The campaign to smear pro-Palestine protests


Michael DeForge

In mid-february 2024, one story dominated the Canadian news cycle: pro-Palestine protesters in Toronto supposedly targeting a Jewish hospital, Mount Sinai. Outlets played footage of a man in a Spider-Man costume scaling scaffolding above the hospital’s emergency entrance. A reporter spoke of “masked protesters, many of them calling for intifada,” who “jumped on the hospital” and “many other incidents of antisemitism.” (Intifada is an Arabic word for an uprising to end oppression.) An emergency physician, Raghu Venugopal, told CBC that protesters had “roughed up” security guards and forced their way into the hospital.

Politicians across the electoral spectrum and at all levels of government raced to denounce the protest. New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh stated in no uncertain terms that “the Mount Sinai Hospital was targeted because of its ties to the Jewish community in Toronto.” Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau called the demonstration “reprehensible,” “strongly condemn[ing] this display of antisemitism” and saying that Canada “stand[s] with Jewish communities against this hate.” Toronto’s much-lauded progressive mayor, Olivia Chow, said that “[t]argeting Jewish institutions is antisemitic and hate has no place in our city.” 

But no protest of Mount Sinai Hospital ever took place. Rather, an emergency “Hands off Rafah!” action that day demanded that Israel stop an incursion that had already killed over 70 people.

Bonnie Crombie, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, gave the most dramatic account, saying she was “torn up by the accounts of protestors infiltrating Mount Sinai Hospital, intimidating Jewish patients and doctors, and threatening our already weakened healthcare system.” She “condemn[ed] these indefensible acts and urge[d] governments to deploy the resources necessary to ensure our communities can be safe and welcoming to Jews and all people who call Ontario home.” The Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN), which represents Mount Sinai Hospital and 14 other health care institutions, “unequivocally denounce[d] this display of antisemitism and all forms of racism” and assured staff that the network was “continuing to work alongside local law enforcement.” Deborah Lyons, the special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, announced that she would “be calling Toronto’s Mayor and Chief of Police […] to discuss how they will put a stop to this despicable targeting and attempted intimidation of […] Jews across Toronto and Canada.” 

But no protest of Mount Sinai Hospital ever took place. Rather, Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and Toronto4Palestine (T4P) had called an emergency “Hands off Rafah!” action that day to demand that Israel stop an incursion that had already killed over 70 people. The march’s route followed that of many other Toronto protests, passing by a row of hospitals only incidentally. Yet removed from that context, a 21-second clip of protesters marching past Mount Sinai Hospital from that nearly four-hour protest was spun into a national news story about a movement to “destabiliz[e] the safety and security of Jewish people living in Ontario.”

The gulf between what happened at the “Hands off Rafah!” demonstration and its representation in the public sphere is far from a one-off incident. Since October 2023, media and politicians have portrayed pro-Palestine protests as “violent” “roving mobs,” “openly cheering for terrorism in Canada.” By characterizing anti-Zionism as “hateful” and conflating the state of Israel with Jewish identity, the press has shifted the narrative from the genocide of Palestinians to a growing crisis of “[a]nti-Israel hate marches holding [Canadians] hostage.”

Framing anti-colonial protest as antisemitism

The story about the so-called protest of Mount Sinai Hospital falls apart with just a little digging. Zionists, media, and politicians manufactured it out of just two main pieces of supposed evidence: a short video clip of protesters outside a hospital emergency entrance and an interview with an emergency physician employed at Mount Sinai who gives only a second-hand account of the events he alleges to CBC.

The clip depicted a crowd stopped on the street in front of the hospital as proof of the protest. In actuality, they had paused at the intersection for only about 15 to 20 minutes. This was, as David Gray-Donald reported in The Grind, about the same amount of time they spent at other intersections, a standard practice to allow for chants and speeches while ensuring marchers at the back are not left behind.

The emergency entrance that Venugopal, Crombie, and others alleged that protesters interfered with had closed at 6 p.m., around two hours before the march passed by. The only proof that outlets shared of protesters obstructing patient care and assaulting security guards was the conversation that Venugopal claimed to have had with hospital security. No other evidence has since emerged of protesters going into the building or interacting with hospital staff or patients trying to enter.

As for the man dressed in a Spider-Man costume, known as “Spiderman4Palestine,” he had climbed at least eight structures across the city during that march. Protesters frequently scale tall structures at pro-Palestine marches, waving their flags from lofty vantage points. Spiderman4Palestine is especially adept – he had climbed multiple lampposts, a statue, a traffic light post, the top of a building, and multiple other sites in addition to the hospital scaffolding, in the span of just a few hours. 

