Toronto protest calls for ceasefire
Thousands of pro-Palestinian marchers return to downtown streets for seventh week in a row
BEN COHEN STAFF REPORTER
Pro-Palestinian protesters returned to Toronto’s downtown streets Saturday for another rally, smaller than in weeks previous but still with thousands in attendance, to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and to voice sharp criticism of Israel and Zionism.
Now in their seventh week, these regularly scheduled pro-Palestinian protests have drawn tens of thousands into Toronto’s downtown core.
Saturday’s protest, a more-than-four-hour march that shut down major arteries in the downtown core, was led by a coalition of Indigenous people with signs and banners that read “Anishinabe solidarity with Palestine” and “The land remembers.” The flags of nations with colonial histories, such as the Philippines, Afghanistan, Ireland and Cuba, billowed from the crowd — an attempt by protesters to link what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a diverse range of past international struggles.
That characterization of Israel as a colonial state — oft-repeated by its critics — is a highly contentious one that reflects the stark polarization over the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, among academics as well as communities across Canada and around the world. The label is endorsed by some scholars, who point to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians, as well as certain ongoing Israeli policies, yet is rejected by other historians on the basis that Jews were indigenous to the region and that those who came at the time of Israel’s founding were not expanding empire but, for the most part, were refugees escaping persecution.
The march Saturday was organized by a constellation of groups, including Independent Jewish Voices, a local group of pro-Palestinian Jewish activists, and the Palestinian Youth Movement, which has staged some of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies in the city.
As in recent weeks, the most urgent demand voiced was for a ceasefire.
Beyond that, some organizers said they hoped to see consequences for Israel in international court for what they alleged have been war crimes. Others went further, calling to see Israel destroyed, referring to the state in chants as “racist,” “fascist” and “genocidal.”
Throughout the weeks, there has been fierce debate about whether such condemnations of Israel as some of the comments made Saturday can be construed as antisemitic or as supportive of Hamas, a designated terrorist group.
Speakers took care Saturday to repeatedly demarcate Zionism from Judaism, calling criticism of their movement as antisemitic unwarranted and untrue.
Many of the speakers addressed the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in addition to the current war.
Speaking from the bed of a truck rigged with a speaker system, former CUPE Ontario president, Sid Ryan, likened the Palestinian battle for statehood with Ireland’s fight for independence against Britain.
“In 1,000 years, schoolchildren will be learning about the brave Palestinians in Gaza,” he said, to applause. “They will have a beautiful country, the jewel of the Middle East.”
Indigenous speakers, of which there were several, described the kinship they felt with Palestinians. “Oppressors don’t change their tactics, they change their victims,” one said. Another said her father did not survive the residential school system for her to sit idly by while children were being victimized in Gaza.
“The fight for freedom links colonized people everywhere,” said Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia, speaking from the centre of the intersection of College and Spadina, which had been occupied by the crowd. “From Haiti to Kashmir to Sudan.”
In the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, many Western nations affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. As the death toll has soared in Gaza during Israel’s retaliation, there have been increasing calls for the Israeli military to show restraint and to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Despite the scrutiny, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to call for a ceasefire but urged Israel to “exercise maximum restraint.”
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited