A court ruled that Shai DeLuca was defamed by antisemitic social media posts from the owner of Foodbenders, a now-closed restaurant in Toronto

Shai DeLuca discussing his legal victory on Instagram.

Back in the pandemic summer of 2020, Canadian television personality Shai DeLuca could never have imagined the level of antisemitic hatred that’s now pulsating on social media and also on city streets since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

Which makes his recent legal victory even more important now, DeLuca maintains, despite the long delay since his legal challenge began.

“I wanted to create an example for everybody to know that you can speak your voice, you should be heard. If something happens, say something,” DeLuca told The CJN Daily in an interview on Dec. 27. “We need to fight back.”

An Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling issued on Dec. 22 found that the Canadian-Israeli designer and television personality was defamed by a series of “abhorrent” antisemitic Instagram posts published in 2020 by Kimberly Hawkins, the owner of Foodbenders, a now-closed restaurant on Bloor Street West.

In her written decision, Justice Gina Papageorgiou slammed Hawkins for acting with malice, for targeting DeLuca personally with defamatory and “irresponsible” posts and statements, and for never once apologizing to him in over three years, despite ample time and opportunity to do so.

“Despite the many cases referred to me involving allegations like the ones here, the Defendants in this case were not deterred. These kinds of statements not only affect people’s reputations, but they also contribute to prejudice, antisemitism and intolerance and have the potential to incite violence,” the judge wrote, adding that cases like this aren’t designed to punish people who do or say hateful and vile things.

“It is not meant to be a tool to fight racism, antisemitism or other kinds of prejudice. Rather, defamation is a tort whose purpose is to ‘vindicate reputation’”.

Social media attacks from 2020

Restaurant owner Kimberly Hawkins began to attract public attention in the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. She subsequently put posters in the store window critical of police, and also put up signs showing her support of a free Palestine and love for Gaza.

Window at Foodbenders Restaurant in 2019 (Facebook)

Her social media account proclaimed that Zionists weren’t welcome in her establishment. The Jewish community began to notice, and protests were staged outside of the restaurant.

Eventually, Hawkins went after DeLuca, who is a well-known supporter of Israel and Jewish causes and is a former veteran of the Israel Defence Forces. She republished an Instagram message on July 6, 2020 attacking DeLuca personally.

The post read: “this guy is one of the people who was attacking @foodbenders. He’s an IDF SOLDIER (aka terrorist) yet he’s using BLM movement for likes. How can you sit here and post about BLM when you have your sniper rifle aimed at Palestinian children?”

DeLuca called a lawyer, who sent the woman a formal letter asking her to take the post down, and to apologize publicly, or there would be consequences.

She removed the post after 24 hours, but by then, political leaders from the mayor of Toronto to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had weighed in, criticizing Hawkins’ posts as being antisemitic.

A few days later, she posted an apology on Foodbenders’ website, where she said she was not antisemitic, that she loved Jewish people, and vowed to work with the Jewish community to learn more about antisemitism.

“While I am opposed to the political ideology of Zionism, I want to make it clear the hashtag in the post was not intended in the literal sense. Rather, I was using the statement to call out land theft and the occupation of Palestine by Zionist settlers who have stolen Palestinian homes and farms against international law,” she wrote at the time. “What I absolutely did not intend it to mean was that Jewish or Zionist people are not allowed to enter [to] my store. Anyone is welcome.”

However, Hawkins continued posting critiques of DeLuca, calling for his longtime employer Citytv to fire him from his on-air career at Cityline, a show where he dispenses decor and style advice.

She did not publicly apologize to DeLuca, as he had asked. Not even when the two had a chance, but tense encounter near her restaurant located in the same neighbourhood where DeLuca and his husband went to visit their barber. 

DeLuca, who is a Canadian-born Israeli, joined the IDF after high school, serving from 1995-1998.

He said he served with a combat engineering outfit, was injured, and spent months recuperating in an Israeli military hospital. He remains fiercely proud of his time in uniform, leaving as a sergeant. His IDF service is prominently featured as part of the designer’s social media biography on Instagram, where he has over 89,000 followers.

In testimony during the court proceedings, DeLuca maintained he never was in a position to kill anyone during his time with the IDF, and was not a sniper. Instead, he was tasked to locate and defuse mines.

He testified that he feared the Foodbenders social media attacks would hurt his reputation, cost him clients, and that he would be “cancelled”.

By July 2020, DeLuca was being represented by the Toronto firm of Re-Law LLP, through lawyers David Elmaleh and Aaron Rosenberg. They partnered with The Lawfare Project, founded by Canadian-born human rights lawyer Brooke Goldstein, author of #EndJewHatred.

“It was so important for me to stand up and voice a voice and say ‘Enough, we can no longer simply sit idly by’,” DeLuca told The CJN.

Took a toll

In court, DeLuca, 46, testified that he initially lost 20 pounds because of the online attacks, and had also received death threats through social media.

“It was extremely stressful at the very beginning, first of all, in terms of public embarrassment, in terms of worrying about my career, my work,” DeLuca recalled.

Meanwhile, the public furor over Foodbenders cost Hawkins her livelihood. During the height of the pandemic lockdown, when restaurants only survived by doing takeout or delivery, several key food delivery companies cut ties with her, including DoorDash and Uber Eats. Her business eventually closed in December 2020, although the website is still functioning.

DeLuca says he can’t measure whether the defamation about him on social media has cost him customers or potential clients.

“I will never know if I lost business from this, but this whole story is forever on the internet,” DeLuca said, explaining why he pursued the defamation case in court. “If people will be looking for somebody to work with and they will be searching and they find me and then they find out this? That was the big issue for me. I need to know that my name is cleared.”

As far as his recurring television gigs as a designer and stylist on Cityline and also on Global’s Morning Show, DeLuca is grateful for the support he has received from his clients and his colleagues there.

Hawkins’ lawyer, Stephen Ellis, is a self-declared pro-Palestinian activist, who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. He also represents Ontario politician Sarah Jama, who is now an independent MPP for the Hamilton area. She was recently ejected from the provincial NDP caucus in the legislature for her antisemitic postings and support of Hamas after Oct. 7.

The CJN contacted Ellis’ legal office for comment but did not receive a reply by deadline.

When The CJN contacted the defendant, Kimberly Hawkins on Dec. 28, she also declined to comment, except for calling the reporter a “bitch” and “trash” and a “squatter” and sending a photo of an Israeli soldier who had recently been killed in the fighting in Gaza.

‘Not about the money’: DeLuca

During the trial, held Sept. 11-13, 2023, DeLuca’s lawyers initially asked for between $375,000 to $500,000 in damages. However the judge ordered a reduced award.

She found that DeLuca was not “cancelled” and did not lose his high-profile job with Citytv, mainly because he was able to mitigate the damage to his reputation by addressing his own substantial social media audience and explaining his position to them. He also did an interview at the time with Breakfast Television to address the controversy.

“Mr. DeLuca did not reference any statements from anyone who indicated they were no longer prepared to hire him. There was no evidence on any loss of clients, or lost earnings. He gave general evidence that he may not have grown his business as much as he could have, but he did not indicate how much he earned, or what he expected his business growth to be compared to what it has been,” the judgement said.

In the end, the court awarded DeLuca $85,000, which included $10,000 in punitive damages, which the judge said was to deter others and to show the court’s “outrage” over Kimberly Hawkins’ conduct, and her “abhorrent posts”.

The court also heard that DeLuca did make his own comments and posted something years ago online about a young Palestinian speaker.

It was 2019, and DeLuca was commenting about an upcoming talk by a teenaged Palestinian activist scheduled to take place in Canada.

According to the judge, DeLuca “appeared to be mocking her name and suggested that her family were terrorists or had participated in massacres.”

However the judge refused to accept this post as proof that DeLuca is a racist who “visciously hates Palestinian people”, as Hawkins’ legal team suggested during the hearings.

While DeLuca maintains the lawsuit was never about the money, it isn’t clear whether the restaurant owner will even be able to pay it, or the court costs. Hearings on those costs are set for January.

Hawkins testified that her business was being targeted at the time by members of the Jewish community, especially the now-disbanded Jewish Defense League, and had been repeatedly vandalized.

