Silence is not an option: Toronto lawyer Leora Shemesh tells her side of the story of ‘Free Our Hostages’ hoodies being unwelcome at Scotiabank Arena

Leora Shemesh

It is deeply unfortunate that Michael Fraiman in his column, “Toronto’s biggest sports arena officially changed its code of conduct because two Jewish fans didn’t understand the rules” did not appreciate or understand the history of politics that has played out in the Scotiabank Arena on many occasions or know the NBA’s stance in other arenas.

Gary J. Grill
Toronto lawyer Gary J. Grill being confronted by arena security and asked to remove his offending hoodie, or leave the Scotiabank Arena, on Feb. 22, 2024. Friend Leora Shemesh (right) was with him at the game between the Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets. (Brandon Carson photo)

When Gary Grill and I met five executives from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Raptors and the Scotiabank Arena where they play, it was clear they entirely understood and appreciated that there was a very significant rise of antisemitism here in Toronto and abroad and that “Free Our Hostages”, the message on our sweatshirts, was not in fact political. Everyone in our meeting also understood the sensitivity and the humanity in calling for the release of innocent people being held in Gaza. Where we parted company unfortunately, was MLSE’s position that it was better to ensure that people were not “uncomfortable” with certain messages, than to stand with our community and bring awareness to this very important issue.

On Oct. 8, the NBA released a very strongly worded statement in support of Israel and decrying the massacre of 1,200 innocent people including young men and women who were simply attending a music festival calling for peace and unity between Israelis and Palestinians. Messages in support of Freeing Our Hostages have been publicly displayed in the Miami, New York and Los Angeles arenas. Indeed, there has been plenty of support from the NBA and other stadiums for this very important message of hope and solidarity with the hostages’ families. Many believe in bringing awareness to those whose lives we pray for each and every day. More importantly, many spectators have worn the very same sweatshirt in other stadiums across the United States.

Most significantly, however, is that MLSE has often taken courageous positions in the past.

Indeed, their motto a number, of years back was “Silence is not an option” as they unveiled the first Black Lives Matter players’ bus.  Basketball players are indeed, celebrities and have the ability to reach global audiences but the MLSE as an organization has also previously weighed in on other foreign conflicts.

The Scotiabank Arena was lit up in yellow and blue in solidarity with Ukraine. 

Fans previously wore “Hands Off Hong Kong” and others have worn T-shirts that said “Bring our girls home” when Boko Haram had kidnapped innocent girls in Nigeria. To suggest for a moment that MLSE has not been courageous before and that they had not stood in solidarity with some causes is truly a perversion of the truth. Indeed, members of MLSE went to London, Ont., to provide comfort to the relatives of a Muslim family tragically killed in a horrible, terroristic act of violence.

Wearing our sweatshirts that say “Free Our Hostages,” won’t get Hamas to free them, but neither will our silence. Describing the wearing of the “Free Our Hostages” sweatshirt as a “silly incident” is essentially spitting in the face of the families who are desperate for their return. Fraiman’s stance on those who are putting up “pro-Israel” posters in public green spaces as nothing more than an attempt to observe the reactions of those who take them down really misses the mark.  For one, they are not pro-Israel posters but instead, posters that are meant to bring awareness to those who remain hostage, including Arab Israelis, Canadians and Americans. This act of solidarity and hope is meant to bring awareness and act as a reminder—no different than wearing a sweatshirt at a basketball game.

Security guards at Scotiabank Arena handed out cards spelling out exactly why “Free Our Hostages” clothing is not allowed at Toronto Raptors games. (Supplied photo)

Fraiman wants to “depoliticize the fan experience” all the while, we are witnessing the constant hate fests at our universities, synagogues, and restaurants where people are calling for his and my death.  He wants to ensure that “Joe Gaza isn’t sitting next to him wearing a From the River to the Sea T-shirt” except, what he has forgotten is that there are far more important worries we as Jews have at the moment, and that is the safety and security of the return of 134 hostages and the defence of our religion, our identity and the only Jewish state.  

So, while Michael Fairman wants to go to a Raptors game in the future and eat his popcorn and not be uncomfortable, the rest of us are doing the work for him and his survival.

He could be somewhat appreciative of those initiatives and simply be quiet, and stand aside while the rest of us do the real work.  

 Leora Shemesh is a criminal lawyer in Toronto.