Sit this one out—or march loud and proud? Queer Jews face a hard choice in deciding whether to join Pride Toronto festivities in 2024

Jewish LGBTQ+ people and allies marched at Pride in Toronto in 2023. (CIJA photo)

Leaders of the Jewish organizations that march as a group in Toronto’s annual Pride parade have had a hard time deciding whether to join this year’s joyous blowout celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and subsequent war in Gaza, the weekly, often chaotic anti-Israel protests, along with increased numbers of antisemitic incidents and hate crimes, contribute to growing unease in many Toronto Jewish communities.

Queer Jews and allies were also left wondering about their place at Pride following a statement on “the humanitarian crisis in Gaza” by Pride Toronto, which organizes Pride Week leading up to its signature Sunday parade, slated this year for June 30.

The statement, which was issued in late March, was widely criticized as one-sided. Pride Toronto omitted mention of the Hamas attacks and rising levels of antisemitism locally, and made a cursory mention of the hostages at the end of three pages railing against Israel’s Gaza offensive.

Jess Burke, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) director of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and 2SLGBTQIA+ partnerships, says she understands why many of the queer Jewish people she knows have chosen “not to even be tangentially involved” with Pride Toronto this year, following that statement.

 “They said ‘I’m not marching in it and I’m in deep disagreement with the violations that I feel have been perpetrated by Pride Toronto.’”

Jewish groups are also anticipating potential protests, as activist groups supporting the Palestinian cause have taken aim at corporate Pride sponsors with investments in defence companies supplying the Israeli military.

Burke, along with LGBTQ+ committee representatives from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC), says Jewish parade delegation organizers are aware of potential protests, confirming ongoing talks with Toronto Police and Pride security, and that additional plainclothes security will be present at the Sunday parade.

Members of the Jewish LGBTQ+ delegation at the 2023 Pride parade. (Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre photo)

Toronto’s No Pride in Policing Coalition, which is organizing alternate Pride events, is boycotting Pride Toronto over its sponsor TD Bank’s investments in General Dynamics, a U.S. aerospace and defence corporation.

The group’s website urges supporters to “take up space in the streets,” and queer Jewish organizers for the parade delegation say protests are likely. (In addition, religious groups demonstrating against same-sex or other non-heterosexual relationships often appear at Pride to protest the spectacle.)

Earlier in June, pro-Palestinian protesters stalled the Winnipeg Pride parade at a downtown intersection for at least 20 minutes. Among the demonstrators’ demands of Pride Winnipeg were that the organization “end complicity with genocide [and] divest from corporate pinkwashing,” according to a CBC News report. The blockade ended with a Pride Winnipeg official signing an agreement to discuss protesters’ demands.

Burke published a statement on the CIJA website acknowledging the difficult decision over participating this year as a delegation.

“In the end, we continue to engage in discourse and to advocate for our inclusion, and we have decided—boldly—that queer and transgender representation at Pride is simply too important to forgo,” read Burke’s statement in part.

Burke says Pride Toronto okayed the Jewish delegation’s extra security, which for the Sunday parade includes plainclothes officers, with the caveat organizers tell them what they’re doing.

On delegation numbers, Burke, who’s coordinating registration, says it’s usually between 80 and 100 people for the annual parade contingent, but she won’t predict whether final head counts will grow, shrink or stay in that range.

“It’s really hard to know if this year is going to mirror the Walk with Israel, for example, where it’s going to absolutely boom in terms of numbers and physical support, because it’s just so isolating absolutely everywhere else, or if people are going to gird their loins and not participate.”

“It’s definitely a dividing factor,” says Burke. “I want to validate both of those experiences,” she says of decisions to march or sit out the extravagant Sunday parade.

For Burke, though, having a Jewish queer presence at the Pride parade is too important to not organize the annual, visibly Jewish contingent.

“The risk of not having healthy, positive, Jewish representation is too high, especially when we see trans youth homelessness numbers and the experience within different intersections of our community,” says Burke.

