Ottawa city hall reversed its decision to cancel a Yom ha-Atzmaut flag-raising ceremony in response to objections from Jewish residents—who also organized their own rally for Israel Independence Day

Guidelines for rallygoers are outlined on one of the earlier flyers for a community commemoration of the Israeli flag raising at Ottawa City Hall. Organizers from Grassroots Ottawa Against Antisemitism say it will be a peaceful rally, that it's not a protest, and that it was already set to go before the city reversed its decision to hold a ceremony alongside the flag raising.

The City of Ottawa is reversing a decision it had made to cancel a ceremony for an Israeli flag raising at city hall on Yom ha-Atzmaut on May 14. The ceremony had initially been cancelled over security concerns but in the meantime a group of Ottawa Jewish residents planned to hold a rally at city hall to mark the occasion anyway.

The city issued a statement May 7, writing that after consulting with the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and others, “recent intelligence that suggests hosting a public ceremony poses a substantial risk to public safety.”

But on May 10, the same day Jewish organizers announced plans to hold a gathering at city hall despite the ceremony’s cancellation, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe posted online that the matter was being revisited.

“I’ve asked the chief of police and city officials to work with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa on a plan for an event to mark Israel’s Independence Day while protecting the security and safety of everyone involved,” Sutcliffe wrote in the post.

“We must ensure that members of the Jewish community—and all residents of our city—can gather whenever they choose to do so in safety, and free from intimidation and fear.”

He said he’d “listened carefully to members of the community” in the two days since the cancellation decision, which, Sutcliffe wrote in a post on May 8, left him “very disappointed.”

“I agree that they, and everyone in our community, should be able to hold events in public spaces without fear of threats and intimidation. My responsibility is to do everything possible to protect the safety of all members of our community,” Sutcliffe wrote in the May 10 post reversing the decision.

“We must continue to support our Jewish community, which is experiencing increasingly higher levels of antisemitism. Let’s all work together to ensure our city is safe and free from violence and racism in all its forms.”

The flag raising typically takes place over lunch hour and includes a ceremony for Israel’s Independence Day.

Jewish Federation of Ottawa (JFO) also wrote in an email to community members that their voices supporting an event “resonated strongly” and the ceremony, which had been cancelled, was now being organized for the flag raising on Tuesday, May 14.

“The initial decision to cancel the event was based on information provided by City Hall, citing a definitive elevated risk to public safety,” the JFO email read in part.

“Today, we are pleased to announce that we are working on a security approach with City Hall, CIJA [Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs], and the Ottawa Police Service that will allow us to move forward with a public flag raising ceremony.”

But before Sutcliffe’s May 10 announcement, The CJN spoke with one Ottawa Jewish community organizer who says people were already set to gather peacefully in a public part of City Hall, and that Ottawa’s pro-Israel Jews aren’t going to hide.

Lisa Levitan of #EndJewHatred and Grassroots Ottawa Against Antisemitism says Ottawa’s Jewish community will gather to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut at city hall in a peaceful rally, following a decision by the city to cancel the ceremony accompanying the Israeli Independence Day flag raising. The mayor now says he’s asked police and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa to plan an event, but the gathering Levitan planned is already set to take place. (supplied)

Lisa Levitan confirmed that a “grassroots” Jewish gathering is planned for the noon hour. Participants are encouraged to wear blue and white. There will be no amplified sound or megaphones, she notes, in keeping with what she says will be a lawful, peaceful gathering.

The grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, Levitan—who founded Rise Up Ottawa after the rise in antisemitism during the last Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, in May 2021 and is the Ottawa chapter lead for the #EndJewHatred initiative—says the rally was planned before Sutcliffe announced the city was reversing its decision.

“Horrified Canadian Jews came forward and told him we were coming anyway,” she told The CJN on May 10, following the reversal. “So he reversed the decision knowing we were going to be there.”

The more recent flyer for the Yom Haatzmaut rally organized by Jewish Ottawans including the Grassroot Ottawa Against Antisemitism community Facebook group run by Lisa Levitan. The flyer was released after the announced cancellation of the official ceremony at this year’s Israeli flag raising on May 14, but the city now says it’s working with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa to hold a ceremony after all.

She emphasizes that her community, including the Facebook group Grassroots Ottawa Against Antisemitism, which she administrates, is grateful to Mayor Sutcliffe for reversing the decision, “while doing everything he can to keep us safe.”

“We want everyone to live in peace. But we will not let them shut us down and erase us, and we will not let them threaten us while we sit back and do nothing.”

Social media posts from Ottawa 4 Palestine show that a demonstration is planned at Ottawa’s city hall for the morning of May 14, hours before the Yom ha-Atzmaut gathering.

Ottawa 4 Palestine’s Instagram post about May 14 includes a cartoon and an animated GIF depicting a blue and white toilet paper roll, and the blue and white “Zionist entity” in the form “stepped in sh*t” to be scraped off one’s shoe. Another recent post on the account mocks public officials’ statements decrying the ceremony’s cancellation.

Ottawa 4 Palestine posted a call for supporters at city hall on the morning of May 14 for their own flag raising ceremony, and likened “the Zionist entity” in a cartoon and animated GIF to excrement. (Instagram/photo collage by The CJN)
Ottawa 4 Palestine on Instagram mocked the reactions of officials’ who decried the cancellation of the ceremony and declared a “huge win” over the “zionist rats” who voiced disappointment with the original cancellation. Ottawa 4 Palestine’s other posts show the group is organizing its own flag raising event for May 14 at Ottawa City Hall. (Instagram)

Levitan says the Jewish Ottawans who come out May 14 plan to steer clear of trouble.

