internet.

When the festival first announced in 2023 that Goldstein was to be the keynote speaker, they did not conceal her involvement in the IDF.

“Leah is a World Champion Kickboxer, Israeli Secret Police Officer, Krav Maga Specialist, Commando Trainer, and Record-Breaking Ultra Endurance Cyclist,” read the announcement from the festival. “INSPIRE is thrilled that Leah will share her story of how she overcame bullies, sexism, terrorism and more to create an unbounded life for herself.”

In January, however, when Goldstein’s invitation was revoked, the festival posted a notice online stating “Our focus at Inspire has been, and will always be to create safe spaces to honour, share and celebrate the remarkable stories of women and non-binary individuals. Plans for this year’s International Women’s Day event commenced immediately following the success of the 2023 IWD event and prior to the present conflicts. 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 to Jennifer Botterill (an Olympic hockey player).”

In the end, another hockey player, Sammi Jo Small, was selected as the keynote speaker.

Goldstein said she spent the first few days after being cancelled in “a daze.”

The organizer has never contacted her, or apologized—“zero, crickets zilch, which I think is really cowardly, especially coming from a woman,” she said.

“You’re going to give in to a small group of stupid, uneducated people that probably don’t even know what they’re protesting about.”

Goldstein works as a motivational speaker from October to March, before she resumes intensive training. She usually gives about 10 to 12 speeches annually, but this year her agent has been unable to book even one event, she says.

She competes in the gruelling 4,800-km Race Across America and in 2021 was the first woman to win the solo division. The 13 sponsors affiliated with her cycling career have continued to support her, she says, and have “gone above and beyond.”

Goldstein says she’s probably one of only two Jews in Vernon, a community of about 40,000 in the Okanagan region, and aside from a few flyers posted in town, she has seen nothing antisemitic.

The Inspire festival had originally listed a number of sponsors –including the federal government—although which department was not specified on their advertising materials.

The government’s involvement also provoked criticism on social media.

Deborah Lyons, Canada’s special envoy for combatting antisemitism, commented that revoking Goldstein’s invitation is “just another example of the erasure and silencing of Jews going on across Canada and around the world. Leaders must speak up against this insidious form of anti-Jewish organizing and taxpayer dollars should not be used to support it.”

Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman called out the Department of Canadian Heritage for its involvement. However, in an email to The CJN, the department said it had not sponsored the event.