Toronto’s Jewish community calls for release of hostages at a Sunday afternoon rally at Christie Pits, as the war enters its sixth week

The crowd at a Toronto rally held at Christie Pits in support of the Israeli hostages, Nov. 12, 2023. (Credit: Micah Zionce)

Toronto’s Jewish community is not alone and has allies with other Canadians. That was the message UJA Federation leaders delivered at a rally on Nov. 12, as Israel began its sixth week of war.

Representatives of the Ukrainian and Iranian communities addressed the crowd, which frequently broke into chants of “Bring Them Home,” referring to the 239 hostages taken captive on Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked southern Israel.

Federation estimates about 10,000 people attended the rally at Christie Pits, a park in downtown Toronto that is part of Jewish history in the city. Ninety years earlier, it was the site of one of the largest race riots in Canada, when a gang of Nazi sympathizers unveiled a swastika flag while a team of Jewish and Italian players were on the field.

“It’s powerful to think that here in this park, 90 years ago, Jewish and Italian community members joined together to fight hate,” said Adam Minsky, CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. “We were united then by our common humanity and that same belief that whatever our cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs, we are all Canadians.

“We speak up and call for government action whenever any community is targeted and that solidarity matters more than ever right now,” he said, citing the shootings at Montreal day schools that had occurred twice over the last few days.

“When innocent people are brutally abducted, whether by Russian forces in Ukraine, by the Iranian militias inside their own country or by Hamas in southern Israel, the entire world must unite against this evil,” Minsky said.

The Ukrainian community sees parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine 22 months ago and the Hamas attacks on Israel, said Alexandra Chyczij, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“Hamas and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin represent different threats but they share this in common—they both want to completely annihilate a neighbouring democracy. Hamas and Putin are the same evil and they use the same methods, including the most heinous, the abduction of children,” she said.

“That is why we stand with you today, united. We must come together to stop evil in its tracks. The world will not be safe until both Russia and Hamas are defeated.”

Salman Sima, a former Iranian political prisoner, said he saw himself in the hostages captured by Hamas. He was held in solitary confinement and his family did not know where he was.

 “I feel that pain. I was in the same situation,” he said. “Hamas kidnapped those people and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took lots of brave Iranian, freedom-loving Iranians as a political statement. We are suffering the same cause.”

Ma’ayan Shavit, spoke to the crowd about her own family’s tragedy, which she said “has become the story of Israel.”

Her aunt was killed during the Hamas invasion and her cousin Carmel was kidnapped.

Other family members, Alon and his wife Yarden and their three-year-old daughter, were taken hostage. As the family was being driven off to Gaza, they managed to escape from their captors.  

Running for their lives, Yarden passed their child to her husband, who was faster and better able to evade the terrorists, who were shooting at them. Father and daughter managed to escape, hiding in a field for 24 hours. Yarden was captured, and was taken hostage, Shavit recounted.

The family has not heard from the two women in Gaza, since their capture and Hamas has not allowed the Red Cross in to check on the captives, Shavit said.

“Where are the human rights organizations? Why does the Red Cross only help the other side?” she asked as the crowd chanted “Shame, Shame.”

Many of the hostages, including her own family, were involved in efforts to bring peace to the area.

“Life has been shattered and the most important condition to even start the process of healing is the safe return of the hostages,” she said.

“We as Canadians want to be on the right side of history. Our government can do it, by encouraging the release of the hostages, all of them, my family included.”