Toronto’s mayor skipped the city’s Israel Independence Day event after calling the flag raising ‘divisive’

Flag raising at Queen's Park for Yom ha-Atzmaut, May 14, 2024, (Credit: Lila Sarick)

“Divisive” was the word used by Mayor Olivia Chow to explain why she elected not to attend the Toronto City Hall ceremony to commemorate Yom ha-Atzmaut.

By request of the local Israeli consulate, the raising of its flag took place above Nathan Phillips Square, which is named for the mayor of the city from 1955 to 1962—who also happened to be Jewish.

But the mayor and city council do not have a say in which flag raising requests go through. For the past 25 years, that responsibility has been held by the city’s protocol office, which alone can approve or deny the requests.

According to the city website, non-profit or charitable organizations may request to fly flags of nations recognized by the federal government on a country’s national day, or the anniversary of a special occasion.

In a media scrum this morning shortly after the Israeli flag was raised, Chow said she generally doesn’t go to these events, because there are so many of them.

But she gave an additional reason for skipping out on this one.

“I think it’s a bit divisive because there’s a war going on in the Middle East,” she said. “There’s been demonstrations since October every weekend. And emotions are very high. And I think it’s important that we hear each other, be empathetic.”

When asked if the city ever considered cancelling the ceremony, as the City of Ottawa did before reversing course last week, Chow said that option was never in question, because it is not a political decision.

Moreover, she doesn’t want to see council take over the approval of flag raising requests, which is something it did prior to 1999.

“In the years I was at council, the 14 years, I’ve seen far too much time debating which country should or shouldn’t be able to raise the flags. And I think it’s better to have the protocol office make decisions based on global Canada guidelines,” she said. “I don’t think the municipalities, municipal councillors or the mayor are equipped to do so.”

The situation is reminiscent of Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek’s decision not to participate in a menorah lighting ceremony on the first night of Hanukkah, despite originally agreeing to appear.

Gondek said at the time that she stayed away because the event had been repositioned as an event to support Israel, Jewish organizers of the event denied that it had been framed as such.

At a flag raising ceremony a few hours later at the Ontario Legislature, city councillor James Pasternak, who was involved with the event at Toronto City Hall expressed his disappointment that Chow did not attend.

“She said it was divisive, which I vigorously disagree with. What’s been divisive in the last seven months are these hate mobs that have taken over the city, they’re the ones tearing us apart, not a peaceful gathering that’s Charter-protected, that is praying for the release of the hostages and peace in the area,” he told The CJN.

“We have dozens of these flag raisings every year and some of them are countries that are in conflict and we still do them. It’s important to understand what Toronto is—it’s a community of nationalities and people still have a closeness with the country they came from, in Israel’s case, it’s a connection of faith and history.”

Pasternak said he would speak with the mayor “about the pain this has caused and hope she understands that.”

Noah Shack, UJA Federation’s vice-president of countering antisemitism and hate—who was also present at the flag raising at Queen’s Park—pointed out that in the past, Toronto mayors haven’t always been able to attend the ceremonial event.

“It’s unfortunate that the mayor wasn’t there, every year is important but this year in particular the community is feeling vulnerable, with all of the threats that have been made against us, calls for violence and intimidation and harassment the community has been experiencing, it would have been nice to have had the mayor at the flag-raising,” he said.

“Whether the mayor is able to come to the flag raising, is a matter of schedule… But the notion that somehow the Jewish community gathering to celebrate our heritage during Jewish Heritage Month can be considered divisive is antithetical to our values as Torontonians, as Ontarians, as Canadians and something that really is an unfortunate comment from our mayor.”

Over one hundred people, including provincial politicians and Israeli consul-general Idit Shamir, were at Queen’s Park for the annual event.