Pro-Israel rallies calling for the release of hostages become more public—while hate crime incidents and arrests surge across Canada

Doctors rally in Toronto, calling on the International Red Cross to aid the hostages kidnapped by Hamas, Nov. 9, 2023. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

A month after Hamas’ brutal attacks left 1,200 people dead and 240 kidnapped, pro-Israel rallies and demonstrations are starting to take on a more public, visible presence across Canada. Downtown rallies and displays of empty strollers and Shabbat tables call on authorities to expedite and prioritize the hostages’ safe return.

At a Nov. 7 vigil at the Vancouver Art Gallery, 1,400 candles flickered on the wide steps to symbolize those lost in the Hamas attacks. Ottawa’s Jewish community has held Havdalah gatherings with peace songs on Parliament Hill.

In Toronto, images of hostages have appeared on screens mounted on trucks driving around the city, and on a giant milk carton, erected in midtown Toronto.

The UJA Federation of Greater Toronto held its first rally for Israel just two days after the attack at Mel Lastman Square, followed by an indoor event with members of hostages’ families at Beth Tzedec Congregation three weeks later.

A Shabbat table installation, organized by UJA, popped up in David Pecaut Square in Toronto’s entertainment district on Nov. 10, with 240 place settings at the empty table representing the missing hostages.

UJA is also bringing Toronto’s Jewish community together for a solidarity rally for the hostages Nov.  12, at Christie Pits Park. The park, in downtown Toronto, was the site of the biggest race riot in Canadian history in 1933, when members of antisemitic gang brought a swastika banner to a baseball game where a Jewish team was playing.

It’s important for Jewish Canadians to turn out, whether for the Toronto event or across the country, said Noah Shack, vice-president of Countering Antisemitism and Hate for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

“It’s time for us to come together, not just to show our continuing solidarity with the hostages, but also to show that we won’t be intimidated by those who express hate and seek to diminish us.”

“We have a space in the public square, and it’s important that we take that space and use it to showcase what we stand for, and the Canadian values that animate our community.”

The moment presents an opportunity to engage in conversations, Shack says.

“Every single person in our community has a role to play, right now. Every relationship that they have matters,” he says. “Years of public opinion research have shown that people who have relationships with Jews in Canada are more likely to view our community favourably, care about antisemitism [and] have a better understanding of Israel.”

Shack regularly coordinates with Jewish organizations across the country and across the political spectrum. He says he’s inspired by the spirit of volunteerism he’s seeing, from individuals offering pro bono legal or mental health services, to fundraising drives for Israeli humanitarian, civil society, and military efforts.

“A really important part of the overall strategy is not just to speak with an institutional voice, but to, as much as possible, empower our community to unify and for each individual to have impact,” he said.

Demonstrations of support aren’t limited to large events organized by federations. In Toronto, a car parade, seemingly organized on social media, took place on Nov. 5 with more than 90 vehicles flying Israeli flags driving from Jewish neighbourhoods to downtown Toronto.

A small group of pro-Israel supporters brings Israeli flags and music to the corner of Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue on Sunday mornings.

Eye-grabbing visual displays around Toronto have proven a popular strategy. An exhibit of empty strollers and teddy bears which drew attention to child and adult hostages, on Oct. 30 at the Wolfond Centre at the University of Toronto, was organized by word of mouth within the Israeli community.

Another initiative generated by the Canadian-Israeli community in Toronto continued on Nov. 9, when more than 100 Israeli and Jewish medical professionals rallied outside hospital row on University Avenue.

Doctors in blue scrubs and white lab coats held posters of the hostages, imploring the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Canadian government to prioritize their health and safe return.

Israeli doctor Noa Gilad, who organized the event, stood behind a Hippocratic oath placard.

“As a woman, as a mother, as a physician, as an OB (obstetrician), I cannot sit quietly in the present of the atrocities that happened on October 7,” she said one day earlier in a phone interview with The CJN.

“I wish I could turn back time and bring the 1,400 people who were murdered back to their families. But I cannot.”

“But there are more than 240 civilians who are kidnapped and who are still alive. And we ask, no, we demand from the Red Cross to do everything to bring them back home. Now. Not tomorrow. Now. We didn’t forget power, our Hippocratic oath. We hope you didn’t [either].”

Gilad was followed by Aharon Brodutch, an Israeli-Canadian whose brother’s family in Israel is among the hostages. But beside those brief speeches, the hour-long rally was mostly silent, save for a chorus at one point of “let my children go!” and, before closing, a reading of all of the 240 names of the hostages.

“Our silence is a cry for human rights telling the Red Cross to act,” Gilad told the crowd of supporters surrounding her on the sidewalk. “We expect them to do their job.”

The noon-hour Toronto rally was one of several around the world synchronized with an Israeli one outside the International Committee of the Red Cross offices in Tel Aviv.

Gilad, an OBGYN and maternal medicine fellow who has lived in Toronto for four years, organized the event in a matter of days after receiving requests passed from Israeli medical colleagues for those outside Israel to hold simultaneous events.

“Unfortunately, the base of the Canadian Red Cross is in Ottawa, but we have a lot of the people that we can recruit fast in Toronto,” she explained. “So, we decided to do it here and shout loud enough in order for them to hear us in Ottawa.”

“There is no formal organization,” says Gilad. “It’s physicians who care and want to make a stand.”

