On Saturday evening, some 5,000 people packed Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square to denounce the Israeli government’s continued violence and injustices against the Palestinian people. Dozens, if not hundreds, within the predominantly pro-Palestinian crowd were Jewish.
At the same time, a counter-protest was held by Canada’s most influential and best-organized racist group, the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a radical organization that preaches a violent form of anti-Arab, Jewish nationalism. About 200 JDL members and supporters rallied in the hope of provoking or instigating a conflict. They succeeded, and by the next morning the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai B’rith were claiming a 55-year-old Jewish man was beaten by pro-Palestinian protesters.
By Sunday evening, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Premier Rob Ford, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had all tweeted about alleged acts of anti-Semitism at the protests.
Hate, anti-Semitism and violence have no place in our city. Any violence against our city’s Jewish community or members of any other community in Toronto is absolutely unacceptable. pic.twitter.com/nlI9xSfC1q— John Tory (@JohnTory) May 16, 2021
There is, of course, much more to this story. Footage has now emerged of the main “victim” (who actually appeared on the cover of a press release put out by CIJA on May 16) wielding a knife and swinging a bat. Another video shows a JDL member brandishing a stick and threatening another individual.
It is altogether unsurprising that the JDL would instigate a confrontation and then be defended by some of the most prominent pro-Israel lobby groups in the country. Indeed, it has happened many times before. What was different on this occasion is that the JDL met a great deal more resistance and ended up fleeing the scene.
With the tacit support of Canada’s pro-Israel establishment, the JDL have operated as a quasi-fascist street mob in Toronto for more than half a century. In 2014, amidst Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza that left over 2,100 Palestinians dead, also known as Operation Protective Edge, I was shoved, had my bike damaged and lock stolen by members of the JDL at a protest on the grounds of the Ontario legislature.
The following day at Queen’s Park, a JDL member who worked with children at the Schwartz-Reisman Jewish Community Centre in Vaughan, Isaac Ezra Nacson, knocked a pro-Palestinian counter demonstrator to the ground and kicked him in the face. Half an hour after Nacson’s attack, a JDL member walked some 50 metres around a barricade to where I was standing alone, and spat on me three times. Both incidents were caught on tape by major media outlets, but little was done.
Since that time the JDL has engaged in numerous violent acts and deepened its ties to other far-right movements. In the highest profile incident to date, a mob organized by JDL Toronto attacked counter-protesters at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, DC, burning a Quran and tearing a Palestinian flag to shreds. During a scuffle, a 55-year-old Palestinian-American teacher was punched, kicked and hit with flagpoles. Bruised across his body, Kamal Nayfeh needed 18 stitches around his eye. Thornhill JDL member Yosef Steynovitz was charged with a hate crime as well as assault causing significant injury.
Last summer, JDL supporter Tamara Foster vandalized Foodbenders, a Toronto sandwich shop located on Bloor Street, whose owner had painted “I Love Gaza” on the storefront window. Similar to what Jewish supremacist settlers do to Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, Foster painted the Star of David onto the restaurant window. Soon after, the JDL held a rally in front of the restaurant and scrubbed off “Palestinian Lives Matter” and “Free Palestine” markings while shouting racist remarks.
While preparing for a defamation lawsuit against the JDL on behalf of Foodbenders, lawyer Stephen Ellis dug into the organization and its long-time leader, Meir Weinstein’s history of violence and racism. Some of his findings are listed here:
- In 1976, JDL members were arrested for setting off a bomb at the Toronto home of anti-Semitic mayoral candidate Don Andrews.
- Five years later, the JDL announced its members were arming themselves and engaging in target practice in farms around Toronto, reported the Globe and Mail in a story titled “Leader of JDL says members arming selves.”
- In 1983, 20 JDL members “shouted, kicked doors and cut a television cable at the Willowdale home of Nicaragua’s Consul-General,” reported the Globe and Mail. They claimed the leftist Sandinista government was anti-Jewish.
