Jews in Toronto call out the Israeli regime, Nov. 9, 2023.
Jews in Toronto call out the Israeli regime, Nov. 9, 2023. Photo: Kerri North

Jews Against Genocide

In my memory, I am walking down the corridor of my Hebrew school in Toronto. It is the 1980s. I am only 11 years old, looking at photos from the ghettos and concentration camps. We are outside the swimming pool and I can smell the chlorine in the air as the teacher talks about the gas chambers. On the wall is an infamous photo of a boy, probably younger than I was then, with his hands raised and a rifle pointed at his back. It’s such a vivid memory. You don’t forget things like that. 

All my life I was warned what can happen when people develop a hate so deep for others that they forget their humanity. We asked how the world let it happen. Why did no one intervene? We swore “never again.” 

And yet, here we are. 

About five years ago, I got involved in Palestinian solidarity and joined Independent Jewish Voices Canada. I undertook a research project and was horrified by what I learned. I thought, if only people knew. If they saw how many Israeli laws enshrined different rules for Palestinians than for Jews, they’d understand why Israel is described as an apartheid state. If they knew that Israelis living in illegal settlements had set fire to Palestinians’ houses with families inside them and faced no repercussions, or that people die in Gaza waiting for Israel to give them a permit for cancer treatment, they would surely be outraged as well. I was wrong.

Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing and injuring many. While over 100 hostages were freed, approximately 130 were still unaccounted for as of late January, with most being held by Hamas and some presumed dead. I hurt imagining the suffering of the victims and of their families.

The response from Israel has been this brutal, cruel and seemingly endless war on Palestinians. People can see online exactly what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel’s campaign is also in line with the resettlement vision long held by some key government representatives. And yet, most in the Jewish community cannot bring themselves to criticize any of it. That has been truly heartbreaking for me. 

“I wish that people were more careful about separating out legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred for Jewish people.”

In this awful time, I have found the most welcoming, collaborative and productive group of Jewish people to work with in the Jews Say No to Genocide coalition. It is intergenerational, gender- and identity-diverse, full of clever, funny and creative people who are deeply committed to universal human rights. We have built meaningful and supportive relationships with Palestinian organizers and activists across a wide spectrum of issues. We have organized demonstrations and participated in those led by others. I’ve met people I’ve long admired from afar and now admire people I’ve only just met. 

When I come back from a protest or have a powerful interaction with someone, I want to tell everyone from my pre-Oct 7 life. But I can’t. For many of us, we have too many different opinions on the situation. It’s too sensitive a topic. So, there’s a split in my life. My non-Jewish friends get to know parts of my life that many of my Jewish friends and family do not. They don’t bring the same emotional investment or personal history and so it’s a safer conversation. 

“I wish that people were more careful about separating out legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred for Jewish people.”
“I wish that people were more careful about separating out legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred for Jewish people.”

I believe it is especially important to have Jewish representation in this movement calling out Israel’s actions since a key feature of the Israel lobby is to claim all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Jewish Palestine solidarity organizers make ourselves very visible. At our rallies, we wear matching hats and shirts that are emblazoned with our message, prominently noting that we are Jewish. And yet, many media stories erase our identity and generically reference ”protestors” to maintain a tidy narrative of Palestinians versus Jews, which isn’t true.  

There have been really frightening acts of antisemitism since this war started, including various threats made toward my former highschool, the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. I hate that Jewish kids here are growing up fearful or feeling ostracized. But I wish that people were more careful about separating out legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred for Jewish people. 

For example, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) claimed in its newsletter that at Palestinian solidarity protests people call for death to Jews. I’ve been to dozens of protests and know people who have been to almost every single one in Toronto, and none of us have heard such rhetoric. What we have heard are calls for a ceasefire and for Israel to respect Palestinian human rights and freedom. It’s cruel for Jewish organizations to make Jews more afraid just to push the narrative that protestors and Palestinians hate Jews. And then they fundraise off that fear.

When I was in school, we’d wonder about the “what ifs.” If things got bad for Jews, would our neighbours protect us or turn us in? What is scary now is how quickly the idea of “Jewish safety” is being used to target people, including Jewish people, who are protesting against Israeli state actions and positions. 

People who are marching to stop a brutal bombardment are being called terrorist supporters by politicians, tabloid newspapers and Jewish organizations who cannot abide any criticism of Israel. They are calling on police to make more arrests and lay more serious charges. And police have done just that, largely targeting Palestinians and other racialized, queer and trans people.

I feel the immediacy of this moment and the need to mobilize against the tragedies unfolding in Palestine. Rabea Eghbariah, a Palestinian human rights attorney at Harvard, writes about the hypocrisy on display with the refusal of many to accept the legal framework for assessing Israel’s actions as genocide. He notes that “legal scholars tend to sharpen their pens after the smell of death has dissipated and moral clarity is no longer urgent.” We can’t wait that long.

Watch the award-winning documentary Israelism to see how Jewish attitudes towards Israel are changing dramatically, revealing a deepening generational divide over modern Jewish identity. It’s playing at the Redwood Theatre in Toronto on Saturday, Feb 14 at 4 pm and 7:30 pm, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker. The film is also available for rent online anytime.

This article appeared in the 2024 Feb/Mar issue.