The story behind the Israeli-Canadians taking to the streets beneath the banner of UnXeptable

Members of Vancouver UnXeptable at their weekly protest

Every Sunday since the start of 2023—rain or shine—a group of demonstrators has gathered in a public square in Toronto to protest the current government in Israel and its plans for judicial overhaul.

It’s the same scene in Vancouver where a group carrying Israeli flags and signs that read “Saving Israeli Democracy” meets every Sunday as well.

This is the Canadian face of UnXeptable, a grassroots group started two years ago by Israeli expats in Palo Alto, Calif.

While hundreds of thousands of Israelis regularly take to the streets protesting, the movement has been echoed widely in the Jewish Diaspora. UnXeptable has about 50 chapters across North America, Europe and Australia, including the two in Canada.

Yael Meiri, the spokesperson for the Toronto chapter, was a member of an earlier protest group, started in 2020 when Benjamin Netanyahu was first re-elected as prime minister, despite facing a long-delayed corruption trial.

When Israel’s most right-wing government to date proposed radical changes to the judicial system, triggering mass protests, it was easy to re-establish the movement in Toronto, she said.

For Meiri and the others who come out on a weekly basis, Israel is at a critical turning point.

“It’s not another political debate in Israel as we have every week,” she said in an interview with The CJN.

“We see it as an imminent danger to Israel’s character as a democratic and liberal state. If Israel will not be liberal and democratic and Jewish, I don’t think it will exist.”

Meiri, who moved to Canada about 12 years ago, says it has been hard to convince Israelis in Canada to attend the gatherings. But it precisely because she is Israeli and Jewish that she feels compelled to rally every week in Toronto.

Many Israelis living outside the Jewish state have an internal debate about ‘What is our place here?,’ Meiri said.

“I’m happy to call Canada my home, but Israel is definitely my home. This ambivalence that we hold all the time, it’s not only that we have the right (to protest) but we have the duty.”

“I strongly believe the fact that I, as an individual, was able to decide to leave Israel and to choose where |I want to be… is only because there’s a strong Israel. If Israel would not be a strong democratic country, the level of antisemitism will rise and maybe we will be able to live (only) where they will let us, and where we will look over our shoulder to see if no one is chasing us.” 

UnXeptable’s rallies are meant to bolster the spirits of Israelis, according to organizers like Daphna Kedem from Vancouver.

“We have so much feedback from rallies in Israel when they see the international videos and such warm comments, it’s so supportive,” she said.

The groups also act as a Diaspora arm of Israeli demonstrators, disrupting cabinet ministers’ visits abroad. Instead of the usual cheering crowds, Netanyahu’s visit to Berlin and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s trip to Washington D.C., were met with organized protests from Israelis, including members of UnXeptable.

In April, Toronto members of UnXeptable protested outside the Toronto Prosserman JCC where Aliyah and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer was meeting with local rabbis and federation officials. The minister was whisked out a back door after his visit, though, so he did not have an opportunity to interact with the small group of demonstrators.

A small group of pro-democracy protesters made their voices heard outside the headquarters of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto on April 19, where Israel’s new minister of Aliyah and Absorption, Ofir Sofer, was meeting with leaders of the Jewish Community. (Ellin Bessner photo)

The group is making inroads into organized Jewish life in Toronto, though.  Last week, Meiri and other organizers met with Adam Minsky, CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, to introduce themselves and explain their goals. They also plan to march together at Toronto’s Walk with Israel on May 22.

At their largest protest in late March, held just hours after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a few hundred people turned out on a warm spring afternoon in Toronto. Usually, however, about 50 to 100 people show up, Meiri said.

Some of the city’s Reform and Conservative rabbis have attended and spoken at the weekly rallies.

While the Toronto group is glad to have the support of Jewish progressive groups and some Toronto clergy, Meiri notes that the rabbis are not bringing their congregants with them.

“In New York, you just say something and you have a thousand people in Washington Square. Here, obviously, the Israeli and the Jewish community are very conservative.”

In Vancouver, institutional support is much slimmer. Between 20 and 60 people come out to weekly protests, usually at Robson Square, but there’s no support from local synagogues or federation, says organizer Daphna Kedem. 

“The North American Jewish Diaspora thinks, before this all happened, that you do not protest against the Israeli government. But I think it will bring on more antisemitism, if we don’t.”

The judicial reforms, if enacted, will eventually turn Israel into a dictatorship, she said.

“I can’t see myself anyplace else on Sundays, because it’s a safe place for those who care, who are in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a long journey unfortunately.”

The protests in Canada will continue as long as the mass demonstrations occur in Israel, but given the speed at which events are changing, Meiri says it’s hard to predict how many more weeks they may be bringing their signs to the public square.

Meanwhile, chapters in both Toronto and Vancouver are also organizing meetings in private homes, where academics are invited to teach about the situation in Israel to smaller groups.

Sometimes, as the Toronto group wraps up their rally at Nathan Philips Square, in front of city hall, they will see a group of Iranian protestors getting ready. The irony is not lost on Meiri.

“We always laugh and say ‘Look at them. That’ll be us in 20 years.’”