- In 1986, JDL members attempted to assault anti-Semitic activist Terry Long.
- In 2001, JDL was thought to be responsible for death threats leveled against the pro-Palestinian Concordia Student Union.
- In 2007, two JDL activists were arrested for assaulting anti-Jewish activist Paul Fromm.
- In 2011, the RCMP launched an investigation against at least nine members of the JDL who were thought to be plotting to bomb Palestine House in Mississauga. On July 3, 2014 the JDL sparked a violent confrontation at the community centre.
- Three years later, a JDL member assaulted journalist Kevin Metcalf and another made death threats against him as he was photographing a demonstration at Nathan Phillips Square.
- In the lead up to the 2019 Walk for Israel, Weinstein publicly threatened to “break the legs” of anyone counter-protesting.
- Later in 2019, Weinstein shoved a demonstrator at York University and another JDL sympathizer threatened a student, telling them, “if you do that, I’ll fucking step on your face.”
- JDL Canada maintains direct ties to extremist Jewish supremacists in Israel who have been attacking Palestinian citizens of Israel and chanting “death to the Arabs” in recent days.
- On a recent trip to the country, JDL Canada’s “security director,” Zaza Vili, took pictures with supporters of the outlawed Kahane Chai party. For his part, Weinstein has repeatedly met with Baruch Ben Yosef (Andy Green), who was jailed for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock in 1980 and is suspected in the 1985 murder of Palestinian American anti-discrimination activist Alex Odeh.
- During a 2015 meeting in Montréal, Weinstein rejected a question about disassociating from the organization’s violent past by comparing himself and the JDL to Menachem Begin and the Irgun, an extremist Zionist group that launched numerous deadly terrorist attacks in the 1940s. On another occasion Weinstein responded to a question about whether the JDL is a violent organization by comparing the group to a martial arts club.
- JDL members are openly racist. In 2009, Weinstein joined and participated in a Facebook group called “Death to Arabs” and four years later he wrote on Facebook that violence is “in the Arabs’ DNA.” In 2010 Weinstein said, “if the Arabs won’t acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, then they will have to go.”
- During a 2017 meeting Weinstein referred to Syrian refugees and other Arabs as “snakes” while a participant led the crowd in a chant of “No Arabs, No Terror” and “They Must Go, They Must Go.”
- At a counter protest to the 2017 Al Quds event in Toronto, Weinstein claimed “these people [largely Muslim marchers] want us dead” to which someone among the JDL crowd yelled “we want them dead too.”
- The JDL has repeatedly disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement. In February 2020, Weinstein announced that the group would travel to New York City to confront Black leaders who he claimed are “anti-Semitic.”
- Over the past decade the JDL has hosted numerous racist, far-right, speakers. In 2011, the group organized a support rally for the anti-Muslim English Defence League, featuring known racist Tommy Robinson via Skype. JDL Canada has also hosted high-profile anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, as well as Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom. In 2014, the JDL also hosted Moshe Feiglin who previously called Arabs “a gang of bandits that never produced anything and never wanted to produce anything” and whom the United Kingdom Home Secretary refused entry to Britain on the grounds he would likely “foment or justify terrorist violence.”
- In 2015, the JDL organized a meeting with a leader of the anti-Muslim group PEGIDA UK, Paul Weston, and in 2017 they hosted the National Citizens Alliance’s Stephen Garvey who told the crowd that “[Muslims] will never be Canadians.”
- To oppose the construction of a mosque in Newmarket, the JDL organized a town hall in the Toronto suburb in 2007. A decade later they held a demonstration against Motion 103, which they claimed was an effort by the Trudeau government to introduce ‘Islamic supremacism.’ In 2018, the group organized an anti-Muslim rally after a mass shooting on the Danforth by a mentally unstable individual born to parents of Pakistani origin.