“This is not a political Israel Palestine demonstration. This is bigger than us. We want these kidnapped [people] home now, and we want to press the Canadian authorities and the Red Cross to intervene now.”

Dr. Tamar Shemesh-Lobl read the names of each of the hostages aloud on the microphone.

“[The medical community is doing this] to raise the concern about the hostages’ health and well-being, and that’s part of the job of the Red Cross. We are here appealing specifically to the Red Cross,” she said.

“We know there are young children. We know about sick people that are there that need to get medical treatment. We know that there are people that were injured. We know about someone that had hand grenades thrown on them. Some people are severely injured and we need to know how they’re doing.

“This is a humanitarian matter… this is above the political disagreement.”

The events calling attention to the hostages are unfolding against a backdrop of generally much larger pro-Palestine protests taking place in city streets, in high schools and on postsecondary campuses around the country.

The tense social climate has heightened concern in Jewish communities as antisemitic events surge. Incidents in recent days include bullets being fired at two Jewish schools in Montreal and Molotov cocktails being thrown at a synagogue and Jewish federation building.

In downtown Toronto an Indigo bookstore was splashed with red paint, and photos of Jewish founder and Israel supporter Heather Reisman were pasted on the windows. An Ottawa Jewish school received a bomb threat.

Among the 13 hate crime charges laid in Canadian jurisdictions so far, a man in Calgary who led a “From the River to the Sea” chant at a Nov. 5 rally has been charged with causing a disturbance, with a hate-motivated component added to the charge.

Calgary police report there have been weekly competing pro-Palestine and pro-Israel demonstrations at the same location and that they have advised organizers on what can and cannot be said or done at the events, including text on signs and hate speech law violations.

According to police, Wesam Cooley, 32, also known as Wesam Khaled, had verbally acknowledged he had spoken with them, following which Cooley allegedly continued leading and encouraging the chant.

In Toronto, at a technical media briefing Nov. 8 on hate crimes, Toronto Police Services said that the phrase “From the River to the Sea” on its own would not constitute a hate crime, noting the circumstances and context of uttering the chant would be key in determining if an act met the threshold for a hate crime.

Pauline Colwin, spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, says the chant is especially triggering for the Jewish community.

“We don’t see that as a call for freedom. It’s a call for the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people.

“Our greatest fear is that having this behaviour almost normalises Jew hatred, it can easily escalate if it becomes normal for people to call for violence against Jews and to justify it.”

Hamas has been designated as a terrorist group by Canada, but nonetheless, they were called “freedom fighters” at a protest outside the human rights memorial on Elgin Street, about a day after the Oct. 7 attack, she said.

“They appeared to be glorifying the attacks where Jews were slaughtered and it was something we’ve never seen before,” she said. “It was deeply frightening for people. This is Canada. That’s not what we do. We don’t celebrate terrorism.”

Anti-Israel protesters disrupted sessions at a national conference on antisemitism organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs that had been planned months before the Oct. 7 attacks. Demonstrators then blocked the exits, making it unsafe for attendees to leave, Colwin said.  

It can be difficult to balance the value of protecting freedom of expression with the need to restrict hate speech, UJA’s Noah Shack said during a public webinar Nov. 8.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing in these rallies instances that are seen to us to be meeting that threshold [of hate speech]. I can tell you that the [Toronto Police Service] have confirmed there are active investigations underway with regard to some of the slogans and things being chanted out at these rallies. And we’re continuing to engage with police to provide any support we can to those investigations.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of CIJA, called out the demonstrations of support for Hamas at Palestine rallies and protests.

“What we’ve clearly seen this past month is that so many of the so-called pro-Palestinian rallies and protests turn into unapologetic demonstrations in support of Hamas’ brutality—framing the Canadian-listed terrorist entity as a harbinger of the global revolution of the ‘oppressed’,” Fogel said in a statement to The CJN.

“They celebrate Hamas’ brutal assault on Israeli men, women, and children and it represents nothing short of a morally repugnant and traumatizing manifestation of hate.

“There can be no excuse for such vitriol—and whether the slogans explicitly celebrate Hamas or refer to “Palestinian freedom by any means”, the implication is the same and equally shameful,” he said.   

“The Jewish community must be vigilant in not allowing that kind of hate to infiltrate our communities in Canada, whether on the streets, on campus, in unions or the public school system.”

Hateful speech at rallies and protests endangers the Jewish community, federation leaders say.

In Montreal, at a press conference held after shots were fired at two Jewish schools, Yair Szlak, CEO of Federation CJA, displayed a poster promoting a pro-Palestinian protest that pictured people shattering windows. The demonstration was scheduled for the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night of violence known as ‘the night of broken glass’ that was the beginning of the Holocaust.

“There is no question in our mind that there is a direct correlation between hate speech and the actions that we have seen this week in terms of the Molotov cocktail bottles and the horrible situation at Concordia, where not only hate speech but antisemitic slurs were thrown at Jewish kids and of course what happened this morning at the two schools,” Szlak said.

 Fogel says he has seen the same pattern across the country.

“There are real life consequences to the words being spoken, and those words are shifting into aggressive and violent behaviour. Action that endangers lives, threatens the safety of Jews in Canada, and this pattern has only been escalating since October 7.

“Federations are encouraging our communities to develop resilience and demonstrate determination to push back.”