Amnesty International may have released a report last week heaping scorn on the Israeli military for crimes against humanity, but you would certainly never know it at Sunday's (May 29) annual Walk with Israel.
Participants converge at Toronto's lakeside Coronation Park from 9 am onwards, greeted by clusters of volunteer salespeople draped in large Israeli flags, offering hand-held flags for a small sum.
T.O. police Chief Bill Blair leads the parade, which boasts the attendance of a range of top public officials: federal Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day, provincial Conservative leader John Tory and Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, a member of a prominent caucus group called Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel.
At the request of the organizers, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), two official military reps from the Israeli armed forces attend, having spent the week hosting a series of teach-ins for children at local day schools and canvassing the community, event co-chair Sara Zagdanski tells NOW.
Aside from the Israeli Defence Force representatives, scores of demonstrators, ranging from preteens to seniors, sport a variety of Israeli army paraphernalia. As the morning wears on, the crowd becomes more and more densely peppered with Israeli flags, and Chief Blair takes the stage to praise "the great state of Israel."
First recounting his trip to Israel as part of the Ontario Police Security Personnel Mission - during which he joined Julian Fantino and others in studying security and anti-terrorism tactics - T.O.'s top cop then makes a public foray into the history of the region. As "a brave and resilient people,' Blair explains, Israelis "carved a beautiful society out of a desert.'
Directly adjacent to the centre stage at Coronation Park, children play in an elaborate inflated playpen. A giant caricature of a rocket with three thick, square-foot letters - U.S.A. - printed vertically on its side protrudes from the playpen's main structure. During their games, children try not to lose the glossy "passports" that hang around their necks. These necklaces are stamped at each of the four "checkpoints" along the march route to Ontario Place.
Asked about the apparent reference to the checkpoints regulating people's movements in Israel/Palestine, UJA spokesperson Taali Lester Tollman denies any connection. The rationale behind these checkpoints, she explains, is simply to provide children with "free ice cream, free water and other refreshments."
The walk is in its entirety "a purely apolitical event [organized] to bring out the Jewish and non-Jewish community to raise money" for Israel and the UJA's local activities, she says. According to the UJA, the day accomplishes precisely that, to the tune of an estimated $350,000.
But to some members of the Jewish community the event is also an attempt to normalize Israeli militarism and the exclusion of Palestinians while glossing over Israeli human rights abuses. The Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO) maintains a silent vigil near the walk's third checkpoint, holding banners that read "End the Occupation" and "End Israeli Apartheid."
JWCEO member Esther Vise says picketers have been taunted as traitors, and a half-dozen different male marchers have mimed shooting the picketers as they pass by, using their index fingers.
At the final count, minus the protestors, nearly 3,000 are in attendance, with reps from the Canadian political establishment in tow.
But the public at large does not support the UJA's message. According to a study released in early 2005 by the Canada-Israel Committee, a member organization of the UJA, less than half of Canadians surveyed (42 per cent) consider Israel a democratic state. And while an overwhelming 83 per cent think Ottawa should be neutral in the conflict, 32 per cent feel Canadian policy is biased against the Palestinians.
For the purposes of the Sunday festivities, these concerns are comfortably shifted to the back of people's minds. Rocket-launching playpens, ice cream checkpoints, photographed handshakes with Israeli soldiers - a good day's fun, capped off by the image of Toronto's police chief standing at attention and saluting Israel's national anthem.
If those involved really cared about fighting racism, says JWCEO's Naomi Binder Wall, their energies would be directed elsewhere. "In places like North America and Israel, it's not Jews who are being held in prisons without trial, deported, imprisoned at Guantánamo or targeted for systemic persecution by Homeland Security-type legislation."