Her lawyer, Stephen Ellis, has called what happened to his client as “When the Israel Lobby Comes for You”, the headline of an article he wrote in December 2021.

In his story, he described the Jewish community as “mendacious, vindictive, and violent agents of the Israeli state”.

“This is an insider’s look at an organized smear campaign designed to destroy the reputation and livelihood of a person who showed sympathy to the Palestinian people,” he wrote, referring to Hawkins.

More legal cases ahead

Today, the Instagram account belonging to the former restaurant owner still says “Zionists not welcome”. It also announces she is going to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in January 2024 to “fight IHRA”.

Meanwhile, her legal troubles are not over. She has another hearing set for mid-February 2024 at the same Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, involving a 2020 complaint filed by Toronto resident, Barbara Bank, who was a former chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). That complaint alleges discrimination and violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code over Hawkins’ “Zionists not welcome” policy at the former restaurant.

This case was supposed to be heard in September 2023, but was adjourned after Hawkins said her brother had been suddenly killed by a lightning strike, and she was in no condition to deal with legal issues while grieving.

Bank’s lawyer, Steven Frankel, told The CJN the case is set to be heard from Feb. 13-15, 2024.

A third complaint against Hawkins with the Ontario Human Rights body was launched around the same time by an 86-year-old Toronto resident, Elena Aschkenasi, a Holocaust survivor. That case was going to use the IHRA definition of antisemitism in its legal arguments, according to legal sponsor The International Legal Forum.

However, Aschkenasi’s complaint was recently withdrawn.

According to her lawyer, Leo Adler, his client decided not to proceed “because of her age and because she wasn’t able to properly deal with the cross-examination.”

Adler lamented the fact that it took the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal more than three years to deal with their complaint, adding that during the COVID lockdown he believes the tribunal wasn’t “doing anything”.

However, he welcomed the DeLuca ruling by the Superior Court of Justice, even though it took 40 months from start to finish. According to Adler, it was important to oppose what he described as hate speech by the Foodbenders owner.

“This is precisely why we need to nip it in the bud. When you don’t stop it, it just feeds on itself,” Adler said. “It’s like every other form of antisemitism. It starts small.”

A Toronto family doctor, Gordon Arbess, also took Foodbenders to task in 2020, by lodging a complaint with the City of Toronto. Arbess and his son had gone to the restaurant trying to talk to the owner about the no-Zionists policy, but claim she threw them out and doused them with a bucket of water.

The city pressed charges under municipal bylaws which prevent discrimination against customers in a restaurant. Foodbenders also had pro-Palestinian signs in the window. The case could have seen her restaurant licence revoked, but Hawkins won the case and the charges were dismissed in November 2021. The city has since appealed.

In the most recent case giving DeLuca the victory, it isn’t clear if the former owner of Foodbenders will appeal the Dec. 22 Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision.

DeLuca’s lawyer David Elmaleh has not heard from the defendant since the judgement was issued.

“Canadians are now on notice,” Elmaleh said. “You will be held personally liable and you will sustain personal financial loss by maliciously and recklessly spreading falsehoods, hate and defamatory content over the internet.”

According to Elmaleh, the case is precedent setting because it is the first one he is aware of where an IDF veteran in Canada successfully won a defamation lawsuit relating to his military service.

“This hard fought…case will likely deter some (but sadly not all) of the antisemitic vitriol that we have seen online targeting Jews, Israelis and the brave IDF soldiers and first responders,” he said.

Brooke Goldstein, who runs the foundation which financially backed DeLuca’s legal team, also celebrated the judgement.

“The victory underscores that there will be legal repercussions for those who defame Jewish people, under the guise of ‘Palestinian advocacy,'” Goldstein wrote in a statement, released Dec. 26. “The defendant in this case spread an intentional and vicious blood libel against the Jewish state, and against Mr. DeLuca because he is Jewish.”

DeLuca also marked the legal win while on holidays visiting family in Mexico City, calling it good news.

“I needed to vindicate myself, my business and my name, but for me, and I want [everyone] to really feel this and embrace it as a collective win for our community,” he said. “This is a collective win for the Jewish community.”