Canadian Politicians, Jewish Groups Slam Protest of IDF Reservists at York University
Several Canadian politicians and Jewish community representatives have denounced protests targeting former Israeli soldiers who spoke at York University in Toronto on Wednesday, following an evening filled with heated language, intimidation, and several physical altercations.
The anti-Zionist group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) led the protest after campaigning for days against the event, which was organized by Reservists on Duty (RoD) and Herut Canada. Witnesses repeatedly described the demonstrations as charged, as several hundred protesters with loudspeakers and Palestinians flags faced off with some 100 event attendees and supporters holding Israeli flags.
Chants of “Free, free Palestine” could be heard throughout the evening, along with the slogan, “Viva, viva Intifada!” — a reference to popular Palestinian revolts against Israel that also featured suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Some counter-demonstrators responded with “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
Video footage showed a violent scuffle breaking out next to the event hall shortly before the presentation began, while physical confrontations were also recorded within the event space as protesters repeatedly interrupted speakers.
Jewish community groups, including Hillel Ontario, B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and StandWithUs Canada, all condemned the violence surrounding the protests, as did Toronto Mayor John Tory, MP Michael Levitt, and MPP Roman Baber.
“I was shocked by the vile hatred that was on display last night at York University,” wrote Ontario Premier Doug Ford. “I stand with the Jewish students and the Jewish community. There is no place in Ontario for racism and hatred.”
A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service told The Algemeiner on Thursday that according to police officers who witnessed the demonstration, “it was in fact peaceful. There were a few people who did become involved in a physical altercation, I don’t have the exact number, but I do know those persons were removed from the property” and then released unconditionally.
One person sustained injuries stemming from a physical altercation, the representative added, “but there were no serious injuries in this whole incident.”
SAIA, for its part, lauded the protesters on Wednesday for conveying their message “loud and clear yesterday: war criminals actively participating in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and in violations of Palestinian human rights are not welcome on our campus!”
The group had earlier called on York’s administration to cancel the RoD event, which featured speakers including Shar Leyb, a Canadian who joined the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier when he was 18-years-old.
“The whole idea behind RoD is to have a dialogue,” said Leyb, who is currently on his third overseas speaking tour with the group. “We’re always happy to have a conversation with someone from the other side, we want to find common ground.”
“But these protesters didn’t want to engage with us or have a discussion,” he told The Algemeiner. “They were bashing the doors, shouting, chanting — it was very sad to see.”
Leyb and other attendees were ultimately escorted by security through a back entrance after the event concluded. “I would’ve preferred to go out through the lobby with my head held high,” he said. “But they were waiting in the lobby, ready to fight. It felt like a lynch was about to happen.”
Aviva Polonsky, a York alumna and teacher at TanenbaumCHAT Jewish high school in Toronto, similarly acknowledged that while the escort was provided for the safety of attendees like her, it made her feel uncomfortable.
“I am a Canadian citizen, I am a Jew, and I am not going out like a mouse in the dark,” she told The Algemeiner. “I will not be intimidated or bullied, I will go out with my head held high.”
Polonsky, who witnessed the protests alongside her husband, two students, and 19-year-old son, himself a student at York’s Schulich School of Business, said she “was just appalled. It was really shocking.”
“I was live-streaming [the protest] but at some point I moved back because it was getting scary,” she said. “When the program started the chanting became so loud, and the banging on the doors was so forceful that the room shook — it was like in a football game, the floor and the walls were pounding. And you could also hear the pounding on the doors from the two exits in the back.”
“Honestly, I felt like at any minute they were going to barge in and who knows what was going to happen,” Polonsky recounted. “This was not a peaceful protest, this was a mob that was out of control, and the university allowed it.”
On their way home from the event, she recalled, “my son told me he was terrified. That broke my heart.”
Sahar Silverman, a junior at York, also heard “lots of banging, mostly from the back doors” while attending the RoD presentation.
“The chanting was so loud you could hear it inside the room,” she told The Algemeiner. “The protesters were blocking the stairway, and security had to escort people outside of the event afterwards.”
“I was scared, I never really saw antisemitism so close up before,” she said. “I knew it existed on this campus, but I never saw it like this. Of course people would say things, but when you don’t see it, you have a different perspective.”
Silverman chose to show up on Wednesday, even though protests were expected, to demonstrate “courage.”
“Nowadays people are too scared and intimidated about what is going to happen,” she argued.
“I am a firm believer in free speech,” she continued. “If people want to protest this event they should do so by all means, but it shouldn’t get violent.”
In a statement on Thursday, York President and Vice Chancellor Rhonda Lenton said she was “deeply disappointed by the behavior that was on display last night,” which would be reviewed by the university to determine “what specific follow-up actions are required.”
“Shouting, threats of violence and attempts to intimidate community members are not consistent with the responsibilities we all share,” she stated. “The fact that external groups were on campus last night for the sole purpose of fomenting conflict should be especially disturbing to everyone at York.”
Lenton also announced the upcoming launch of a Freedom of Speech Working Group, which will “make specific recommendations on how to create a more respectful climate on campus for the discussion of difficult topics.”
SAIA and York University did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment by press time.