Court dismisses charge that Foodbenders discriminated against a Jewish customer in Toronto

A court has dismissed a charge that the owner of Foodbenders contravened anti-discrimination bylaws when she encountered a Jewish doctor and his son last year at her store.

Kimberley Hawkins, who gained notoriety for posting anti-Zionist messages to social media, was charged for violating a provision of the Municipal Code that forbids a licensed business in Toronto from discriminating on the basis of “race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status, or disability.”

In an oral decision on Nov. 15, a provincial offenses court dismissed the charge. In effect, that means Hawkins can keep her business license, even though Foodbenders is closed and Hawkins has said she’s declaring bankruptcy.

The case stemmed from an incident in July 2020 at the former Bloor Street West eatery and catering company.

After seeing Hawkins’ many anti-Zionist posts on Instagram, which included “#zionistsnotwelcome;” comparing Zionists to Nazis, and accusing Israel of committing “systematic genocide,” Gordon Arbess and his son Josh decided to go to the shop and talk to Hawkins.

On July 5, 2020, “we decided together to go down and have a discussion with her,” Arbess, a Toronto family doctor, told The CJN. “We weren’t going down to cause trouble. We just really wanted to have a discussion. My son’s very peaceful. I’m a pretty peaceful guy.”

When they arrived, they asked to speak to Hawkins. Told she wasn’t available, Arbess said he told an employee: “We’re Jewish. We support the state of Israel. Would we be able to purchase something here? Are we welcome here as customers?”

According to Arbess, Hawkins then charged out from behind the counter, uttered profanities, and told the two to get outside.

From there, “things got bad very quickly,” Arbess recalled.

When he and his son went outside, Arbess said he looked over his shoulder and saw Hawkins coming at him with a bucket. She then allegedly threw a bucket of water on him.

“I said, ‘what did you do that for?’ I was sopping wet.”

He said his son was “quite shaken,” and called police.

Arbess said the police told him that Hawkins had apologized for the incident and asked whether he wanted to press charges.

“I was in a rush to get to work,” Arbess said. “I said, ‘I don’t really want to press charges. I don’t want trouble.’”

An assault charge against Hawkins was not laid.

Looking back, “perhaps we were a bit naive to think that we would have a frank discussion,” Arbess noted.

The CJN was unable to reach Hawkins for comment.

Arbess was later asked by the Crown’s office to testify at the hearing on the possible Municipal Code infraction relating to discrimination. That took place via Zoom before a justice of the peace in late September.

Arbess said that at the hearing, Hawkins didn’t apologize to him for the bucket incident. “She said, ‘it was wrong for me to do that.’ It wasn’t really an apology.”

Reasons for the court’s dismissal of the charge were not immediately available. Hawkins’ lawyer, Stephen Ellis, told The CJN it happened “because the Crown did not prove that Mr. Arbess suffered any discrimination on the day in question.”

Ellis applauded the court finding, saying Hawkins “has been the victim of harassment, vandalism, physical threats and defamation by the Israel lobby since she began to openly show support to the Palestinian people in November 2019.”

In past interviews, Hawkins maintained the social media posts and signs at her shop were intended as criticism of Israel, not of Jews.

In one Instagram post, she wrote: “The first thing I will say is that I love Jewish people and they are welcome in my store. I have never said anything about Jewish people.”

Arbess said he’s “obviously disappointed” by the court’s decision.

“I’m worried that it sets a precedent whereby people will be emboldened to have these questionable, anti-Jewish views.”

Foodbenders generated wide attention in the summer of 2020 with social media postings that included denouncing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “Zionist puppet,” and glorifying a Palestinian terrorist.

Other posts accused Jewish groups of controlling the media and elected officials, and justified terrorism against Israelis.

A sandwich board outside the store once proclaimed, “F—k Mossad, IDF, Bibi” A large sign in her window read, “I (heart) Gaza.”

Amid the ensuing controversy, several food ordering and payment apps, including Uber Eats, Doordash, Ritual, and Square, broke ties with Foodbenders. The store’s window was vandalized in protests.

Hawkins still faces other legal woes, including a defamation lawsuit from Shai DeLuca, a Toronto interior designer with Canadian and Israeli citizenship, and two complaints before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. One is from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the other on behalf of GTA resident Elena Aschkenasi, who claims Hawkins discriminated against Jews when she posted that Zionists weren’t welcome at her store.

In a recent social media post, Hawkins said Foodbenders has come to an end.

“Foodbenders was my entire life. But it has to be over now. My heart is broken.”

She said that since November 2019, she has been fighting the “Israel lobby” to keep her business going. Now, “the lobby took my business and career, my life savings.”

B’nai Brith Canada, which urged a review of Hawkins’ business license, said it was “disappointed and very concerned” about the court’s decision to dismiss the charge against her.

B’nai Brith said it is analyzing the decision “so that we can understand next steps available to the community.”

A spokesperson said the city’s legal services “is in the process of carefully reviewing the court’s decision.”