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Police officers stand in line to separate protesters supporting Palestine from a small group of Israel supporters in front of city hall in Toronto, Ontario on May 15, 2021.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

In one sense there is nothing new about the demonstrations that roiled the streets in Canadian cities on the weekend, which led in some cases to confrontations between Palestinian supporters and supporters of Israel. We are mostly a country of immigrants, and every wave brings the troubles of the world with them: English versus Irish; Protestant versus Catholic; European background versus Asian background. Usually, after a generation or two, the grievances and the prejudices fade.

But antisemitism and Islamophobia are stubborn curses. They seem impossible to eradicate. Both appeared to be present in the weekend protests. The Hamas rockets raining down on Israel, and Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza in retaliation prompted demonstrations in favour of the rights of Palestinians and in favour of the right of Israel to defend itself. In some cases, the demonstrations led to clashes and alleged assaults.

“Whenever there are protests or large groups of people coming together, you will inevitably have bigots on both sides,” Shireen Salti, executive director of the Canadian Arab Institute, said in an interview. “They are not welcome, nor are they accepted. It is simply a distraction. It takes attention away from what most Arab Canadians wish to be talking about.”

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For Ms. Salti, the rights of Palestinians are bound up within the larger movement for social justice. “The fight for social justice includes queer rights, Palestinian human rights, tackling anti-Arab racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism,” she said.

But for Melissa Lantsman, the principal concern is the right of Jewish residents in Thornhill, a suburban community just north of Toronto, to feel safe on the streets. That safety is violated, she said in an interview, if the reports she heard of people driving around in Jewish neighbourhoods waving the Palestinian flag are true. She considers such activities plainly antisemitic.

York Regional Police did not respond to requests for information on reports of possible provocations in Thornhill on the weekend.

Ms. Lantsman is the federal Conservative candidate in the riding, which has a large Jewish population and which the former journalist Peter Kent held for the Conservatives for more than a decade, before he decided to retire.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety in the community,” she said. “People feel unsafe.” At the federal level, the Conservatives are staunch supporters of Israel, the NDP is calling for a ban on the sale of weapons to Israel while the fighting lasts, while the Liberals urge both sides to end the fighting.

So when does legitimate criticism of the policies of the Israeli government shade into antisemitism? And when does concern over, say, limits on the rights of women and minorities in some Muslim counties become Islamophobia?

“I think the only way to distinguish legitimate criticism from antisemitism or Islamophobia is by determining whether critics distinguish Jews from the policies of the current Israeli government; or Muslims/Arabs/Palestinians from their respective governing bodies,” Robert Brym wrote in an e-mail exchange. Prof Brym is the S.D. Clark Chair in Sociology at the University of Toronto and co-author of a report sponsored by the Environics Institute on the Jewish community in Canada.

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“Criticism of governments and governing bodies is legitimate. Criticism of groups based on their religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality should be anathema.”

Demographics also shapes this dispute. According to the Environics study, younger Jewish Canadians tend to be more critical of Israeli settlements on the West Bank than older Jews. Although about 30 per cent of Jews in Canada are immigrants, the Arab community is growing more quickly through immigration. In terms of religion, about 3 per cent of the population identify as Muslim; 1 per cent as Jewish. Four of Canada’s top 10 source countries for immigrants have majority-Muslim populations (Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Iran). The growing size and influence of the Muslim community could shape the nature of the debate.

Canada must always welcome newcomers of all kinds, including all kinds of faiths. And in this free society, anyone who wants to demonstrate in support of Palestinians, or Israel, of anything else, must be allowed to.

But as much as is humanly possible, let’s not import grievance and intolerance from the Old Country, whatever the Old Country might be. That’s why we left.

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