Federation defends cancelling peacenik’s talk

MONTREAL — President Marc Gold defended Federation CJA’s decision to cancel the rental of a room for a talk by an Israeli peace activist in light of the heightened security concerns and anxiety within the Jewish community after large and hostile anti-Israel demonstrations in Montreal.

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), the local group that booked the room a month earlier, before the Gaza conflict broke out, however, is charging “censorship” and believes it’s being barred because of its opposition to Israeli government policy.

The group describes itself as “a loose coalition” that includes Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists.

Jeff Halper, founder and director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, was to have given a public lecture at the federation’s Gelber Conference Centre the evening of Jan. 15, as part of a Canadian speaking tour that began last week in Halifax.

His topic at the Gelber was to have been “Peace in Israel? Peace in Gaza? Yes We Can.” IJV president Scott Weinstein said the group had reached an agreement by e-mail with the Gelber’s manager in mid-December for use of the space, but it had not yet made a payment.

On Jan. 12, Gold informed Weinstein that the federation would not allow the Halper lecture to go on. He noted that a pro-Israel group, Amitiés Québec-Israel, had asked to book a room at the same time, and the federation turned down that request as well.

In response to IJV’s protesting of the decision, Gold wrote to Weinstein that “This is absolutely not an issue of censorship, as you accuse, but the prudent exercise of responsibility for the safety of all who use our facility.”

The federation “does not pass judgment on organizations renting space at the Gelber Conference Centre… I did not ‘ban’ your proposed presentation there.

“In fact, community security determined that it would be prudent not to hold concurrent meetings of your group and of Amitiés Québec-Israel, from whom we also received a booking request.”

Amitiés is described on its website as an independent organization, founded in 1976, open to all friends of Israel in Quebec. It has been involved in organizing demonstrations in support of Israel, including the small vigil held during the last major downtown anti-Israel demonstration on Jan. 10.

Gold continued that the federation’s security resources are stretched at this time, and it cannot “divert resources to ensure that both groups could hold meetings simultaneously.”

The federation turned down the IJV’s proposal that it facilitate a joint meeting with the Amitiés, saying it was not in the federation’s “purview to mediate such contact.”

The IJV, not satisfied with the response, called a press conference, with Halper participating, outside the federation’s Cummings House on Jan. 14.

Citing the extreme cold, Gold extended a written invitation to the group to hold the conference in a room in the Gelber centre, at no charge. But the half dozen people from the group who showed up declined the offer. Weinstein said that a point was being made about the group’s exclusion by remaining outside the building.

In an interview with The CJN, Gold acknowledged that there was “a groundswell of concern,” even “distress,” among members of the Jewish community who objected to the IJV being rented space, because the group was perceived as having made common cause with organizers of the Jan. 10 anti-Israel demonstration.

Weinstein said IJV is, indeed, one of the 100 groups that make up the Coalition pour la justice and la paix en Palestine, which endorsed the demonstration. That coalition issued a statement in advance condemning Israel’s “murderous aggression” in Gaza.

Weinstein said this does not mean IJV condones any of the anti-Semitic or violent rhetoric that the Quebec-Israel Committee says was uttered at the rally, and he suspects it may not have picked up the “nuances” of the Arabic language.

While he didn’t think the members of the Amitiés and IJV would necessarily clash, Gold said, it would be hard to control who attends a publicized event. “It is clear passions are rising so high that things could get out of hand… This was a risk we were just not prepared to take.”

If the federation was opposed to the IJV’s views, he pointed out, it would not have agreed to rent the space in the first place.

Weinstein suspects the federation colluded with the Amitiés to have a pretext to cancel an event that was not in keeping with the organized community’s stance on the Gaza conflict.

Weinstein assured Gold that the IJV would be respectful and calm, noting that a closely allied Jewish group opposing Israeli policies has held events at Gelber on two previous occasions.

The QIC gathered evidence that some of the thousands of participants in the Jan. 10 demonstration chanted slogans that incited hatred and even violence against Jews and are associated with radical Islamism. Symbols of the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas were also clearly visible.

Halper said he was disappointed by the federation’s decision, saying that “a Jewish community centre should be open to all voices in the Jewish community… A monopoly over Jewish voices is not a healthy development.”

The American-born Halper, 62, has been living in Israel for 35 years.

The day before, he had been at Dalhousie University and the affiliated King’s College in Halifax, where about 500 attended his talk on the Gaza conflict, without incident.

IJV member Lesley Levy said that she was angered by the space denial, because “my husband and I contribute thousands of dollars each year” to the federation.

Gelber’s talk was re-scheduled to the Unitarian Church of Montreal. He also spoke at McGill University, where he was introduced by civil rights lawyer Julius Grey, and at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

His tour, organized before the conflict started, was to continue in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Vancouver, where it winds up Jan. 29.

He said his main message to Canadians is that Israel is the prime obstacle to peace and that the Gaza offensive is wrong. Hamas doesn’t pose a threat to the Jewish state’s existence, he said, because of Israel’s vastly superior military strength.