Canada: Raids, arrests and smears ramp up against Palestine solidarity activists

December 1, 2023
bloody hands over logo
Bookstore chain Indigo has been the target of boycotts for years over its CEO's support for 'Lone soldiers' in the Israeli Defence Forces.

Police have escalated their surveillance, intimidation and criminalisation of Palestine solidarity activists in Canada, raiding activists’ homes and treating expressions of solidarity with Palestinians as “hate crimes”.

Toronto police raided the homes of activists in the early morning of November 22, and made 10 arrests in relation to a Palestine solidarity action held at a local bookstore. Police broke down doors and seized mobile phones and laptops. Children and elderly family members were handcuffed and traumatised. Police allegedly did not identify themselves in all cases.

These raids raise a disturbing spectre of police-state suppression of dissent. There have also been several high-profile efforts by police to repress Palestine solidarity actions by weaponising hate crimes charges.

Why the bookstore was targeted

At the action at Indigo Books, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, red paint symbolising blood was poured on the store’s windows and sidewalk. Posters featuring an image of the company’s CEO Heather Reisman alongside the words “Funding Genocide” were pasted up on doors and windows.

Indigo has been the target of boycotts for years. Reisman and her husband Gerry Schwartz, who control 68% of the company’s assets, established the HESEG Foundation, which provides academic scholarships and stipends to foreigners (known as “Lone Soldiers”) who serve with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

The bookshop action sparked a hate-motivated mischief investigation. Mainstream media articles quoted Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) President and CEO Michael Levitt, who labelled the action “a vile antisemitic attack”. It was not.

According to Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME): “Each year, the HESEG foundation rewards hundreds of “Lone Soldiers” with more than CA$3 million worth of scholarships for further academic studies in Israel.

Reisman and Schwartz, by means of Indigo Books and Music Incorporated, indirectly support Israel military efforts in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, said CJPME. Unlike Israeli citizens, Lone Soldiers willingly volunteer to participate in Israel’s occupation forces.

The 10 arrestees were charged with one count of mischief over CA$5,000 and one count of conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.

Toronto police said: “The investigation remains ongoing and is being treated as a suspected hate-motivated offence.”

The Jews Say No to Genocide Coalition said in a statement describing the traumatic arrests and heavy-handed actions by police: “Today’s arrests are a clear effort by police to target and repress Palestine Solidarity activists even as the majority of people in Canada are calling for a ceasefire.

“Police burst into people’s homes in the middle of the night, traumatized children, and handcuffed elderly parents all for allegedly putting up posters exposing Indigo founder Heather Reisman’s financial support for Israeli war crimes. But we will not be silenced, solidarity actions will continue.

“Denouncing Reisman and her actions is neither anti-semitism nor a hate crime. The crime is trying to silence and criminalize any form of solidarity with Palestinians. We will not be silent as a genocide rages on in our name”

‘Hate crime’ smear

Police investigations of solidarity actions as hate crimes are transparently spurious efforts to chill and silence solidarity activists. As I reported recently, this includes the arrest of Palestinian solidarity protest organiser, Wesam Khaled in Calgary simply for saying: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Khaled was later released and the charges against him dropped.

Only a few days before the raids and arrests of the bookshop protesters, the Toronto police hate crimes unit arrested and charged 25-year-old Skigh Johnson for allegedly putting up signs and graffiti which read “blood on your hands” and “free Palestine” on a Starbucks. Police later clarified that while Johnson was charged with mischief interference with the enjoyment of property, the incident is not being investigated as hate motivated. Regardless, the damage has already been done with hate unit involvement and mainstream media reportage.

The mainstream media again turned to Levitt, who publicly thanked police for their “fast response” and “for all they’ve been doing to keep the Jewish community safe and protected in recent weeks”. This action, though, was in line with broader boycott calls against Starbucks for its support for the IDF and was not targetting the Jewish community.

CTV Montreal News anchor, Mutsumi Takahashi referred to posters that were put up around Montreal metro stations on November 14, calling for a ceasefire, as “pro-Hamas”. Once again, coverage excluded Palestinian voices. Community pushback prompted CTV Montreal’s Director of News and Public Affairs to state that “it was an error to label the metro station posters as ‘pro-Hamas’” and to pull the newscast from their website.

Once again, the Montreal police hate crimes unit initially led the investigation into the postering. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante joined the charge, denouncing the “unacceptable acts” and implying these were acts of hate “that undermine people’s sense of security”. In her words, “Peace and kindness are more constructive avenues than hatred, which we must continue to denounce vigorously.”

Posters reading “Genocide in Palestine, Canada complicit” and graffiti calling for a ceasefire are not hate crimes, as much as the Canadian state that supports Israel wants to say they are.

Police across the country have taken advantage of these incidents to expand their resources and reach. Toronto police have expanded its Hate Crime unit from 6 to 20 investigators and 8 district special constables. Police have also launched online tools to encourage people to report allegedly “hate-motivated” graffiti. Graffiti that supports Palestinian resistance is most likely to be targeted.

The police forces leading the so-called “hate-crime” investigations have their own histories of connection with Israeli security forces. We must always ask how this might influence them.

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