While the conflict in Gaza cools down—at least for now—the war of words in Toronto continues to boil.
You’ll recall that, when the conflict was at its height, supporters of both sides staged rallies across Canada. You’ll also recall that the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) labelled, not without controversy, the pro-Palestinian rallies as being “pro-Hamas” and suggested that certain acts—like white power skinheads giving Nazi salutes (sixth photo), or a sign depicting an Israeli soldier with blood dripping from his teeth (eighth photo)—were hate crimes.
Now, the Near East Cultural and Education Foundation of Canada (NECEF) has stepped in. While condemning antisemitism and the actions of those who engage in hateful actions, it has written an open letter to the CJC alleging that its labelling of the rallies as “pro-Hamas” may also be a hate crime.
So, who’s right?
Hate crimes (namely, advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred, or wilfully promoting hatred) are a bit of a legal minefield. We considered the subject last year in light of the protests by Anonymous against Scientology, where—on the basis of the facts known to us—we concluded that Anonymous’s protests probably didn’t qualify as hate crimes.
Applying that same test here, we disagree with NECEF’s suggestion that the CJC committed a hate crime, partly because the phrase “pro-Hamas” does not target an “identifiable group” (i.e. any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation—one could query whether this should be broadened), and partly because it does not sink to the level of “hatred,” defined in the leading case of R v Keegstra as “the most severe and deeply-felt form of opprobrium” and “a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.” This doesn’t absolve the CJC of all blame: the phrase is potentially inaccurate, since the majority of rally participants probably don’t support the terrorist group, and we’d be curious to see how a defamation claim would unfold, but it’s exceedingly unlikely to be a hate crime.
On the other hand, the CJC is likely correct to suggest that hate crimes were committed by certain people whom the rally attracted, such as Nazi salutes and chants: these were expressions of hatred against an identifiable group (namely, Jews), were made publicly, and could have been reasonably foreseen to lead to harm. One hopes that the perpetrators will be caught and punished. That said, other actions that the CJC criticizes are unlikely to be hate crimes. Equating the situation in Gaza with apartheid or genocide may be disagreeable to some, but these aren’t hate crimes so much as statements on a matter of public interest that are believed by the speakers, correctly or not, to be genuine.
Speaking as a disinterested observer, we can only say that neither group of Canadians comes out looking good from all of this.
Pro-Palestinian rally organizers deserve blame for exercising insufficient care to prevent antisemitism. Arguing that they couldn’t control everyone who showed up is a dodge: any reasonable person could foresee that a protest against Israeli actions would attract some nasty characters, and more should have been done to disavow and eject them. Framing the issue as empathy with Palestinians rather than anger toward Israel—like the Jewish women who staged a sit-in at the Israeli consulate—coupled with a clear condemnation of the actions of Hamas, might have been a wiser approach.
Meanwhile, the CJC overplayed its hand by calling the rallies “pro-Hamas.” Surely it must recognize that reasonable people can criticize Israel’s military actions without supporting the ideology of a terrorist group dedicated to the country’s destruction. Equally, its failure to express compassion for Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza—in contrast to NECEF’s sympathy for the no less tragic deaths of Israeli citizens killed by Hamas rockets—suggests a belief that all Palestinians are tacit Hamas supporters who deserved what they got, which betrays a disturbing insensitivity that the CJC ought to disavow.