Toronto artists call on Koffler Centre to divest from United Jewish Appeal

Hundreds have vowed to boycott the arts organization if it doesn't dissociate from groups supporting Zionist goals


Hundreds of artists and arts organizations have signed a petition calling on the Koffler Centre of the Arts to divest and cut ties to the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation.

“While the Koffler has shifted to a social justice mandate, presenting work that is critical of settler colonialism and working with numerous racialized and politicized artists and organizations, this has not been extended to the Palestinian context,” reads the petition, which is signed by organizations like the Chinatown Biennial, South Asian Visual Arts Centre and Xspace Cultural Centre.

“This is artwashing,” the petition states, “in service of obfuscating its relationships to funders that uphold Israeli apartheid, namely the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation.”

The petition, which pledges a boycott of the Koffler Centre should it choose not to divest, says the UJA has “explicitly Zionist” goals.

The UJA’s strategic plan mentions strengthening Toronto’s Jewish community ties to Israel and a focus on combatting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The latter is a Palestinian-led international movement inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and which calls on divestment from Israel.

The UJA is raising funds to support Israel and “initiatives related to the current crisis.” Eleven days of armed conflict between Israeli Defence Forces and Hamas in the Gaza Strip ended last week with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians.

The fundraising drive, according to the UJA’s website, is supported by, among others, real estate companies RioCan and Metropia.

Tony Hewer, director of marketing, communications and archives at Koffler, said in a statement: “The Koffler Centre of the Arts has received the joint letter from artists raising concerns about our organization and funding relationship. We take the views of the artistic community seriously and are engaging in internal dialogue about how to address the issues raised and provide a response.”

The UJA once disassociated from a 2016 talk the Koffler Centre hosted with Angels In America playwright and Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner because he sits on the advisory board of a group called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). UJA said it opposed the JVP’s support for the BDS movement. Kushner, who is critical of Israel but didn’t support BDS at the time, told the Globe and Mail that he was “disgusted” with the UJA and compared the organization’s tactics to McCarthyism.

On top of calling on the Koffler Centre to divest from the UJA, the petition demands acknowledgement of “Zionist artwashing” and a public statement supporting the “decolonization” of Palestine. The petition also calls on the Koffler Centre to publicly state that it will not discriminate against artists who express anti-Israeli government views.

The petition describes a 2009 incident when the Koffler Centre cut programming with Jewish artist Reena Katz, aka Radiodress, who supported Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of lectures and rallies at the University of Toronto on the human rights situation in Palestine.

“To refer to Israel as an apartheid state is to call Israel a criminal state and to suggest that it be shut down,” Koffler’s former executive director Lori Starr told NOW’s Susan G. Cole at the time.

The petition notes that there has only been one instance where work by a Palestinian artist was showcased in Koffler’s 44 exhibitions. That was part of a group digital publication in 2020.

“For an organization whose mandate is ‘to value and foster social justice, equality and inclusivity,’ the absence of Palestinian narratives within its programming, or of critiques of the Zionist settler colonial movement, sends a clear statement on who deserves justice and equality and who doesn’t,” the petition states.

NOW has reached out to UJA for comment.

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7 responses to “Toronto artists call on Koffler Centre to divest from United Jewish Appeal”

  1. Seems like the right thing to do here is to let 100 artists take their work elsewhere. No art exhibit(or) should involve politics! Dont here anyone caring about the 25,000 kids and hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria due to ISIS and other crises? Anyone exhibiting BDS on Iran who routinely push homosexuals’ off buildings just for being gay? Women having zero rights (oh yes they are now permitted to drive a car as of a couple of years ago). Nope, complete silence and obviously misguided hate.

  2. What a joke, except not funny. With so many wars and injustice around the world, Israel seems to always get anti-Semites’ attention. Artists are supposed to believe in freedom of expression, and encourage thoughtful debate and opinions, and be entertaining and inspiring. . I am sure most people prefer to learn the truth, from all sides of an issue, and don’t like being told how to think or what to do.I assume none of these signatories will seek work at or attend any theatre that doesn’t support their cause, and that is their personal choice.

  3. 250 Palestinians were killed because most of them were terrorists, and because Hamas was wantonly firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Shame on those who signed this petition. Hamas is an explicitly genocidal organization whose goal is to destroy Israel and kill all Jews. Israel is a democratic state that has been unable to make peace with the Palestinians because the Palestinians refuse any peace that doesn’t result in destroying Israel as the world’s ONLY Jewish state. (There are 57 Muslim states including 22 Arab states Israel takes up a tiny fraction of 1% of the Middle East.)

    Israel left Gaza in 2005 and Gaza could have flourished; instead, they took all the money they got and used it for weapons and rickets and tunnels.

  4. I am always amazed by the variety of groups who support initiatives to isolate Israel. For example, the Chinatown Biennial organization is a signatory, yet I see no mention of their support for their fellow Chinese Uyghur’s who are dying in “re-education camps.” The South Asian Visual Arts Centre is also a signatory, yet I see no mention of their distress with India’s own apartheid, i.e., its caste system, which continues to economically and socially separate the lower castes. The Xspace Cultural Centre which is committed to maintaining a queer positive environment, is also a signatory, yet they have nothing to say about the oppression and criminalization of the LGBTI community in Gaza and the West Bank. Nor do any of these groups concern themselves with the Turks killing the Kurds, or the Taliban killings in Afghanistan – the list is endless. Yes, I am amazed at their ability to turn a blind eye to everything but Israel. Why does this blindness exist?

  5. I don’t think the writer of this piece knows what the work colonize means. Jews are the indigenous people of the land and have had a constant presence there for thousands of years. People have a moral obligation to get the facts correct and NOW had an obligation to do the same.

  6. They are entitled to their opinion.To each his own. However , how about seriously boycotting the boycotters from now on, no strings attached.

  7. do these woke artists realize that “from the river to the sea” actually means the removal of all the Jews between those entities. do they realize they legitimize Hamas mandate for the eradication of all Jews
    the settler colonialist rhetoric suggests they ought to vacate colonized Canada if the standard was to be applied to alll, despite the fact that Jews are indigenous. Sanctimonious fools.

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