“I think about 14- and 15-year-old queer Jewish me… queer Jewish colleagues of mine, people that I know… every year when we’re at the parade, someone comes up to us [and tells us] ‘I haven’t talked to my family in a decade’ or ‘I didn’t know there was anyone else.’”

Burke says CIJA has said: “We will create a space and we will keep it as safe as possible if you want to come.

“And if there’s two people that are there, I want them to be safe. And if there’s 200 people that are there, I want them to be safe,” she says.

She says CIJA is working with Toronto Police Services’ LGBTQ+ liaison officer and Jewish liaison officer.

“We’ve asked them to communicate with each other. The reality is that queer Jewish people live at a multiple marginalization,” she says.

Burke didn’t make the decision alone to field a visibly Jewish 2024 parade delegation. She and a handful of CIJA and UJA colleagues, including security staff, held many consultations before that decision.

Burke says community members told organizers they’re concerned about their safety at the parade.

“People aren’t afraid of feeling socially isolated… ‘Oh no, I’m going to be excluded and that’s sad,’ or ‘I’m not invited to the party and that’s sad’—people are genuinely afraid of being physically harmed, of being attacked, way more than they are of being ostracized or excluded.”

She says those concerns have been communicated to Pride Toronto.

“That’s really important when we’re talking about Pride and inclusion and diversity and equity … ‘We want everyone to be included’… sure, those are really soft words, and we can use them and they’re true.

“But we also want people to not be actually victimized. And I don’t know that the non-Jewish world understands this.”

CIJA established its LGBTQ+ division following the 2017 Chicago Dyke March incident, Burke says, when Pride (rainbow) flags with Stars of David became a flashpoint of controversy.

Pride Toronto bars national flags of any kind, but Burke says she hears uncertainty about marching with Pride Magen David flags or banners as well.

Many queer Jews feel ostracized from queer spaces, some Jewish spaces, or both, Burke says.

Until now, Pride Toronto’s most notable controversy concerning Israel-Palestine was more than a decade ago, when in 2010, a Pride delegation calling itself Queers Against Israeli Apartheid triggered a ban on the phrase “Israeli apartheid” and Pride’s City of Toronto funding was at risk of suspension. The ban was reversed and the group marched in the parade most years between 2010 and 2015, when it folded.

“Jewish queer people feel so isolated from the Pride space, and queer Jews have also felt in many ways socially isolated from some of our synagogue life and cultural practices,” says Burke.

“And although that’s gotten a lot better in [recent] years, it is hard to feel stuck between two worlds, sometimes and to not feel 100 percent upheld in either.

“Queer Jews have been doing this emotional and physical and professional labour for literally decades to create this space where people can be queer and Jewish.

“This year… Jews really want allies in our Jewish community to come and be with us.… I think that’s being heard. I hope that’s being heard.”

More than 20 events for queer Jews and allies were organized for Pride month, including the Pride Kabbalat Shabbat service and dinner at the MNJCC on June 21. The multiple events are there to provide a dedicated, welcoming space for queer Jews, she says.

Along with coordinating the Pride parade Jewish delegation, CIJA and UJA added a June 30 after-party, with Jewish drag and burlesque performers, including the Toronto debut of a Mizrachi performer called Ms. Hadarling.

“She’s plus-size. She’s body positive. She’s pansexual. She’s brown. She’s Mizrachi. She represents a really important intersection,” says Burke.

“So despite the fact that this is a really hard year, we still have a queer Jewish burlesque performer, we still have a Jewish contingent and a delegation marching in the Pride parade. We still have representation at the Dyke March and the trans rally,” says Burke, who also organizes with the Dyke March events committee.

Jonathan Zaid, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s associate director of community mobilization to combat antisemitism, says there have been ongoing conversations between Pride Toronto and organizers of the Jewish delegation around “safety, security, and inclusion.”