Spiderman4Palestine climbed at least eight structures during the Hands Off Rafah! rally, including a lamp post, a building, and the entrance to Mount Sinai Hospital. Source: Spiderman4Palestine Instagram.

On the same day that media and politicians manufactured a frenzy around this mischaracterized protest, Israel had attacked health-care infrastructure in Gaza. Overnight, Israel ramped up its attacks on the over 1.4 million Palestinians in Rafah, most of them displaced from their homes to the north. The Israeli occupation forces (IOF) launched air strikes on hospitals, houses, and mosques, killing dozens of people. Conspicuously, none of the aforementioned politicians who had condemned the mischaracterized protest released statements on Israel’s attacks. Instead, politicians and media in Canada invented a hate-fuelled mob to denounce. Like his namesake, Spiderman4Palestine was singled out and vilified by the media. National Post staff joined social media users to call for arrests, with Spiderman4Palestine’s photo front and centre.

As of March 2024, the Toronto police has made “24 protest-related arrests and laid 30 charges in response to threats, assaults and mischief” since October 7. All arrests but one were against pro-Palestine demonstrators.

The march’s organizers, Palestinian Youth Movement and Toronto4Palestine, along with groups Jews Say No To Genocide and Health Workers Alliance for Palestine, published an open letter asking TAHSN for a retraction and apology for the public statement demonizing their protest. In that letter, they expressed their horror at how TAHSN leaders “target people […] for calling for the protection of human rights and safety for the people of Gaza” but remain “silent while more than 400 health workers, including paramedics, nurses and physicians, have been killed by Israel.” At the time of writing, TAHSN has still not corrected their false statements or apologized, and neither have Singh, Trudeau, Chow, Crombie, or Lyons.

The same sequence has played out on repeat since October 2023: protesters call for an end to genocide and Zionist occupation, Zionists claim the protest is antisemitic, and then media outlets and politicians repeat Zionists’ claims while disregarding the protest’s demands.

One of the earliest examples of this narrative shift was back in November 2023, a little over a month after Israel began this wave of genocidal attacks on Gaza. On November 10, the IOF bombed four hospitals in Gaza, including a yard at the al-Shifa Hospital complex where thousands of displaced people had taken refuge, killing multiple people. But in Canada, media and politicians were preoccupied with a different story: a so-called “hate-motivated,” “vile, anti-semitic attack” of a downtown Toronto Indigo storefront. 

By characterizing anti-Zionism as “hateful” and conflating the state of Israel with Jewish identity, the press has shifted the narrative from the genocide of Palestinians to a growing crisis of “[a]nti-Israel hate marches holding [Canadians] hostage.”

The night of November 9, the storefront was wheat-pasted with posters and splashed with red paint. The posters, in a design parodying Indigo’s own branding, featured a portrait of Indigo CEO Heather Reisman with the words “Funding Genocide.” Reisman is the co-founder of the HESEG Foundation, which encourages non-Israeli citizens to enlist in the IOF by paying for their tuition and expenses if they stay in Israel to study after their term in the IOF. Protesters against Israeli apartheid have targeted the Indigo franchise with boycotts and rallies since as far back as 2006.

Global News, CBC, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, along with tabloids, published quotes that likened the action to Kristallnacht, a pogrom on November 9 and 10, 1938, in Germany and its annexed territories in which fascist paramilitaries attacked Jewish people, destroying their homes, synagogues, and businesses. Most of those articles pulled the comparison directly from the press release of the pro-Israel organization Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center which, according to their website, “works to build a more inclusive and respectful Canada by sharing the lessons of the Holocaust, advocating for human rights and combatting antisemitism and hate in all its forms.”

The cover of the Toronto Sun's November 24, 2023 issue

A few days after the posters went up, before dawn on November 22, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) raided the homes of multiple veteran activists of Toronto social movements, alleging that they had defaced the Indigo storefront. The arrests became a front-page story in the Toronto Sun, which showcased photos of 7 of the 11 accused along with the words “vile anti-Semitic vandalism.” Inside its pages, it printed details of the arrestees’ workplaces, social media profiles, and organizing affiliations. Through their coverage of the protest, the media turned those 11 people, into faces of the “rise of hate” since October 7.

Though the accused are presumed innocent under the law, outstanding charges and extensive media coverage can affect an accused person’s employment prospects, citizenship applications, and mobility across borders for years to come. The accused, who supporters call the Peace-11, are part of a growing number of people arrested for protesting the genocide of Palestinians. As of March 2024, the TPS claims to “have made 24 protest-related arrests and laid 30 charges in response to threats, assaults and mischief” since October 7. All arrests but one, by my count, were against pro-Palestine demonstrators. I also found that the Toronto police had made a total of 47 arrests related to Palestine or Israel protests at the time of the TPS’s statement, of which at least 39 were of pro-Palestine protesters.

