Walk with Israel is working with Toronto Police on a security plan to help the anticipated increasing number of 2024 attendees feel safe on June 9

Walk With Israel 2023 proceeding up Bathurst Street toward the Prosserman JCC. (Credit: UJA Federation of Greater Toronto)

Organizers report that the Walk with Israel in Toronto, scheduled for June 9 as the first such event since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, is drawing a significantly greater number of registrants than the walk did a year ago.

UJA Federation of Greater Toronto says more than 3,600 people signed up by about three weeks ahead of the annual walk, compared to about 2,400 at a similar point last time—when the event took place on Victoria Day—representing a 50 percent increase in interest.

With the 2023 turnout having been estimated as between 20,000 to 25,000, the expectation is for a proportionately greater number of attendees on June 9, despite what will have been eight months of protests and security concerns at almost all events related to Israel.

“Our sense is that, with registration being significantly up, we anticipate a massive community turnout at this year’s Walk. This is a Jewish community that cares deeply. When it comes to Israel, we never hesitate to show up and stand up—and that’s been the case even more so since Oct. 7,” said Steve McDonald, the vice-president of communications and marketing at UJA, in an emailed statement.

Additionally, UJA had already exceeded its fundraising goal of $300,000, and a new goal of $400,000 was set.

There will also be extra security precautions. UJA has been working closely with authorities to ensure the event will be safe for everyone involved.

Toronto Police could not reveal the extent of their security plans because doing so might potentially compromise their effectiveness, said Inspector Jack Gurr, the unit commander for equity, inclusion, and human rights, who is helping to lead the force’s strategy. However, he was confident that the plan, which the police and UJA have been working on together for months, would ensure a safe event.

“This will be an approach [from the whole police service] to ensure the safety and well-being of the walkers. We are going to have a robust plan in place to ensure people’s safety. We’ll have many officers as well as other community volunteers that will be organized by UJA,” he said. “Federation and Toronto Police Service are meeting weekly to refine the plan and ensure that contingencies are considered to provide the highest possible level of safety.”

Gurr also said the police will be present and ready to arrest anybody who appears at the event with criminal intent—including acts that make attendees feel unsafe.

Police and UJA are expecting protesters on the periphery of the walk—given how they appeared in past years—and they have strategies in place to deal with them. Part of those strategies include creating a designated area for the protesters, with a defined buffer zone. There are also further strategies that Gurr could not divulge on the record. That being said, he also hopes the walkers can take the presence of the protesters in stride.

“The walker should come with a positive attitude. It’s traditionally a fun event. And if they see protesters, just keep in mind that they are there to evoke a reaction. Don’t take their bait. If you see anything that is a safety concern, bring it to the attention of an officer right away,” he said. “And then we’ll make a determination on the spot if it requires immediate action.”

Gurr also mentioned that while this event may be unique in the calendar of Jewish events, the police have had a lot of practice in securing events.

“We’ve already dealt with over 650 planned and unplanned events since Oct. 7,” he said. “This will be the biggest security event thus far for the Jewish community and we’re aware of that, we’re taking it very seriously, and we’re committed to providing a safe event.”

In an interview, UJA’s McDonald echoed Gurr’s comments about the commitment to safety. There are both visible and hidden security measures each year, he said, but additional measures and increased security presence will be in place due to increased tensions.

UJA is not yet announcing the full route for the Walk. It will start in North York and run up Bathurst Street. McDonald said the route is a balance between the visibility of walking downtown and the accessibility of walking uptown. Additionally, there will be no rest stops on the Walk this year.

There will be an end-of-walk solidarity festival held at the Sherman Campus on Bathurst Street north of Sheppard Avenue. One of the benefits of the location is its distance from the street, which will give the walkers some space from designated protest zones.

“Because it’s private property, and because Bathurst is fairly far removed from the actual campus, when you enter the campus, even if there are protesters across the street, you notice them for about a minute. And then you’re on the campus and for the two hours you’re at the party, you don’t even see or hear the protesters because they’re pretty far away,” McDonald said.

The end-of-walk portion of the event will be more subdued than in years past in recognition of the horror of Oct. 7 and the trauma that Israeli and Jewish society is still feeling seven months later. Some of the aspects will be the similar to the post-walk parties of the past, including activities for children, food stations, and entertainment including American-Israeli rapper Nissim Black, but there will not be vendor booths.

Instead, reflecting the sombre tone since Oct. 7, there will be opportunities to show support for Israel, including sending messages to Israelis.

McDonald said the determination and resilience of Toronto’s Jewish community has been more apparent than ever this year. In his 14-year career, he has never seen this level of engagement, with many people actively wanting to show their support and dedication to Israel and their fellow Jews.

In spite of the impressive numbers, McDonald knows some potential walkers might be apprehensive. He believes it is more important than ever to display solidarity as community–which he plans to show with his actions as well as his words.

“Speaking personally, as a Jewish father who loves his kids with everything, I’ll be there with my kids. I firmly believe in putting my money where my mouth is. My family will be at the Walk. We will be enjoying it together with tens of thousands of community members.”