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Elliot leven


By Elliot Leven, April 15, 2011

Like a bad meal that keeps coming back on you, the drama surrounding Toronto’s Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) continues to make headlines.  QuAIA is a small group that opposes the way Israel treats Palestinians, and likens Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

For those who missed last summer’s fun, Toronto’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community hosts an annual Pride Week, focusing on a huge march in downtown Toronto. The event draws thousands of tourists to the city.  Toronto City Council always provides a few hundred thousand dollars of funding (in cash and kind) to the event.

Pride has always been an informal event, and various volunteer groups have joined the march without restriction. “Kulanu” – a Toronto Jewish LGBT group – has often marched.  In 2009, a small delegation from QuAIA marched without much attention.

In 2010, the shwarma hit the fan.  Some opponents of QuAIA tried to prevent its delegation from marching at Toronto Pride.  QuAIA shrewdly spun the conflict as a battle for freedom of speech.  It was a brilliant tactic. Observers who had never heard of QuAIA and knew little about Israel, instinctively began to defend QuAIA’s freedom of speech.  There was some discussion about how the City of Toronto might pull its funding if QuAIA was allowed to march.  In the end, QuAIA marched, and garnered at least a million dollars of free media coverage for its dubious platform. Also, excited by the publicity, a tiny QuAIA copycat group marched in Edmonton Pride.

Chastened by the events of 2010, the Toronto Pride organizers studied what happened and drew up a reasonable plan for 2011.  A Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) consisting of legal experts was formed.  Well-respected LGBT lawyer Douglas Elliott will chair the DRC.  Disputes about whether a group should be allowed to march in Pride will be adjudicated by the DRC.

Meanwhile, Toronto City staff studied the question of whether a Pride march including QuAIA violates the city’s anti-discrimination policy. They concluded that the term “Israeli apartheid” in and of itself  does not violate the policy.  However, at least one Toronto Councillor still wants to refuse funding for Pride 2011.  The issue will be debated by the Council’s executive committee on April 20, and by the whole Council on May 17.

In a bizarre sideshow, the tiny, militant Jewish Defence League (JDL) is trying to organize a rally outside the offices of Pride Toronto.  A JDL Facebook invitation reads: “During the Nazi era, many high ranking Nazis were gay.”  The statement has been denounced as “stupidity” by Bernie Farber – the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

On March 24, the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) waded into the quagmire with an open letter to Toronto Councillors denouncing QuAIA and insisting that Toronto not fund Pride unless there is a guarantee that QuAIA will not be part of the event.

FSWC followed up its letter with an April 13 news release expressing its disappointment that city staff found that the term “Israeli apartheid” does not violate City policy.  The news release added that the city should not be “bankrolling hate on the streets of Toronto”.  Furthermore, “this precedent will open the flood-gates for discrimination against other groups and peoples at Pride.”

Then, on April 15, QuAIA announced that it would not seek to participate in Pride 2011. Instead, it would hold its own, separate events during Pride Week. “Last year’s struggle was around censorship and our right to march in our community’s Pride parade,” says QuAIA spokesperson Tim McCaskell. “With the City report settling that debate, now is the time for us to move beyond the parade to build our community’s response to Israeli apartheid.”

The irony is that, if no one had objected to QuAIA in 2010, the group might have eventually faded into obscurity. It certainly would not have inspired copycat groups in other Canadian cities.

As I have written in these pages before, some of Israel’s West Bank policies are unjust and discriminatory, but Israel is far from being an apartheid state.  Ironically, Israel is quite progressive (though not perfect) on LGBT issues. Even more ironically, Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors are some of the most virulently anti-LGBT nations in the world.

LGBT Torontonians have every right to stand up for human rights in general. However, it is truly bizarre that, in an LGBT event, the only group to take a stand on any Middle Eastern issue has singled out Israel alone for rhetorical attack.  Though it should improve its West Bank policies, Israel is the best place in the Middle East when it comes to LGBT rights!

If QuAIA holds true to its promise to stay out of Pride 2011, that might solve the immediate problem.  However, if QuAIA changes its mind, my view is that Toronto Pride’s Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) should be given a chance to work.  The City of Toronto should fund Pride.  The Wiesenthal Friends should focus on higher-priority issues at least for one year.  If QuAIA changes its mind and wants to participate in Pride 2011, let the DRC adjudicate the issue. Given its composition, it will certainly hold a fair hearing. Let’s see what happens. 

Other LGBT communities that celebrate Pride should form their own blue-ribbon DRCs to adjudicate any future disputes that might arise.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this will not be the last column that I have to write about the surreal QuAIA saga.

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