The numbers corroborate what people in the movement for Palestinian liberation already know: police enforcement has overwhelmingly targeted Palestinians, Arabs, and their supporters. 

The TPS has presented this crackdown on Palestine solidarity as a campaign against “hate” in the city. Every few weeks, news comes out of more protest-related arrests, which frequently involve the use of the Hate Crime Unit and allegations of “hate motivation.” Though legally meaningless at this stage in an investigation, the TPS’s liberal use of “hate” sets reporters up to propagandize for them. Just a casual mention of a “hate-crime investigation” in an article about a protest will lead a reader to certain assumptions, even in the absence of any further information.

Of all those arrests, the TPS has charged only one person with a hate offence, a man they accused of inacting hate by flying the flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The arrest, which Chief Myron Demkiw himself announced at a news conference, set off a wave of articles that named the arrestee and suggested that he promoted terrorism. That one charge turned out to have, by the prosecutor’s own admission, no reasonable prospect of conviction. Lawyer Shane Martínez, who represented the accused, criticized the TPS for unnecessarily publishing his client’s identity. He asked the public to “consider how anti-Palestinian discrimination is manifesting within the Toronto Police, whether the Hate Crimes Unit is being deployed in a politicized manner, and how millions of dollars spent on over-policing demonstrations could be better invested in the community.”

“Hate,” as the PFLP case shows, has been a powerful asset for the Canadian state’s narrative building. Police needed a way to justify their violent crackdowns on pro-Palestine protests and the amount they’re surveilling protesters. The “hate” angle allows the police to claim their attacks on protest are actually part of their fight against “hate.”

Alongside that is “faithwashing,” the framing of Palestine as a religious conflict between Muslims and Jewish people as opposed to a struggle against settler colonialism. The institutionalization of anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism through the war on terror has set the groundwork for bad-faith instrumentalization of Jewish identity.

Portraying a protest as “unacceptable” or an act of “hate” begs the question of enforcement, which always comes down to the police.

Zionist organizations like the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and B’nai Brith insist that protests are “legitimate threat[s] to public safety.” They push for further criminalization in order to protect a singular, politically homogeneous Jewish community. Where they see police as too permissive, they advocate for more criminal laws and restrictions on protest. They frequently evoke racist tropes about “Palestinian terrorism” for that purpose.

Elected officials use the same talking points. For example, in October 2023, Chow characterized a pro-Palestine rally as being in “support of terror” and “[g]lorifying […] murder and kidnapping of women and children.” The alignment of politicians’ rhetoric and that of pro-Israel groups is, to some extent, the result of political pressure, as with Chow’s vote in favour of the proposed police budget. But the rhetorical similarity stems from Canadian politicians and Zionists more fundamental shared interest in maintaining settler-colonial order. Both Canada and Israel are genocidal state-building projects whose legitimacy depends on the elimination of the peoples indigenous to the land they occupy.

When members of Eglinton-Lawrence + Don Valley West 4 Palestine confronted Chow about police violence against pro-Palestine protesters in March 2024, she said, “I don’t direct the police.” In the most literal sense, this is true – under the law, politicians cannot simply tell officers who they should or should not arrest. But the state’s repressive forces work in tandem with other political actors to legitimize the crackdown on Palestine solidarity. Statements in the public sphere shape public opinion and police response. Portraying a protest as “unacceptable” or an act of “hate” begs the question of enforcement, which always comes down to the police. Every denunciation, then, is in effect a call for more police investigations, more criminal charges, more early-morning house raids, and lasting trauma to be inflicted upon individuals, families, and communities for challenging colonial domination.

“Yet we persist”

“Whose land? Our land!” over a thousand people chant in downtown Toronto at a march to commemorate Land Day on March 30, 2024. The day commemorates the anniversary of a general strike, when thousands of Palestinians protested the Israeli government’s plan to confiscate 4,900 acres of Palestinian land in 1976. For its 48th anniversary, protesters marched to demand the right of return for Palestinians and an end to Zionist aggression. “We will take our land back and we will free Palestine,” they promised.

According to a protester in attendance, the TPS harassed attendees from the very start. Following increased scrutiny in past weeks, police initially refused to let through the truck that carried the organizers’ sound system, insisting the truck posed a safety concern, and caused over a half-hour delay, the protester recalls. From there, they say the TPS took over the march’s direction, blocking off some streets and forcing the crowd down others. Around 5 p.m., using multiple lines of officers and their vehicles, the police again brought it all to a halt. This time, they boxed the crowd in from all sides, where they would remain for over an hour and a half.

