Toronto rally echoes protests in Israel with calls for democracy to be restored

With shouts for ‘democratzia’ filling the air, about 300 people gathered on March 26 at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square to protest the proposed judicial reforms that critics say will strip Israel of its democratic nature and lead it toward dictatorship.

Organized by the Israeli group UnXeptable, the protest was held just 90 minutes after the announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, over Gallant’s objections to the reforms.

The crowd yelled ‘bousha’ (shame in Hebrew) as Zvi Schichter, one of the rally organizers, spoke about Gallant’s removal from the cabinet.

“I feel very sad, because it’s an immediate danger to the free state of Israel. And it’s about to start a chain reaction that will or that may bring about the destruction of the country,” Schichter said in an interview as the rally concluded. “I think every Jewish-Canadian person should be disturbed by that and lose sleep over it. I’m very surprised we don’t have thousands of people here.”

In Toronto, the group has held weekly Sunday protests for the last eight or nine weeks, Schichter said. Although it began as an effort led by Israeli- Canadians, it has grown to include Canadian Jews as well.

“Numbers have been growing the past two or three weeks. People are starting to wake up and realize the severity of the situation,” he said.

“It’s not about right or left or centre. It’s okay for them (the Israeli government) to manage the country the way they like from an economic or a security perspective, because they won the election, but it’s not okay for them to change the democratic platform.

“They are changing the rules of the game and that’s not allowed, by appointing their own judges and pretty much invoking any rule they like, with a total disregard to the justice system. This is a playbook for a dictatorship.”

UnXeptable has organized protests in Europe and North America, inspired by the massive protests that have been roiling Israeli society for the last few months. Protesters were prominent when Netanyahu visited Berlin recently and when finance minister Bezalel Smotrich spoke to a meeting of Israel Bonds in Washington D.C. earlier this month.

Reform rabbis Yael Splansky and Lawrence Englander also addressed the rally, urging Israel to remember the spirit of its founders.

“Diaspora Jews recognize and respect that the citizens of Israel have primary responsibility for the direction of the state, that Diaspora Jews do not have a vote but we do have a voice, and that we have the right and the responsibility to use it,” Rabbi Splanksy said. “We are standing with our family and friends who have taken to the streets in Israel and they are the best evidence that Israel’s democracy is strong and must remain strong.”

Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Jon Allen, urged the crowd to press the Canadian government to oppose the direction Israel is taking.

“It’s time that you wrote to your own prime minister and told him and his foreign minister to speak out about this,” he said. “Biden has spoken out, Macron has spoken out,” Allen said referring to the presidents of the United States and France. “It’s time that Canada speaks out and criticizes what’s happening.”

The rally also had some moments of theatre. A group of women in red cloaks and white headdresses, inspired by the subjugated women in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale walked silently through the crowd. The leader carried a sign that read “This is our red line. Hands off women’s rights.”

Protesters at a rally for Israel in Toronto, March 26, 2023.

Ayala Radcliffe—who was one of the handmaidens—had participated in a few of the Toronto rallies: “It’s important that I speak up. It’s important that we bring the message to our politicians about how they should speak to the Israeli government.”

She had just returned from Israel, where she joined with her family in the protests there. Even smaller ones outside Tel Aviv are “overwhelming” she said. “They’re noisy, crowded, they’re in your face, they’re very emotional.”

Still, she felt compelled to join. “It appealed to my sense of democracy and worry for the existence of the country as I know it. It is an existential threat to the country as I see it.”