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Israel lobby waging campaign to silence progressive, pro-Palestinian restaurant

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman Rights

Toronto eatery Foodbenders has courted significant controversy from pro-Israel advocates and lobby groups for denouncing Zionism and standing up for Palestinian rights and racial justice. Photo courtesy of Foodbenders.

The Israel lobby has waged a remarkably successful campaign to bankrupt a small left-wing Toronto restaurant. Despite claiming to fight bigotry, it is the Israeli nationalists who have been guilty of the most overt racism and arguably taken the most anti-Jewish positions in their protests against the eatery.

In response to pressure from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Defence League (JDL) and other organizations, delivery services Uber, Ritual, DoorDash and others have severed ties with Foodbenders in recent days. A number of institutional customers also announced they would no longer patronize the restaurant. Foodbenders’ highly active Instagram account was also taken down, while GoFundMe held back some payments from a campaign that quickly raised $2,700 to defend the restaurant. It was later deactivated.

An investigation into Foodbenders’ business license has now begun, and a $750,000 defamation lawsuit and an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal complaint have also been filed against the restaurant.

This devastating assault is being waged against a business that has strongly advocated for Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights as well as against patriarchy and Canadian imperialism. Its long Canada Day statement noted, “Canada backs every coup of elected socialist leaders led by Washington and continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia where they will be used to perpetuate war and famine in Yemen.”

In the fall, the unabashedly left-wing restaurant painted “I love Gaza” in its window facing Bloor Street. This prompted a backlash from the anti-Palestinian crowd and put Foodbenders on the radar of those looking to squash any sign of solidarity with the long-beleaguered Palestinians. Amidst recent Black Lives Matter protests, the restaurant had a dust-up with pro-police activists when owner Kimberly Hawkins put up a sign in front of the shop saying, “No Justice, No Peace, F*ck the Police!” Foodbenders then faced criticism for a “Happy KKKanada day” sign put up in its window on July 1.

Preferring targets that are already offside with elements of the establishment (think Jeremy Corbyn), the groups within the Israel lobby saw a chance to deliver a blow when Hawkins posted to Instagram, “Open Now – 8 PM for non-racist shoppers #Bloordale #Bloorstreet, #Toronto, #Open, #ftp [fuck the police] #FreePalestine and #ZionistsNotWelcome.” Pro-Israel groups have claimed the #ZionistsNotWelcome hashtag discriminates against Jews.

To her credit, Hawkins did not back down. She clarified that Jews were indeed welcome and that she does not believe “criticism of the Zionist political ideology, Israel or the Greater Israel Project, or pointing out its racist supremacist foundations amounts to criticism of the Jewish people or even Israeli citizens.”

Whether one believes Hawkins’s restaurant has been unfairly attacked, the primary victims of any suppression of debate over Zionism or Palestinian solidarity are those locked in Gaza or in the occupied West Bank. In the events surrounding Foodbenders, the clearest act of hate was carried out by JDL members who scrubbed a Palestinian Lives Matter marking from the sidewalk outside the restaurant and—similar to what Jewish settlers do to Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank—spray painted a Star of David over the storefront. Alongside this vandalism, Hawkins has faced a bevy of online abuse, and has been called a “dirty Palestinian whore” and told “Palestine sucks I will burn your business down” and “I hope your family gets trapped inside the restaurant when it burns.”

A member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) defacing the storefront of Toronto restaurant Foodbenders. Photo from Twitter.

Israel lobby groups have also engaged in essentialist language that, if taken to its logical conclusion, basically implicates all Jews in a European colonial movement that dispossessed Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Critics of the restaurant have said that Hawkins uses the term “Zionism” or “Zionists” as a euphemism for “Jew” or “Jewish”, which she flatly denies. Writing in the Toronto Star, self-professed progressive Emma Teitel responded to those who say using the word Zionist with a disparaging adjective,

[Isn’t] anti-Semitic, because Zionism doesn’t equal Judaism. But this position is a semantic fallacy. Zionism in modern Jewish terms is synonymous with a belief that the state of Israel has a right to exist. By this definition a great many Jews today are Zionists. When an activist group or a shop owner or whoever attaches anti-Semitic tropes to an adjective, Zionist, that millions of Jews wear, they’re engaging in antisemitism plain and simple.

While some genuinely anti-Semitic people do what Teitel claims, there has to be a way to distinguish between those who support the idea of a religious or ethnic state—which is at the core of Zionist philosophy—and those who support secular states. Many people, Jews included, believe that a state shouldn’t favour one religion or ethnic group over another. Those who demand a secular state in Canada but support a Jewish state in Israel are inconsistent at best and racist at worst (against Palestinians who live under that state’s control).

In their statements about Foodbendors, CIJA, B’nai B’rith and the International Legal Forum directly conflate Judaism with Zionism. CIJA notes, “a recent study of Jewish Canadians confirms that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians are Zionists, and the term can be used to describe our community.”

Generally presented as a response to late 1800s European antisemitism, the Theodore Herzl-led Zionist movement was also spurred by the Christian, nationalist and imperialist ideologies sweeping Europe at the time. After two millennia in which Jewish restoration was viewed as a spiritual event to be brought about through divine intervention, Zionism finally took root among some Jews after two centuries of active Protestant Zionism. “Christian proto-Zionists [existed] in England 300 years before modern Jewish Zionism emerged,” notes Stephen Spector in his book Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism. Until the mid-1800s, Zionism was an almost entirely non-Jewish movement that reflected the more literal readings of the Bible that flowed out of the Protestant Reformation.

Another factor driving Jewish Zionism was the nationalism sweeping Europe in the late 1800s. Germany, Italy and a number of eastern European states were all established during this period.

Alongside nationalist and biblical literalist influences, Zionism took root at the height of European imperialism. In the lead-up to the First World War, the European “scramble” carved up Africa and then the Middle East. Europeans controlled about 10 percent of Africa in 1870 but by 1914 only Ethiopia was independent of European control. Liberia was effectively an American colony.

Similar to Europe, Zionism’s roots in Canada are Christian, not Jewish. Early Canadian support for Zionism was based on more literal readings of the Bible and tied to Canada’s status as a dominion of the British Empire, which in the latter half of the nineteenth century began to see Zionism as a potential vehicle to strengthen its geostrategic position in the region. At the time of Confederation, Canada’s preeminent Christian Zionist was Henry Wentworth Monk. Monk called for the British Empire to establish a “dominion of Israel” similar to the dominion of Canada. In the 1978 book Canada and Palestine, Zachariah Kay notes, “Monk believed that Palestine was the logical center of the British Empire, and could help form a confederation of the English-speaking world.”

According to the logic of the pro-Israel lobby, Jewry in its entirety are responsible for this colonial movement and its dispossession of Palestinians. In fact, if one makes that claim, they can rightly be accused of antisemitism, because individual Jews and Canada’s Jewish community are clearly not responsible for what the Zionist movement or Israel does. Of course, individual Jews and Jewish organizations can be complicit in Israeli crimes if they support that country, but that is because of their actions, not their identity.

The Israel lobby’s racist and essentialist ideas need to be contested and their effort to bankrupt a progressive Toronto restaurant resisted.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


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