Hillel cancels talk by controversial aboriginal Zionist

Ryan Bellerose speaks at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, as its director, Frederick Krantz listens. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

MONTREAL  — Hillel Montreal is defending as a “principled stance” its late-hour decision to cancel a talk by assertive pro-Israel activist Ryan Bellerose of Calgary, which had been scheduled to take place at Concordia University on March 16.

Bellerose, who is also an activist for aboriginal rights, thinks the event was scrapped because some Israel advocacy groups, including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and “progressive Zionist” students, do not like his “in your face” approach to defending Israel. 

“I’m not a very PC guy,” said Bellerose, who did receive a platform to speak two days later at a private event organized by the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR).

Hillel contends the reason was that Bellerose’s recent tweets, mostly to Hamas’ new Twitter account, and his response to those tweets on other social media, were not acceptable discourse.

Bellerose is a founder of Calgary United With Israel, which describes itself an independent grassroots group, largely composed of students, that was founded a couple of years ago. During the war in Gaza last summer, members attended a large anti-Israel outside Calgary City Hall that turned violent when pro-Gaza protesters attacked a small group of Israel supporters.

A similar group, Toronto-based StandWithUs Canada, sponsored Bellerose’s trip to Israel last year.

Bellerose, 40, a burly semi-professional football player and former oil-rig worker, was to have spoken on “How Being Indigenous to Canada Helps Me Understand the Middle East” at a widely publicized afternoon event sponsored by Hillel Concordia and Hillel McGill. He said he was informed by Hillel late the night before that it would not be taking place.

In an email to The CJN, Hillel Montreal executive director Jeff Bicher said that the “decision to cancel… came as a result of information received from students that many would consider mainstream pro-Israel activists.

“Hillel’s policy is to promote civil discourse, and we felt that his [Bellerose’s] discourse did not remain civil. I have read Mr. Bellerose’s tweets and, although some were written in tasteless humour, we were prepared to still have him share his experiences on campus. What led to this point was the way in which he chose to respond on the event Facebook page.

“Mr. Bellerose crossed the line in many students’ eyes, and ours.”

On March 15, Bellerose retweeted a photo to #AskHamas of two young boys apparently choking as they are hung by the collars of their T-shirts to a railing by a man, with the caption: “Do you put children out to dry??”

Among a series of tweets by Bellerose to #AskHamas the day before were: “What do you plan to do about the lack of women in Gaza, buy more goats or buy more sheep?” and “How much it cost [sic] to convert your terror tunnels into sewers, after all they are filled with sewage anyway?”

In its announcement of the event’s cancellation, Hillel posted on Facebook: “Although much of what Ryan Bellerose espouses with respect to indigenous people and Israel resonates with our community, some of his messages are clearly not in line with Hillel or Concordia… It is unfortunate that at this late stage we are forced to cancel the event, but Hillel Concordia cannot ignore some of Mr. Bellerose’s previous public comments that only came to our attention in the last few hours.”

After the cancellation of the event, a post appeared on Bellerose’s Facebook page from “an admin” that he or she “believe[s] this was a case of character defamation.”

“If Hillel Montreal/Concordia really valued different ‘races and cultures’ as they state… they would value Native straightforward talk, which isn’t necessarily pillowed with flowers around the edges. Racist move in this admin’s opinion.”

Bicher denied allegations by some students and by Bellerose that certain left-wing Jewish students or CIJA, the advocacy partner of Federation CJA, which funds Hillel, put pressure on Hillel to pull the plug.

Bicher said many of the pro-Israel students who rallied to defeat the BDS motion put forward at the Students’ Society of McGill University general assembly on March 15 “were the same students who took issue with Mr. Bellerose’s behaviour. I am happy to note that their barometer was right on…

“We recognize that some may take issue with this principled stance. We are comforted though by the plethora of messages from pro-Israel activists, on campus and around the world, commending Hillel Montreal, Hillel McGill and Hillel Concordia, for doing what was right.”

CIJA didn't offer an opinion on the cancellation.

"We recognize Ryan as a sincere, passionate supporter of Israel – who sees many parallels between the Jewish experience as an aboriginal people and his own community of First Nations," said CIJA spokesperson Eta Yudin. "Our approach to the specific issues and participation in the public policy debate – whether on campus or the broader community – is very different, but we offer no specific comment on him."

Bellerose’s appearance was scheduled during the annual Israeli Apartheid Week at Concordia and McGill University. Among its events was a discussion at the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal on “Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism and Racism” which included Glen Coulthard, a member of Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation, and another featuring local Métis artist Moe Clark.

In his March 18 talk at CIJR, Bellerose avoided the issue until it was raised by the audience. He said he was angry and feels he was “smeared a little bit”, especially by those who contend he is “anti-feminist.”

His message to CIJR was that natives and Jews are both indigenous peoples, who are fighting for their ancestral land and that they both face insurmountable prejudice from “white people.”

Many Jews, like aboriginals, are hampered by a “colonized mindset,” he said.

“They believe the best thing they can do is try to become whiter. We are conditioned to think that way… Jews are no different than Indians. They can never be fully white. Maybe they can be a step or two below… They won’t let you get to the top.”

Jews, wherever they live in the world today, are the indigenous people of the land of Israel, he said. Palestinians have human rights, but not to own that territory, he said. As Arabs, they are indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi Arabia is located, he believes.

The Arabs conquered Israel in the seventh century, he said, displacing Jews and others.

Bellerose, who grew up in the Métis settlement of Paddle Prairie in northern Alberta, was an organizer in the Idle No More movement. “I left when it became anti-Harper,” he said.

He contends that most Israel advocacy groups are too timid in their approach, and ceding ground to the “bullies.”

“Jews should not apologize for winning,” he said, and they should realize that other indigenous peoples look to them as an example of how to successfully return to their land. “It’s important to celebrate that victory.”

Bellerose admits that he sometimes gets aggressive, using his intimidating size, if he is offended by what someone says about Israel or Jews.

Bellerose is a contributor to a recent CIJR online publication entitled Zionism, An Indigenous Struggle: Aboriginal Americans and the Jewish State.

The article, co-authored with American Comanche activist David Yeagley who died last year, contends that other movements have tried to appropriate the oppression of Native Americans into their cause. 

Editor's note: this article has been changed since it was first posted to correct some errors of fact.