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NDP candidate Sarah Jama is facing calls by Jewish organization B’nai Brith to step down and apologize for past comments about Israel and previous support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.Peter Power/The Canadian Press

The race to replace former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath in a Hamilton by-election on Thursday has morphed into accusations of anti-Semitism against the front-runner while others say she is simply standing up for Palestinian rights.

NDP candidate Sarah Jama, a disability and civic justice activist, has faced calls by Jewish organization B’nai Brith to step down and apologize for past comments about Israel and previous support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes economic sanctions against Israel.

The controversy at Queen’s Park has overshadowed the race to replace Ms. Horwath, who resigned as NDP leader last year after representing the riding for 15 years. Ms. Horwath is now the mayor of Hamilton, a city of over half a million people west of Toronto.

It is also the first test of new NDP Leader Marit Stiles in managing the diverse views of her caucus, while her party takes on Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government as the spring budget approaches.

In a 2021 video now circulating online, Ms. Jama speaks about Hamilton police protecting “Nazism” and targeting Black Muslim Palestinians, and suggests Israel is funding the killing of people globally and locally. She has also expressed support for BDS, which has been called anti-Semitic by Jewish groups and condemned by Conservative and Liberal politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ms. Jama cancelled an interview with The Globe and Mail and other publications this week. In a statement, Ms. Jama’s campaign said she was invited to the rally to speak about Palestinian rights and to connect issues of systemic police violence in Ontario with the same issue in Israel.

“As a well-known community activist, Sarah has spoken on issues ranging from the rights of Palestinians to racial and disability justice, policing and economic inequality,” said spokesperson Shirven Rezvany. “Her participation at these events does not amount to an endorsement of the words of every other speaker or the position of other participating organizations.”

Ms. Stiles, who has defended Ms. Jama for weeks, on Tuesday told reporters that Ms. Jama has spoken “very passionately” about policing and human rights.

“I think Sarah is speaking up on behalf of a lot of her constituents every day and is known to be a strong advocate against violence and racism,” Ms. Stiles said. “We’ve all ended up at rallies and stuff, where maybe she didn’t use the right choice of words.”

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Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles questions the government as the legislature resumes at Queen's Park in Toronto on Feb. 21.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ms. Jama, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, co-founded the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, and also ran a civic leadership program to help Black and racialized youth.

But B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said Ms. Jama’s past support for BDS is anti-Semitic, because it singles out, delegitimizes and demonizes the world’s only Jewish state, Israel.

“Demonizing of the state of Israel then leads to demonization of individual Jewish Canadians,” he said. “That’s why this movement is anti-Semitic, that’s why this movement is hateful, that’s why this movement causes harm for the Jewish community. And that’s why we don’t think it’s appropriate for people that want to stand as elected members … to support movements like that.”

He added that he’s “not impressed” with how Ms. Stiles has handled the issue so far.

Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, said the episode amounts to a “smear campaign” against Ms. Jama.

“I think that Sarah Jama is being completely unfairly targeted and by extension the entire Palestine solidarity movement, unfortunately,” he said.

A group called Independent Jewish Voices has also expressed support for Ms. Jama.

The NDP has historically dominated Hamilton Centre. Ms. Horwath won the seat with more than 65-per-cent support in 2018, and with 57 per cent in 2022. The Progressive Conservatives placed a distant second, followed closely by the Liberals. Progressive Conservative candidate Pete Wiesner, a police officer now on leave, also declined an interview request through a PC party spokeswoman.

Liberal candidate Deirdre Pike sees an opportunity now that Ms. Horwath has stepped aside. Ms. Pike, an equity trainer and columnist who has worked on social justice issues for 40 years, was herself an NDP supporter until 2017. She says the top issue in the riding is homelessness.

She believes people have been hurt by Ms. Jama’s previous comments.

“I do think that the things that she said have clearly been identified as anti-Semitic, and that Jewish people here and beyond have identified that as so. And I stand with them.”

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