- In recent years, the JDL has coordinated with various racist, far-right organizations and individuals on different initiatives. In 2012, the JDL allied with Mark Vandermas and Gary McHale who actively opposed justice for the Mohawks of Six Nations of the Grand River during the high-profile land dispute in Caledonia. They’ve also worked closely with anti-Muslim activist Sandra Solomon, and allied with the white supremacist Soldiers of Odin for a 2018 rally at Nathan Phillips Square. During the 2018 Toronto mayoral election the JDL endorsed racist candidate Faith Goldy and made several appearances for her.
JDL Canada’s sister organizations in the United States and Israel have been responsible for even more serious violence and hate crimes. In 2001, the FBI labeled the JDL a “right-wing terrorist group” after its members were convicted in a series of violent acts, including the killing of the regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a plot to assassinate a congressman.
Baruch Goldstein, a member of the JDL’s sister organization in Israel, Kach, an ultranationalist political formation that was officially banned in 1994, killed 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre that same year. Kach was established by Meir Kahane in 1984. He also co-founded the JDL in the US.
In 1984, Weinstein tried to help Kahane enter Canada illegally after the federal government rejected the American’s admission to this country. At the end of the 1980s, Weinstein sought to formally establish a Kach party in Canada.
In discussing Palestinian citizens of Israel, Kahane told a TV interviewer in 1990: “The only answer is out. I want them out. I want them out alive and if not alive, dead. But I want them out. Better a dead Arab than a dead Jew.”
Despite its long history of racism and violence, the JDL is tacitly or actively supported by much of Canada’s pro-Israel establishment and other powerful institutions. The JDL has co-sponsored demonstrations with B’nai B’rith and provided “security” for pro-Israel rallies, and even participated in the annual Walk for Israel organized by United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto.
In a bid to get Toronto city council to block Al Quds Day in 2019, Weinstein coordinated with B’nai B’rith leader Michael Mostyn, CIJA Vice President Noah Shack and city councillor James Pasternak, as highlighted in a photo of the four together at the city’s executive committee.
JDL has been allowed to recruit in Jewish schools and for many years the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber, gave the group political cover. The same can be said of former Canada-Israel Committee board member Warren Kinsella, who spoke at a JDL meeting in 2009. These prominent liberals were fine with the JDL intimidating Palestinian solidarity activists but oppose its alliance with other racist, far-right, groups.
Coverage of the group by Canadian Jewish News has often been sympathetic, including publishing video of a speech by Weinstein. In 2015 Barbara Kay penned a National Post column titled “In defence of the Jewish Defence League” and Honest Reporting Canada defended the group when the CBC’s coverage became too critical.
In 2017 the Toronto Sun published an article headlined “Jewish Defence League alleges hate crime,” and after JDL members stoked violence at York University in November 2019, B’nai B’rith, CIJA and much of the rest of the Israel lobby accused pro-Palestinian activists of anti-Semitism. Despite much of it being caught on camera, JDL violence and racism was ignored.
In a similar vein, CIJA couldn’t bring itself to criticize the JDL thugs who beat a 55-year-old Palestinian professor and a younger Jewish activist outside AIPAC’s conference in 2017. Despite footage of the attacks, CIJA spokesperson Martin Sampson responded to a National Post inquiry by stating, “the approach adopted by the JDL is not reflective of the mainstream Canadian Jewish community.”
What’s more, the JDL has support at the highest levels of the Conservative Party. During a 2015 meeting in Montréal, JDL representative Julius Suraski claimed four Conservative MPs had recently attended a Passover dinner at his home. In 2014, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper included Suraski in his official delegation when he traveled to Israel.
Considering its influence and long history of racist violence, there’s been far too little critical scrutiny of the JDL. While the group has been banned from Facebook and Twitter on a number of occasions, politicians, police and other officials have turned a blind eye to many of its criminal acts, while major media outlets and anti-racist groups have generally ignored its political activities and ties to the far-right.
It’s time for this to change. The JDL is a violent and racist group that deserves to be treated like the authoritarian, terroristic organization it really is.
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.