Zaid told The CJN there’s “a diversity of feelings within the Jewish queer community on participating in Pride this year,” due to “increased levels of hate and antisemitism.”

“Some people are choosing to not go to the parade, and some people are choosing to go and be louder than ever. We respect people’s independent choices.” The range of events and programs with community partners offers queer Jews “a chance to participate no matter where they’re coming from.”

“This year, especially for the Jewish queer community, engaging in Pride activities can serve as a powerful statement against hate and violence… and it showcases the importance of diversity within our communities,” he says.

According to Emunah Woolf, the LGBTQ+ Jewish community programmer at the MNJCC, Pride Shabbat’s growing community necessitated a venue change to a larger space for services and dinner, moving it to the MNJCC’s theatre and gymnasium after last year’s 250 attendees packed the Cecil St. Community Centre.

Pride Shabbat dinner in Toronto in 2023 was held at Cecil St. Community Centre. (Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre photo)

In this difficult year, Woolf says, some people are “choosing whether to be in spaces based on who else” will be in those spaces.

“Since Oct. 7, we definitely had folks who stopped attending our events because they don’t feel [we were] Israel focused enough,” says Woolf. But others weren’t attending, they say, because the MNJCC has an Israeli flag in its lobby.

Woolf says it’s left a lot of people at a distance from the community: Zionist Jews may experience isolation from their queer communities; and antizionist Jews, from their Jewish communities.

“My role is to make people feel supported,” especially when “a lot of people [are] activated,” says Woolf.

Being in the same space with others we disagree with can be challenging, says Woolf.

“There’s not going to be one event that’s for everybody,” necessarily, says Woolf, but they hope the options allow as many people as possible to get together.

The Pride Shabbat event briefly experienced its own mini-imbroglio earlier in the week over an MNJCC website listing that requested attendees not bring national flags to Shabbat, which brought criticism from pro-Israel Jews, prompting the removal of that text.

In an email, MNJCC recanted, explaining the flag recommendation came from an attempt to reduce barriers to people gathering. The message emphasized the centre’s commitment to allow all expressions of Jewish identity, including flags.  

The MNJCC is organizing the Jewish contingent for the Trans Rally June 28 and the Dyke March June 29, both typically smaller events, while CIJA and UJA coordinate the Jewish contingent for the big Sunday parade.

Jewish community members at Pride 2023 in Toronto (Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre photo)

Organizers said while the other events won’t include the separation barriers and extra security the Sunday parade will have, Pride does have security present.

Woolf and Burke both noted that overall, visibly Jewish participants at past Pride events report they often receive friendly comments and “Shabbat Shalom” greetings.

Noah Zatzman, co-chair of UJA’s LGBTQ+ committee and a communications and strategy consultant, says Toronto’s Pride parade is a major event for the Jewish community to show pride, too.

The city, he says, “has its distinction of being a sort of huge gay mecca,” but also the largest Jewish population in Canada, with about half of the country’s roughly 400,000 Jewish Canadians. Showing up at Pride, he says, means visibility.

“There’s no way to hide, especially not at Pride, when I think everybody will be expecting now perhaps to be a confrontation. And how do we mitigate that? … Really, as it was at the Walk [with Israel], security is the most essential element.”

Zatzman, who marched with Pride colours at the Walk With Israel on June 9, says he got friendly and encouraging comments. The investment from Jewish communities and organizations into fostering queer Jewish representation has built acceptance, he says.

Speaking with other gay and queer Jews that day, Zatzman said “maybe 10 years ago, they would have felt awkward about bringing Pride gear to the Walk, but not in any way, shape or form this year.”  

He points out that a rainbow logo for Pride, adopted for the month of June by Jewish organizations like Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Canada, would not have been common in 2000, when he came out.

“I would have never thought [of] the strides in the last 20 years in our community in terms of acceptance,” says Zatzman. “It’s a remarkable shift.”