For progressive Zionists, Canada’s arts community is no safe space

A pro-Palestine protester marches at an event organized by the Howl Arts Collective in Montreal in July 2015. (Photo: Heri Rakotomalala/Flickr Creative Commons)

In a petition to boycott Toronto’s Koffler Centre for the Arts, released on May 25, the signatories condemn the centre for having a social-justice mandate that is broadly critical of settler colonialism—yet which excludes Palestine in its presentation of work. They label this “Zionist artwashing”, and claim it is in keeping with Israel’s alleged attempts to use culture as an international propaganda tool to maintain “settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people.”

The petition, signed by hundreds of members of Toronto’s arts community, as well as several Toronto-based arts spaces, demanded the Jewish centre divest from its primary funder, the UJA Federation, for its “explicitly Zionist goals”, support of “mass immigration to Israel” and anti-BDS sentiment.

The Koffler Centre responded one month later, stating their commitment to providing a platform for all artists, regardless of background. That includes opposing censorship, giving voice to underrepresented peoples and creating a welcoming space for everyone.

This situation is a perfect depiction of my worst nightmare realized. To put a Jewish organization under a microscope and demand that they disassociate themselves from any connection to the land of Israel, or anyone who supports it, does frightening damage to Jewish artists and supporters of the arts.

Before the recent conflict, like the majority of my colleagues in the theatre community, I identified as a leftist. I proudly stood for liberal values and the topic of Israel had, somehow, never come up in conversation.

This started to change following the recent flare-up in violence between Israel and Gaza in May 2021, which sparked a wave of anti-Semitic attacks, both globally and in Canada. B’nai Brith Canada has reported that, in the first six days of the war, the number of anti-Semitic assaults in the country “easily surpassed” the entirety of the previous year’s 2,610 recorded incidents.

Following the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements, one would think that social media would be buzzing in solidarity with the world’s Jews. Instead, anti-Israel propaganda flooded the internet.

I’m very grateful to a close friend of mine for warning me to get off Instagram in those early days, before I could see anything that would scare me into leaving my field altogether. Members of the arts community were actively spreading graphics calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. During the entire course of what felt like the longest eleven days of my Jewish life, I stayed off social media. Only one of my non-Jewish friends reached out to see how I was doing.

In light of these events, the term “leftist” began leaving a sour taste in my mouth, and I began questioning my affiliation. Zionism is in my blood. My late grandmother, Goldie Hershon, was former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and actively fought for a two-state solution. I was raised with a strong connection to our homeland and have an extensive Jewish education. I have also taken it upon myself to read more about the Arab perspective, and I sympathize with their lack of protection and basic human rights.

A friend recently introduced me to the term “Progressive Zionist”, which seemed a more accurate depiction of my stance, so I took it on. In our current political climate, however, it seems there is no room for this duality. Choose your own adventure: deny your history as a Jew or go against your personal liberal values. Where does that leave me?

I’m not alone. Canada is, by and large, a progressive country, and Canadian Jews are no different. But according to the seminal 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, the University of Toronto and York University, roughly 80 per cent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel, with the clear majority of respondents showing support for the state’s existence. For most Canadian Jews, Zionism is intrinsic to our identity.

Meanwhile, the UJA, which is the real target of this boycott, is a primary financial resource for Jewish social services, schools, community centres and events, forming a central tenet of what it means to live a Jewish life in Canada. To demand that Jewish organizations and artists boycott their support is to say that Jews are not welcome in the arts community.

I hope that changes. No Jewish artist should have to choose between their personal beliefs and professional passions. Hopefully, Jewish voices will not be silenced or boycotted, but instead equally accounted for in the fight against all forms of oppression.

Ilana Zackon is a multidisciplinary performer, writer and creator. She is one of the co-hosts of The CJN’s weekly current affairs podcast, Bonjour Chai.