Op-ed: The push to stop Israeli military recruitment in Canada

For Canadians shocked and upset by scenes of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) dropping bombs and firing artillery on Gaza, there’s something simple, but important, we can do to make a difference. We can demand that Canadian law be enforced and stop recruitment for the military that is dropping those bombs.

Toronto has long been a hub of recruitment for the Israeli military, the legality of which is finally being challenged in parliament.

Since the 1930s, it has been a crime to recruit anyone for a foreign military or to encourage any person to serve in a foreign military. The Foreign Enlistment 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.”

Despite this, United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto publicized a webinar by Nefesh-B’Nefesh last June titled “Joining the IDF,” which claimed to offer participants “everything you need and want to know about joining the IDF.” On several occasions, the Israeli consulate in Toronto has advertised that they have an IDF representative available for personal appointments for those wishing to join the IDF. In 2019 the consulate announced, “an IDF representative will conduct personal interviews at the Consulate on November 11-14. Young people who wish to enlist… are invited to meet with him.”

At its Toronto office, the Friends of Israel Scouts’ Garin Tzabar program has provided Hebrew lessons and support services, as well as help with transport and accommodation in Israel, for Canadian “lone soldiers” – individuals without family in Israel who join the IDF. Another Toronto-based registered charity, the HESEG Foundation, spent more than $9 million in 2018 supporting lone soldiers sent to Israel. A few months before the pandemic began, 1,000 people attended an Association for the Soldiers of Israel–Canada and Canadian Zionist Cultural Association event in Toronto.

Heschel, Bialik Hebrew, Netivot HaTorah, Bnei Akiva and Leo Baeck promote the IDF in different ways. These schools hold performances by Israeli military bands, organize fundraisers for groups supporting lone soldiers and celebrate the IDF in other ways. They feed students to TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto’s largest private high school, which organizes fundraisers for Israeli military initiatives and holds regular “IDF days.” As the kids move through high school, former and current Israeli soldiers talk to them about the IDF, which sometimes appears as part of the Israeli consulate’s recruitment drives.

While the number of Torontonians in the Israeli military is constantly in flux, the number is usually in the dozens. At least 25 volunteers from the GTA fought in Gaza during Israel’s 22-day 2008/2009 assault that left some 1,400 Palestinians dead. During the 2014 attack on Gaza that left 2,200 Palestinians dead, the National Post reported on a Toronto support group for Parents of Lone Soldiers. According to IDF statistics, about 200 Canadians are usually in the Israeli military with most of them likely from Toronto.

Torontonians have been fighting to dispossess Palestinians for a long time. In his autobiography Dual Allegiance, Ben Dunkleman – the heir to Toronto-based Tip Top Tailors and the main Canadian recruiter for the IDF’s predecessor – claimed “about one thousand” Canadians “fought to establish Israel.” About 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in the 1948 war.

After three quarters of a century of recruitment for the Israeli military in Toronto, finally there’s an organized effort to stop it. 

In October, Noam Chomsky, Roger Waters, Yann Martel and more than 150 others added their names to an open letter calling on the federal government to apply charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act against those recruiting Canadians for the Israeli military.

In a significant boost to the multifaceted campaign, Rabbi David Mivasair and NDP MP Matthew Green recently launched a parliamentary petition calling for an investigation into IDF recruitment in Canada. It calls upon the Minister of Justice “to undertake a thorough investigation of those who have recruited or facilitated recruiting for the Israel Defense Forces, and, if warranted, lay charges against those involved in recruiting and encouraging recruiting for the IDF.” 

To date, the petition has already received more than 2,400 signatures – four times the number required to be presented in the House of Commons.

It’s long past time to stop Toronto’s direct complicity in violence against Palestinians.

Yves Engler is the author of 11 books. His latest is House Of Mirrors – Justin Trudeau’s Foreign Policy


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