Jewish Federations at helm of anti-Palestinian activism

UJA Toronto’s 2016 Walk with Israel

Oddly the most significant institutional purveyor of anti-Palestinianism in Canada operates largely below the radar of solidarity activists. In fact, some even seek to exculpate the Jewish Federations’ support for racism, colonialism and an apartheid state.

In a recent column critical of the Conservative party aligned Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Andrew Cohen makes a remarkable claim about United Jewish Appeal/Combined Jewish Appeal of Toronto, Montréal, Winnipeg, Windsor, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Vancouver and Atlantic Canada. In “Unelected, Unaccountable, Untroubled: CIJA Says What it Wants, Then Says it Speaks For Us”, Cohen suggests Canada’s Jewish Federations may not be fully aligned with CIJA, which they fund as their official lobbying arm. The article was shared uncritically by a number of pro-Palestinian activists.

But, beyond financing the country’s leading Israel lobby group, the Federations fund and organize significant other anti-Palestinian activity. Around a quarter of the money the Federations raise is sent to Israel, a country with a $43,641 per person GDP (higher than France and Japan). UJA Toronto has organized an annual Walk with Israel for nearly a half-century while CJA Montréal also puts on an Israel Day rally. Additionally, during the 2014 war on Gaza that left 2,200 Palestinians dead UJA Toronto co-sponsored an event titled “We Will Not be Silent: A March Against Global Anti-Semitism.” The Times of Israel reported: “The purpose of the march was passionately summed up in Bill Glied’s closing remarks: ‘Thank God for the IDF. Thank God for Israel. And remember together we must stand. Never again!’”

UJA Toronto operates an Israel Engagement program. A year ago they announced that an eight-year veteran of the IDF, Eyal Shmueli, was their new Israeli emissary and the keynote speaker at UJA Toronto’s 2020 fundraising appeal closing was noted anti-Palestinian Bari Weiss.

The Federations provide tens of millions of dollars to private schools that promote the Israeli nationalist narrative. In 2018 UJA Toronto gave the principal of Robin Hebrew Academy, Claire Sumerlus, an Israel Engagement Award. Many of the schools they fund have students sing the Israeli national anthem and fly the Israeli flag. On Israel’s 70th anniversary two years ago UJA Toronto director of corporate communications, Dan Horowitz, described the Zionist ethos at one of those schools: “I drove my daughter to her Jewish day school and, upon dropping her off, I was amazed to see a veritable sea of blue and white flooding the playground, with boys and girls dressed in only those colours.”

As I recently detailed, a number of Toronto schools openly promote the Israeli military. The largest recipient of UJA Toronto school funding, TanenbaumCHAT, organizes “IDF days”. Canada’s largest private high school also has fundraisers for Israeli military initiatives and former and current Israeli soldiers talk to the students about the IDF, which sometimes appears part of the Israeli consulate’s recruitment drives.

In the Fall UJA Toronto held a webinar with Brant Slomovic, author of a recent photo book on non-Israelis fighting in the occupation force. UJA/CJA also directly promotes IDF recruitment. UJA Toronto’s website advertised a June 4 event titled “Nefesh B’Nefesh VIRTUAL Webinar: Joining the IDF.” The promotion explained that individuals would learn “everything you need and want to know about joining the IDF.” CJA Montréal promoted a similar event that took place three days later.

According to the Foreign Enlistment Act it is illegal to recruit for a foreign military. The act states, “any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.” (There is an ongoing campaign calling on the federal government to apply charges against those recruiting Canadians for the Israeli military.)

UJA Toronto has sought to suppress the speech of those supporting Palestinian rights. In the summer it supported a bid to bankrupt Foodbendors due to the small Toronto restaurant’s support of the Palestinian cause. In another instance, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg canceled its sponsorship of a 2019 event by Lex Rofeberg because the fourth year rabbinical student was a member of the anti-occupation (though not anti-Zionist) US Jewish group IfNotNow (Rofeberg wasn’t even going to speak about Israel). In 2009 UJA Toronto demanded the cancellation of an international conference put on by academics at Queen’s and York Universities titled “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.”

Last year UJA Toronto had a whopping $209 million in revenue and $668 million in assets and planned gifts that were, at least in part, accumulated through its charitable tax status. Also subsidized by the state, CJA Montréal is about half the size and the other federations are smaller.

Despite the heft of the national network of UJA/CJAs, there has been little public criticism of the Federations’ anti-Palestinianism. While the left compares Israel to apartheid South Africa — it is worse in many ways — there is a trepidation about directly challenging Jewish institutions that enable this racist and colonial behaviour. Imagine if during the struggle for racial equality in South Africa in the 1980s an organization in Toronto organized an annual Walk for South Africa, funded a major South African apartheid lobby group and various initiatives that promoted the South African military. There would certainly have been statements of condemnation and demonstrations at their office. Yet UJA Toronto does this and more to support an apartheid state with almost no protest.

It’s long past time to directly challenge the Jewish Federations. It’s time for those who care about peace and international justice to treat the Federations the same way they would any organization that promotes racism and colonialism.

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