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By Elliot Leven, June 25, 2010

In a previous issue of the Winnipeg Jewish Review, I reported on the bizarre saga of Toronto’s Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).  This small group marched with a banner in last year’s Toronto Pride march (an annual event for gays and lesbians), and drew virtually no media attention.

The saga really began when a Toronto, gay Jew began a one-man crusade to ban QuAIA from this year’s Toronto Pride march.  Toronto Pride relies heavily on funding from the City of Toronto.  So he focused his attention on Toronto politicians. 

Afraid of losing city funding, the Toronto Pride Committee announced that it would ban QuAIA from the 2010 Pride march.  That’s when the drama really began.

Suddenly QuAIA had a soapbox and an issue – free speech.  They cleverly branded their opponents as “pro-censorship”.  The issue was no longer whether or not the word “apartheid” applies to Israel.  The issue was now freedom of expression versus censorship.

Once the issue had been framed in that way, many gay and lesbian Torontonians (most of whom had never given any thought to the merits of Israeli government policies) joined QuAIA to defend freedom of speech.  The media picked up on the controversy.  Among other media outlets, The National Post ran several articles about the issue.

Finally, the Toronto Pride Committee (which had never anticipated the furor) announced on June 23 that it would back down and allow any group to participate in the march as long as it signed the City of Toronto’s Declaration of Non-Discrimination policy.  Then each group could police its own compliance with that policy.  Essentially, QuAIA won.  The group will be able to sign the policy, participate in Pride, and police itself.

As I have written before, I don’t think Israel is an apartheid state, although some of its policies in the West Bank do partially resemble some of South Africa’s old apartheid policies.  Furthermore, Israel’s shortcomings pale in comparison to those of its Middle Eastern neighbours, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Finally, it is the height of irony that a group of Canadian gays and lesbians should single out Israel as the only country that deserves criticism.  Though Israel is not perfect, it is far easier to be openly gay or lesbian in Israel than in any Arab country, Iran, the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Having said that, I think that those who tried to ban QuAIA from Toronto Pride are guilty of unbelievably foolish tactics.  There is an old saying: “never give a crackpot a free soapbox.”  I understand that some Torontonians were annoyed to see a few QuAIA activists in last year’s Pride march.  Occasional annoyance is the price we pay for living in a freewheeling democracy.  Most Torontonians were completely oblivious to QuAIA’s existence.

Giving a small group like QuAIA a free soapbox, a million dollars of free publicity, and a cause like freedom of speech, was the worst tactical approach possible.  It turned a small insignificant group into high-profile martyrs.  Now they are the heroes of free speech, and they are being emulated in other cities like Edmonton (where a new QuAIA group marched in this year’s Edmonton Pride march).

Let this be a lesson to all those who love Israel and want to defend it from unfair criticism.  In short, good intentions are no substitute for smart tactics

If I lived in Toronto, I would quickly gather a group of gay friends, paint a banner saying “Queers Against Iranian Bigotry” or “Queers Against Saudi Bigotry” and march under that banner in the Pride march.  What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  We would alert the media to our banner and, when approached by reporters, would give them punchy sound-bites about how badly Iran (or Saudi Arabia) treats its gay citizens.  We would also mention that it is much easier to be gay or lesbian in Israel than in any other part of the Middle East.

Now that the issue has exploded, it won’t go away for a long time.  I am sure we will hear more about QuAIA in the future.




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