The first arrest that day, according to Gur Tsabar of Jews Say No to Genocide, was a passerby heading home. Tsabar, at a press conference, described police “brutally slamming [the man] to the ground,” then more officers piling onto his body. Not long after, the TPS, intent on seizing the truck, demanded that the driver come out of the crowd and then arrested them. From there, the demonstration descended into violent mayhem – all of it caused by the police. Tsabar recounted how officers “grabb[ed] people every which possible way, including by the neck.” Another arrestee has talked about how police tackled attendees, piling onto their bodies and crushing the air out of their lungs. He reported that police restrained him so aggressively that they knocked out his hearing aid and then stepped on it. At one point, the TPS even rode horses through the crowd, which included families and disabled people. As Tsabar shared, multiple people “had to be sent to the hospital.”

“We are building power in the streets across communities, and [the state] is scrambling to try to figure out how to stifle that.” 

Rawan Habib, an organizer with the PYM’s Toronto chapter, isn’t surprised by the police aggression that their protests are facing. She explains that “all of the tactics that Israel deploys against our people back home in Palestine are shared tactics that Indigenous people have experienced here in Canada. We see those tactics manifest in the way that they try to repress our movements and our organizing in the streets.”

On the Monday morning after Land Day, PYM and T4P held a press conference. In front of media and supporters, community members still recovering from assaults spoke powerfully about their unshaken resolve to end the genocide in Palestine. 

But CP24 broadcasted a very different story to Torontonians. News anchor Beatrice Vaisman reported that “despite the fact that protesters accuse them of police brutality, [the TPS] have not received any reports of any injuries,” and characterized the events instead as an “escalation in tensions between the two groups.” Speaking to the camera from the site of the conference, she quoted Toronto city councillor James Pasternak as saying that “police have shown tremendous restraint in their interactions with protesters.” In the background, protesters chanted “from the river to the sea,” a call for Palestinian independence and freedom from Zionist oppression from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. As they did so, Vaisman smiled, gesturing at the crowd behind her, and said instead that the phrase is “often viewed as an antisemitic message.”

“We’re going to be met with extreme force at the hands of TPS [and] extreme villainization from [the] media and politicians. Yet we persist, and we will continue to persist in our organizing.”

In those short segments, police attempt to discredit community members who allege that the TPS was violent by publicizing the lack of formal complaints. Politicians make light of that violence while insinuating that a much harsher response would still have been reasonable. The media then bundles these claims together and disseminates them alongside accusations of antisemitism, a framing that deters the story’s audience from sympathizing with the victims.

Reporting like Vaisman’s shows “the way that the media acts as a tool of settler colonialism, manufacturing consent for this genocide despite the masses in the streets saying the exact opposite,” says Habib. Legacy media and elected representatives, with their allegiances to Canadian settler colonialism and imperialism, will continue to oppose the movement for Palestinian liberation. When I ask Habib about how she and other PYM organizers navigate the attacks on them, she acknowledges that “we’re experiencing violence across the board, in so many various forms.” It takes the form of targeting by the police, but also smear campaigns by the media and intimidation by Zionists in the streets. But she grounds herself in the strength of the movement and the urgency of their fight. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “We’re going to be met with extreme force at the hands of TPS [and] extreme villainization from [the] media and politicians. Yet we persist, and we will continue to persist in our organizing.”

“No matter what we face from anyone, whether it’s the state or Zionists or the media or just haters, we will continue to persist in our organizing.” 

To Habib, that the state is cracking down so hard on the movement for Palestinian liberation shows that it “sees the way that we are building power in the streets across communities, and it is scrambling to try to figure out how to stifle that.” The TPS themselves have said recently that “the speed and flow of protests is changing,” “requir[ing] us to pivot our response to make sure that [it] can also be rapid” — a tacit admission that they may be struggling to keep up. For all that the state tries to drive people into fear and isolation, it is failing at that goal.

“We have the utmost responsibility to organize against the Canadian state,” Habib affirms. “All these settler-colonial states move as one to support one another and fight to ensure that imperialism wins.” For those reasons, “the state will never act in our favour. It is there to protect capital; it is there to protect private property; it is there to protect the interests of a settler-colonial state.” 

Habib says that politicians, media, and Zionists smearing anti-genocide activists won’t slow the movement down. She and other PYM organizers remain steadfast in their fight to end Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid. “No matter what we face from anyone, whether it’s the state or Zionists or the media or just haters, we will continue to persist in our organizing.” 

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