Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza

Lazar, Polina and Gita Ersh from Calgary attended the rally in Ottawa on December 4. Photo supplied by the Ersh family.

By Jonathan Rothman, Canadian Jewish News

(CJN) – Thousands of Canadians packed a snowy Parliament Hill on Dec. 4 to support the Jewish people and Israel and call out rising antisemitism and hate directed at Canadian Jewish communities.

Police estimate about 20,000 people attended the Ottawa event, according to a spokesperson for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, one of the organizations that organized the rally.

Speakers included Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger, prominent rabbis, Jewish MPs Melissa Lantsman and Anthony Housefather, Israeli Ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed, and several of social media’s most prominent younger Jewish female voices, including Canadian-Moroccan Jewish lawyer and educator Ysabella Hazan, Ethiopian-Israeli activist Ashager Araro, and American-Israeli personality Lizzy Savetsky.

Several non-Jewish speakers and allies participated in the rally, including MPs Michelle Rempel Garner and Marco Mendicino, former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, and political commentator Rex Murphy. Both Coderre and Murphy expressed admiration and solidarity for the Jewish people, including the words “today I am a Jew” in their remarks.

Families of those held hostage in Israel, or who were killed Oct. 7 in the Hamas attacks, also spoke at the rally, including Raquel Look, the mother of Alexandre Look, who died in the Nova music festival massacre.

“I implore our leaders to support Israel in its mission to destroy Hamas. To seek the immediate release of our hostages, and to restore peace to the region for all people in order to free Israelis and Gazans from terrorism,” she said.

“Please let our son’s sacrifice not be in vain. Please let us honour his memory by standing up against the forces that seek to destroy the Jewish and Canadian values we hold so dear.

“Together as Canadians let’s send a powerful message that we will never tolerate terror. We will not allow Jew hatred to foster in our society. And that we will work tirelessly for a world where every life is valued and every person can live without fear. We will continue to speak up and rally against injustice. May we find strength, unity and peace.”

Oliver Kornblum at the rally for Israel held in Ottawa, Dec. 4, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Kauffman Kornblum)

Ohad Lapidot, the Canadian father of Tiferet Lapidot, who also died in the Nova festival attack, said his daughter “grabbed life with both hands.”

“Our family is determined to keep living 10 times more, and the Jewish community in Canada [is the same way]. The struggle that we fight today is the most justified fight ever.

“In a few days, we would light the Hanukkah candles. Those candles and the Jewish determination will expel the darkness,” he said.

Larry Weinstein, the brother of Judih Weinstein Haggai, the sole Canadian hostage still believed to be held in Gaza, took the mic alongside his daughter Ali. They spoke with The CJN briefly during the rally.

“We really are here in the spirit of my sister, who was a very peace-loving person, who as a teacher, she taught Israeli and Palestinian children together and believed very fervently in harmony,” Larry Weinstein said. “We tend not to be nationalist in any way, no matter what the nationalism is. But on the other hand, we’re very proud of our Jewish heritage. And we’ve never denied that.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to spread the name of my sister. We just want her profile out there so that people recognize her and that the politicians might actually do something in getting her back.”

Ali Weinstein, Judih’s niece, says it’s been difficult to experience the politicization of her aunt being held captive, they believe, as one of the remaining hostages in Gaza.

“It’s been really isolating in many ways to be in the position that we’re in, having a family member so directly affected by this situation, the whole world is up in arms. And, really, we’re just focused on one person, on her life and her well-being.

“And it’s really hard to hold that personal fear and sadness, and anger in a space that has become so incredibly politicized… not being able to just hold on to my aunt and think about her first and foremost. And so, in that sense, it’s nice to be amongst people who care very deeply about the hostages, and their well-being, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Another speaker, Nate Leipciger, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, told The CJN that the show of unity is what matters most.

“We are here together, and we are expressing our indignation… because the world does not realize that Hamas intends to destroy not only the Jewish state, but all the Western culture that has existed for thousands of years. We as people of Israel and from Canada and the United States and all the other free nations must fight them together.”

One of the non-Jewish speakers at the rally, Caroline “Pizza Girl” D’Amore, is a California-based pizza-sauce business owner whose social media profile has risen after calling out antisemitism online.

“There are not enough people speaking up for the Jewish community,” D’Amore told the crowd. Several of the loudest cheers of the day came after such expressions of support from the non-Jewish speakers.

“The people in Israel, murdered, and then the reaction is for people to harass Jewish people in the streets and on college campuses? Are you kidding me? And so many people are silent. This is not about being Jewish for me, obviously. It’s about being human.

“When I received thousands upon thousands of messages of gratitude, I realized it’s because there’s not enough non-Jewish people speaking up.”

People packed Parliament Hill at a rally for Israel and the Jewish people Dec. 4, 2023. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman, Canadian Jewish News).

The unexpected non-appearance of 17 buses on the morning of the rally left UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which hired the buses to transport more than 350 Toronto university and high school students, scrambling to find alternate transportation.

UJA of Greater Toronto, which was one of the Jewish federations that organized the rally, says that the lack of communication from the bus company subcontracted to provide the buses together with the sudden cancellation leads them to believe it was an antisemitic act. UJA is pursuing legal action against the companies involved.

At the rally, placards and signs called for the safe return of the remaining hostages, an end to antisemitism, protection for Canadian Jews, and a firm position against Hamas terrorism.

Many who attended the rally came from Toronto, Montreal or were local to Ottawa. The CJN spoke with attendees including Ruthy Schvalbe from Toronto, who says it was worth it to attend “just to feel the energy” at the rally. A shofar was blown at the start of the program, which included music from Israeli Mizrachi singer Avi Peretz and Cantor Daniel Benlolo, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal.

“I was a little bit nervous. It’s nerve-wracking in general to be a minority in the world and then to be exposed as a minority in the world, like downtown in a major city, and then to come together, with our flags (and)  stand hand, in hand against antisemitism, against hate, against prejudice, and to do that as a community with prayer, with song, with tears, it was incredible.”

Avi, who declined to give his last name, came with his family from Toronto.

“The last number of weeks have been very alarming and frightening for all of us. I don’t know of any Jewish person who isn’t really intimidated, overwhelmed, frightened by the prospects of what we’re seeing. And anytime that we can get together with other Jewish people, we get strength from them and hopefully we’re giving strength to them as well. So, for us, this, coming here, is the place to be.”

As the rally wound down later in the afternoon, a small group of counter-protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered on the sidewalk outside the Parliament grounds. A drawn-out verbal confrontation lasted several minutes, monitored by police, though there were no arrests or violence.

This article was originally published on Canadian Jewish News.

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