Howard Levitt: Allowing protests to escalate unchecked risks creating a new normal in Canada

Opinion: What kind of country gives protesters the ability to disrupt state meeting?

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The mobs increasingly filling our public spaces are teaching Jews to be afraid and defensive, antisemites that their aggression will go unchecked and the rest of Canadians to accept this state of affairs as the new normal. And they are succeeding. But they should not be, as popular sentiment increasingly has turned against them as they wreak havoc on their victims and our collective sensibilities.

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Just this past Saturday, a motley crew of pro-Palestinian protesters forced the cancellation of a gala dinner for Justin Trudeau and Italian President Giorgia Meloni at the Art Gallery of Ontario, calling for “revolution” and reportedly hurling projectiles at a federal cabinet minister. What kind of country permits this?

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On Tuesday, a reception in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood between Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and fellow cabinet minister Ya’ara Saks was similarly disrupted. In both cases, police failed to remove or arrest the protesters. On that same day, protesters in Montreal chanting, “settlers, settlers go back home, “Palestine is ours alone” (demanding that Jews leave Israel where they have been for 4,000 years) and “long live the Intifada” harassed Jewish residents, shut down access to a Jewish community centre, blocking occupants inside for a considerable period.

The police did nothing until Jewish community organizations went to court the next day to obtain an injunction, something I anticipate will have to be done shortly everywhere. That should be unnecessary, since police already have adequate power, without any court order, to enforce the peace and ensure our citizens have access to their places of worship and public facilities. I am familiar with this from labour union strikes where the police do nothing until the courts intervene. But there is a difference between a private labour dispute and public harassment and if we cannot count on the police for this, society will be greatly diminished.

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And those weren’t the only incidents this week. On Monday, the protesters set their sights on a Thornhill synagogue. The police were warned in advance but still did not prevent the synagogue from being blocked and disrupted by a protest replete with hate speech.

In Europe, where there have been long-simmering tensions with large numbers of Muslim immigrants in France and elsewhere, antisemitism has also been surging.

In the U.K., where some are questioning whether it is safe for Jews to enter the city of London during massive weekend protests, it has become so bad that PM Rishi Sunak felt the need to address the nation, stating that protests since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel have resulted in “appalling examples of antisemitism, violent intimidation and the glorification of terrorism.” But unlike our Prime Minister, with his eye is on the Muslim vote, Sunak provided British police with “further powers to crack down on protests, including those who attempt to hide their identity, with the risk of their facing jail.”

Our criminal code already prevents demonstrators from donning masks to conceal their identities when the demonstration causes others to reasonably believe that the peace will be disturbed, as it was in all of these instances, and they could be arrested too, if there was only the will to do so from the politicians and police.

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Those politicians who do speak up for their Jewish constituents are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs, too. Mike Freer, a British government Minister representing a largely Jewish riding, who publicly supported Israel following Oct. 7, recently announced his departure from politics after receiving a string of death threats related to his pro-Israel views. That came after an arson attack on his constituency office which he described as “the final straw.” In the aftermath of the arson attack, he received an email describing him as “the kind of person who deserved to be set alight.

Here in Canada, Melissa Lantsman, a Jewish pro-Israeli Tory MP and the deputy opposition leader — as well as Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Jolie — have been provided police protection as a result of fears for their safety in the current climate.

And in B.C., Selina Robinson, a former cabinet minister who is Jewish and just resigned from the BC NDP caucus, decried the tolerance for antisemitism among her NDP colleagues, stating in her resignation letter: “When the hordes gather and chant ‘from the river to the sea’ — a Hamas mantra referring to their desire to destroy Israel and the Jews, you are nowhere to be found.”

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Why are we permitting this to occur?

A recent Harvard-Harris Research Institute survey showed 82 per cent of Americans stand with Israel with just 18 per cent being for Hamas. Sixty-eight per cent believe that Israel is trying to minimize civilian casualties, contrary to what the CBC would have us believe.

Canadian polls, referred to in earlier columns, have found similar sentiment here.

In her resignation letter, Robinson aptly described the situation of the Jewish community, which has historically been the canary in the coalmine when it comes to intolerance in a society.

“There is no sense of understanding that this community is feeling threatened, that people are afraid, that antisemitism was on display in civil society, that Jewish parents don’t want to send their children to school, that Jewish post-secondary students are being terrorized on campus, that Jewish owned businesses need additional security, that holocaust survivors are reliving trauma, that plays with Israeli content that help to provide dialogue are being silenced, that Jewish physicians are calling on UBC to address antisemitism on campus, that members of our public service have started incorporating the Palestinian flag in their email signature and even making a Palestinian land comment when doing a First Nation land acknowledgement at the beginning of meetings, resulting in discomfort and fear. No acknowledgment and no action,” she wrote.

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We, as a society, have to fight back so that our citizens cease being afraid and what I have described does not become “the new normal.”

As is occurring in the United States through Canary Mission, the provocateurs must be identified, the police must begin laying robust and constant charges and there must be better education as to what these groups stand for, so that people will be ashamed to support, let alone march, with them.

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The government must require the police to do their jobs and begin making regular arrests. And if they do not, the Jews of North America must emulate the Jews in Israel and not cower in fear, but demand that action be taken and use the courts and other applications to force action to be taken and publicly expose, by name, the miscreants in our midst so that they will become pariahs and their numbers will dwindle until this scourge too passes.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces and is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada.

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