Toronto UJA’s Walk With Israel sets a record with 50,000 people who marched up Bathurst Street

Walk with Israel, June 9,2024 (Credit: Michael Weisdorf)

An estimated 50,000 people, according to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, turned out for the Walk with Israel on June 9, setting an attendance record for the annual event. The gathering raised about $1.2 million, which was earmarked for rebuilding in Israel after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, a federation spokesperson said.

Held against a backdrop of eight months of pro-Palestinian protests at hospitals, universities and synagogues, the walk was marked by high security and involved police forces from outside Toronto, including Hamilton, Niagara, York, Durham police forces and the OPP, Toronto Police Deputy Chief Lauren Pogue, announced June 7.

“The right to protest ends where criminal behavior begins, which includes intimidation, harassment or hateful behaviour,” Pogue said in a press release. “Those who attend this event and engage in criminal activity can expect to be arrested.”

Toronto Police reported six arrests were made in connection with the walk, but more details were not available at publication time.

A confrontation with Toronto Police at the Walk With Israel, June 2024. (Credit: Michael Weisdorf)

Noah Shack, UJA Federation vice-president for countering hate and antisemitism, addressed the need for the expanded security in an interview shortly before the walk started.

“It’s shameful that that kind of protection is necessary and it’s a statement about the state of affairs here in Toronto that a community gathering to celebrate their cultural heritage, for the biggest cultural festival in that community of the year, that’s been going on for 55 years, a family festival, requires this kind of police protection. It’s not something we should be proud of as a city but at the same time we should be grateful that police are stepping up.”

Police blocked off a five-kilometre stretch of Bathurst Street and participants filled the five-lane street that runs past mostly Jewish community retail and restaurants between Lawrence Avenue and the Prosserman JCC, where the walk concluded.

Walkers encountered two groups of pro-Palestinian protesters during the march.  Police lined the sidewalk of Bathurst Street as walkers approached Sheppard Avenue, separating the two sides.

  • Hear what the Walk with Israel sounded like, through the voices of those who were there, on The CJN Daily with Ellin Bessner

Members of Kibbutz Be’eri, which was overrun by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, led the march, along with Avichai Brodutch, whose wife and children were kidnapped and held in Gaza for 51 days.

Aharon Brodutch, who campaigned in Canada for the release of his brother Avichai’s family, was also at the start of the walk.

The news that four hostages had been rescued by an IDF raid on Gaza Saturday was welcome news—but Aharon’s enthusiasm was restrained.

“My father is extremely active in Israel, protesting to try and make sure the Israeli government does everything it can to bring the hostages back,” he said.  “Unfortunately, it’s not doing everything it can, so it’s an incredible fight. We’re trying to let everyone remember, that’s the main mission, bringing the hostages back.”

Fourteen members of Kibbutz Be’eri are in North America this month to raise awareness about the Oct. 7 attack and to promote fundraising to rebuild the ruined kibbutz.

Rami Gold, 71, who had defended the kibbutz for hours during the attack, said they had been asked to come and speak to young people, to stem the tide of disinformation.

The kibbutz members are still staying in a hotel near the Dead Sea, and are soon to move into a temporary community in southern Israel. It will be between three and five years before the kibbutz will be rebuilt, said Vered Gold, Rami’s wife.  

About $4 million is needed for rebuilding and another $5 million is needed for therapy for survivors. Even though the Israeli government is helping with the cost of therapy, there is still a significant gap between what is provided and what the community needs, she said.

While Vered is staying at the hotel, her husband has moved back to the kibbutz, to resume his business of building mountain bike trails.

“For me, it’s the best place to be because I can make a difference, which makes me feel better and I can start to rebuild myself also. I was part of the members who fought for 12 hours until the army took over. I felt I need to continue the fight and that’s to rebuild the place.

“I’m at home, sometimes it’s not easy, the nights are long,” he said.

Vered and Rami Gold, from Kibbutz Be’eri at the Toronto Walk with Israel, June 9, 2024. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

At the JCC, where the walk ended, the usual Israel celebratory festival was toned down and focused on the devastation of Oct. 7, the Israeli hostages and the war in Gaza.

A field with pictures of some of those murdered at the Nova music festival covered a grassy space. A display about the kibbutzim and towns that were attacked on Oct. 7 was also featured prominently.

For some of the walkers, the march was an opportunity to confront the pro-Palestinian protests, and acts of violence and vandalism that have preoccupied the Jewish community for the past eight months.

Deborah Abraham, who participated with her two young teens, said she was terrified about coming and “having nightmares all week” before the walk.

“It was good for my kids to see (the protests) in real life because they saw how many people were strong, happy families walking with us, supporting Israel and they saw a handful of people with masks on their faces, looking angry. As scary as it was, I think my kids felt supported by seeing the police protecting us and seeing the community.”

At a booth where people could write postcards to send to Israel, Emmanuelle Haik wrote one to the IDF. She said she had “anxiety and was concerned about security,” beforehand.

Encountering the protesters was “nerve-wracking” but “we showed up and we were loud and we showed them our strength, so it was all good.”

A delegation from the Indigenous Embassy Jerusalem that participated in the walk, was busy greeting people who came to thank them for attending.

Members of the Indigenous Embassy were in Seattle for meetings, when they learned about the walk and travelled to Toronto to participate, said Sheree Trotter, a Maori from New Zealand and a director of the embassy.

 Melodie Greyeyes, from the Muskeg Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, said she was the only Canadian to participate in the opening of the embassy in February. Her Christian faith has led her to support Israel, and to bring that message to churches, she explained.

The newly opened embassy “is saying the indigenous peoples of the world are standing in solidarity with Israel because we believe the Jewish people are the indigenous people to the land of Israel, to Eretz Yisrael,” she said.  

Greyeyes said she understands why some indigenous people have supported the anti-Israel cause and have been active in pro-Palestinian encampments at universities.

“Our people have always been the underdogs and the propaganda is showing the Palestinians to be the underdogs because they appear to be weaker, but that’s only because Israel is defending itself. But they’re not educated on the truth, they’re not educated on the facts,” she said.

Melodie Greyeyes at the Walk With Israel, June 9, 2024 (Credit: Lila Sarick)