May 27th, 2024

Secret event in Ottawa, party in Montreal as Canadians mark Israel national day

By Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press on May 14, 2024.

The flags of Canada and Israel fly in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

MONTREAL – Ceremonies marking Israel’s national day took on many forms in Canada, from a party-like demonstration in Montreal that drew hundreds of supporters of the Jewish state to a flag-raising in Ottawa held in secret because of undisclosed threats.

Israel’s flag was flying on Tuesday morning at Ottawa City Hall to commemorate 76 years since the state of Israel’s 1948 creation, but there was no public ceremony for the occasion.

Instead, the city said, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa organized a private event, but officials refused to say when or where it was happening. City officials said they had information suggesting that holding a public event posed a risk to public safety, though they gave no details.

Israel’s national day is overshadowed this year by the war in the Gaza Strip, where more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed since October, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The war was sparked when Hamas fighters from Gaza broke into southern Israel on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, mostly Israelis.

The decision to forgo a flag-raising ceremony in Ottawa sparked backlash from the Jewish community, including federal politicians such as Liberal MP Anthony Housefather and Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, who urged the city to go ahead with the event.

Last Friday, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe posted on social media that he had asked police and the city to come up with a way to hold the event safely, but city officials said Monday that would not happen.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators who gathered outside city hall on Tuesday claimed victory, saying they had forced the cancellation of what they called a “genocidal flag-raising” ceremony. A masked woman leading the group of about 50 people called Sutcliffe’s stance “disgraceful” but praised Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow for her decision not to participate in a flag-raising in that city.

Chow’s office released a statement Tuesday, saying the mayor would not attend the ceremony because “she believes raising (the flag) is divisive at this time, and understands the deep pain and anguish felt by many in the community.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, on the other hand, hailed Israel’s “establishment as an independent and democratic state” 76 years ago

“Today, we also recognize the many challenges Israel has faced through its existence, including the attacks of Oct. 7, 2023,” Ford said in a statement. “I continue to pray for the safe return of the hostages who were taken in the attacks and condemn hatred and antisemitism in all its forms, wherever it is found.”

In Montreal, a DJ pumped out pop tunes from a stage while hundreds of Israel supporters, many with the country’s blue and white flag draped around their shoulders, danced and cheered in a downtown park. A heavy police presence guarded the perimeter as the crowd, which included many teens and schoolchildren in uniform, bounced big beach balls above the crowd and linked arms to dance.

Attendees who spoke to reporters expressed pride and support for Israel, even as they said they were saddened by the loss of life in Gaza.

“I think everyone who feels Jewish in their heart wants to come out and support Israel and support peace, which is most important, and I’m hoping that will be in my lifetime,” said Dorrie Davidson, who waved a big Israeli flag on the sidelines of the event. She said she wasn’t deterred by criticism of Israel, or by counter-protesters.

“They have a right to speak as well, and so do we. They have a right to believe in what they believe, and I have a right to believe what I believe, and this is it,” she said.

Ari Kugler, a Jewish Montrealer, said this year’s event hits differently. “Unfortunately this year we’re forced in a situation where there’s war and death and tragedy, and we have to commemorate that and feel the pain, and just hope there’s an everlasting peace,” he said.

Across the street, cordoned off by police tape, Montreal student Ethan Zbily was one of a few dozen people waving Palestinian flags in protest. He said he felt “disgusted” and “angry” by the festive event at a time when Palestinians are being killed in the Israel-Hamas war.

“Today we see these people over there celebrating, while all of us are in mourning,” said Zbily, adding that he was there to support a ceasefire and an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.

As the event ended, police formed a line to prevent departing Israel supporters from approaching the pro-Palestinian demonstration on the other side of the street.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

– With files from Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa and The Associated Press

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