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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

From Starbucks to Sinai: The emboldening of inappropriate protests

One key feature of life in Toronto these days is inappropriate places of pro-Palestinian protest. Indigo book store was vandalized because CEO Heather Reisman’s support for Israel made her an accomplice in genocide. Of course, some claimed afterwards that it had nothing to do with her Jewish identity. In November, there was another act of “anti-Zionist” (which has nothing to do with antisemitism, of course) vandalism at a Starbucks in a Jewish area — “a cup of coffee, a cup of blood” “stop killing babies” and “blood on your hands” scrolled in red across the front. Because Starbucks (at least that location; the company has taken no position) apparently supports the State of Israel. In October, Cafe Landwer downtown on University Avenue was the site of protestors calling for the boycott of the restaurant due to its Jewish affiliation. A sad irony, considering the business was born in Berlin before being moved to Tel Aviv to escape a Nazi-orchestrated boycott against Jewish businesses. Yet another one: a protest that took place at Zara locations in Toronto, ostensibly for an ad that was said to be “too pro-Israel” in the context of war (what offended was a photograph that was taken before October 7th for an ad campaign created earlier). One masked protestor threatened someone videoing one such event, threatening that he [would] “put [them] six feet down.” And, as I’ve discussed before, protests continue in my neighborhood at the Avenue Road and Highway 401 bridge, because of its large Jewish population.

The question of whether protests that attack Jewish situations are antisemitic or anti-Zionist is a complicated one for our elected leaders, who apparently never read the IHRA definition of antisemitism that they were a signatory to in 2019. The final definition in this working document is “holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.” This shades the claims of people who attack Jewish-owned stores and businesses as being only “anti-Zionist” with a healthy dose of salt. So when Canadian leaders model the equivocation of whether or not these actions’ purpose is intimidating the Jewish community here in Toronto — Jews who only want to live safely and more or less be left alone — they’re choosing to ignore something that our government chose to sign onto. Even worse, this equivocation has encouraged lassitude among people hired to protect people, particularly in the wariness of the Attorney General who has been reluctant to condemn any of the above as hate crimes. And it has done little else but embolden people who have gotten away with protests that have little relevance to the war itself, and instead chant for the destruction of the Jewish people and state. Now to be clear, the right of protest is and should be enshrined. But the rights of said protestors to express violence, to threaten the police, to threaten violence against another population, to block thoroughfares, is not sacrosanct. 

But protestors this week sunk to a new low: shutting down the main entrance of Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto. As this strange new presence in Toronto, a Palestinian “Spiderman”, climbed up the scaffolding and protestors shouted to globalize the “intifada” — literally a call for violence — the protests got so wild that the main entrance to the hospital was actually shut down. Now, keep in mind, if you’ve ever been in that area of Toronto, you’ll know it as “hospital row” — from cardiac centers, to Women’s College Hospital, Mount Sinai is just one of many. But, it’s the only one with a Magen David prominently on its face. Its history is Jewish, of course. Like many early Jewish institutions in North America, it was created to give Jewish people a place to escape quotas and institutionalized antisemitism. Today, of course, it serves, and is staffed by, members of all the communities that make up Toronto. But Jews are now the ultimate “white supremacists” per the ahistorical understanding of many of these people, so it follows that even a hospital with a Jewish identity is ripe for any attack. No understanding as well that it’s against the law in Ontario to protest and block access to hospitals, something that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One interesting twist to all of this is the role of hospitals in public perception and the conduct of the war in Gaza. While the conventions of war protect hospitals from being under attack, they also prohibit the use of hospitals as military installations. This has become a fundamental issue in the war in Gaza, because of the way in which Hamas embeds itself in civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals. As Israel approached Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, which they believed was being used as a Hamas headquarters, the world exploded with outrage. Media outlets were rife with needs to see this alleged infrastructure. When proof of Israel’s belief was found, of course, some of these main media outlets (like the NY Times) shifted the goalposts, saying that it did not 100% settle the matter.

There is a particular trigger, therefore, in reducing people’s access to an explicitly Jewish hospital — although one that treats people of all races and creeds. While speaking about hospitals being a place of sanctuary in Gaza, out of the same mouths they shout for the death of Jews outside one here. Unfortunately, for those of us living in Toronto, this has become normative. People being allowed to literally break the law, but because of fear, because of optics, for whatever reason, not being arrested or curtailed by the police. However, this was apparently a step too far for much of our leadership, many of whom would rather not take a political, moral or ethical stance when it comes to the war and rising antisemitism (except when couched in language that directly references Islamophobia as well.) Justin Trudeau, and even our famously silent mayor Olivia Chow, declared that this was an act rife with antisemitism and completely unacceptable within the Canadian context. Unfortunately, even this feels false; if you’ve failed to take a stance to this point, then you have tacitly accepted the rise of antisemitic actions and behaviors in our city. And in this case do they find objectionable the antisemitic nature of the act or the inconvenience to the general population because of the location chosen by the protestors? Of course people feel emboldened by this lack of response to actions that impact on institutions that are designed to serve us all. I am grateful for our leadership coming out and finally declaring such an action to be antisemitic, but cannot help but find this a little too little too late. We have been experiencing this for months, and are often met with silence. And ultimately it feels like they are decrying a situation that they had an active – or was it passive? – hand in creating.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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