“We are not an aggressive people. When we go on Tuesday, we are not going to be engaging with anybody who is screaming ‘Kill all the Jews’, which has been happening consistently in Ottawa. We will literally just be standing there holding our Israeli flag, singing and dancing and peacefully being proud Jews together in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.”

Levitan said previously she was “horrified” to learn the ceremony had been cancelled for security reasons, calling it a “terrifying precedent that police cannot keep you safe in Ottawa.”

“No matter what happens, we are not going to allow the threat to our safety to silence us, or to keep us from living our proud Jewish lives,” she said.

“And we should even say proud Jewish Zionist lives, because Zionist is not a bad word. And to make it very clear, Zionist only means that Israel has the right to exist.”

She noted that only days earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at the Holocaust Memorial on Yom ha-Shoah, May 6, publicly affirmed Canadian Jews’ right to be Zionist.

Levitan says she’s seen antisemitism creep dramatically into society since she started her Rise Up Ottawa initiative.

“For the past three years, antisemitism has become normalized in our society. Since October 7th, it’s not only being normalized, it’s being taught and it’s being encouraged,” she says.

Levitan says MPs and Ontario MPPs have said they will attend on May 14. She emphasizes she isn’t organizing a protest.

“We will never do anything illegal. We are Canadians. We hold peaceful rallies and gatherings. We don’t protest,” she says. “We come proudly with our Canadian and Israeli flags equally as proud Jewish Canadians.”

“Because if we start here, if we start hiding now, what’s going to happen tomorrow? … This is a very dangerous precedent. So we’re saying no, and that [police and public safety authorities] have to step up.”

Organizer Lisa Levitan of #EndJewHatred’s Ottawa chapter and Grassroots Ottawa Against Antisemitism wrote this post following the City of Ottawa’s decision to cancel the ceremony, which it later reversed, on May 10.

Officials lament decision over security risks to Jewish community

Deborah Lyons, Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, said in a statement before the city reversed its decision, that “it should never have come to this” level of apparent public safety risk.

“Every year since 2007 there has been a public flag raising in Ottawa to commemorate Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not this year,” she wrote in an online post.

Together with Global Affairs Canada, the city commemorates the national independence or celebration days of more than 190 countries with which Canada has diplomatic relations by flying their flags. Special ceremonies often accompany the hoisting of flags at city hall. In the month of May 2024 alone, the City of Ottawa’s website lists 16 national days on which flags are raised. In addition to Israel, on May 14, Paraguay’s Independence Day is also listed.

“Jewish Canadians are unable to live full and flourishing lives out of genuine risk for their safety. Jewish students can’t walk across their campuses. Limiting Jewish participation in Canadian life due to the threat of violence is not acceptable to the vast majority of this country,” Lyons wrote.

“All levels of leadership must take action to ensure Jewish Canadians are free to live as Jewish Canadians. This means-post secondary institutions enforcing codes of conduct, law enforcement taking action and ensuring our streets and communities are safe, and political, faith, business and civic leaders who have remained silent until now speaking out.”

Earlier, Sutcliffe had written: “Our shared priority must continue to be the safety of all Ottawa residents. Let’s come together to support our friends and neighbours in the Jewish community and stamp out hatred and racism in all its forms.”

JFO will also host a Yom ha-Atzmaut celebration at the Soloway JCC, later in the day on May 14.

The Jewish Federation of Ottawa website on the morning of May 10, 2024, still displayed text reading “there will be no public ceremony” for the flag raising at City Hall.

Safety, security concerns not specified

When contacted by The CJN on May 9, OPS did not directly answer questions about the recommendation to cancel, or the underlying safety concerns, if any.

OPS spokesperson Constable Cailey Walker wrote that the force is “aware of the City’s decision related to this flag raising and we continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure safety at community events, including demonstrations.”

“Our safety plans are scaleable and adaptable to current needs,” wrote Walker.

However, some Palestinian supporters in Ottawa objected to the Israeli flag being raised at all.

One post criticizing the mayor’s support for the flag raising called it “completely inappropriate and deeply hurtful” to celebrate Israel during the devastation of Gaza in its war against Hamas and the present near-imminent incursion into Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip. The author of the post, Leilani Farha, is a former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

Protests supporting Palestinians have taken place weekly on Parliament Hill and other locations in Ottawa for the seven months to date since Israel’s military actions in Gaza during the current war following the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

One of several pro-Palestinian campus protest encampments in the province is occupying space at the University of Ottawa. There are now at least eight to 10 such university campus encampments in Canada, including at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Toronto. Some of most recent ones, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, set up camp earlier this week.

Security incidents in Ottawa since the outbreak of the war include a thwarted alleged terror attack by a minor in Ottawa. The December 2023 incident, in which the RCMP allege a youth, who can’t be named because he is a minor, instructed someone to carry out a terror attack against Jewish people, and allegedly also communicated “instructional materials” related to explosives.

Toronto, Montreal also make changes from last year

But the visibility and publicity of Israel’s Independence Day commemorations are being downplayed in Toronto and Montreal as well.

In Montreal, Federation CJA will not hold its annual parade for Yom ha-Atzmaut. Federation spokesman Glenn J. Nashen confirmed the cancellation in an email, saying there will instead be an assembly at the downtown park Place du Canada.

And in Toronto, the city hall flag raising was requested, organized, and given the go-ahead, but was never posted on the city website at the request of the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto, according to City of Toronto communications advisor Christy Abraham.

“The City has approved a request from the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto, as part of their observance of Israel’s Independence Day, to fly the flag of Israel at City Hall on Tuesday, May 14. This year, the information on this event has not been published on the City’s website on the request of the event organizer,” Abraham said in an email to The CJN.

The CJN contacted the consulate via email to ask if there were changes to the publicity about the event, or the program for the flag raising itself this year, but did not receive a response by press time.