• By: Dan McCarthy

Chants of “Bring Them Home” Rang Out Across Parliament Hill

The snow fell lightly on Parliament Hill early Monday afternoon as the crowd swelled for Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People. As always, there was a wind on the lawn but the mood was warm and belied the cold. There were families with children in strollers, students with their faces painted in blue and white, seniors and people from all walks. Overwhelmingly those of the Jewish faith but many others like myself who just wanted to show their support for this community. There were hundreds of Israeli flags with the blue Star of David; I wore the only blue in my closet, a Toronto Argos scarf. And there were dozens of Canadian flags.

Canada has experienced an appalling rash of antisemitic incidents since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7th. Bullets fired at schools, Jewish daycares picketed and attempted fire-bombings at synagogues. Bone-headed and tone-deaf decisions by governments such as the City of Moncton to ban the menorah from City Hall – since reversed – and milquetoast responses by the Government of Canada to the existential threat faced by Israel, have left the Jewish community in Canada feeling isolated and alone.

I am not of the Jewish faith, but I am sure that the Rally was a cathartic gathering for the community. Though no senior members of the government spoke, or perhaps dared show their faces, several Members of Parliament did speak, in particular Anthony Housefather from Montreal who often looks alone in his caucus, and the firebrand Melissa Lantsman, the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party from Toronto. All denounced the insidious evil of antisemitism. Tellingly, it would appear that not a single Liberal MP from the National Capital Region bothered to take a short walk to the lawn just outside their offices to at least observe the event. I’m happy to stand corrected on this point.

Following the introductory remarks, both the Canadian and Israeli national anthems were sung. It was very emotional to hear O’Canada sang with such fervour in the current milieu. The Jewish community has very deep roots in Canadian society; as a rabbi stated, “We’ve been here since 1760!” He said this in reference to an incident a few weeks ago, where a professor from the Université de Montreal screamed at a Jewish Concordia student to “go back to Poland.” The parents of Alexander Look, a young Montrealer murdered by Hamas at the Nova music festival in the opening hours of that murderous onslaught spoke of their pain at losing their son. His mother said that, “We want to channel this immense pain into a call to action. Please let us honour his memory by standing up against the forces that seek to destroy Jewish and Canadian values we hold so dear.” Speakers were interrupted by chants of “bring them home,” referring to the hostages still held by Hamas. To be clear, there were condemnations of Hamas and their enablers in Western society, but not of the Palestinian people. There was no sugar-coating of the suffering in Gaza but a recognition that Palestinians are as much victims of Hamas terrorism as Israelis.

A 95-year-old Holocaust survivor spoke remembered back 80 years ago that on this date he was a teenage prisoner of the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and had previously watched the sky turn red as his family was consumed by the fires of the crematorium. Hearing him speak, one cannot believe that “Never Again” is just a slogan.

Being a rally, there were signs: decrying hate, intolerance and antisemitism, calling for the release of the hostages, and humour – Hummus Not Hamas. While the rally addressed deadly serious issues, there were moments of levity. A popular Israeli tune boomed from the speakers, and a group of school girls near me started to dance. As they sang along, I was tapped on the shoulder to join in. Understanding neither the lyrics or the dance moves, I declined the offer with a laugh.

There was a moral clarity in the words of all the speakers which has been missing in our Canadian debate, dominated as it is by equivocations, tepid or anodyne denunciations of terrorism, and ‘whataboutisms.’ Overall, I was struck by the expressions of resilience, hopefulness, warmth, and yes, love. For their faith, their community, and for Canada, despite the fact that this country has woefully let them down.

At its conclusion, the crowds filed off the Hill to return to their Ottawa home or to catch one of the many buses idling along Queen or Slater Streets back to Toronto or Montreal. There we were confronted with a cold blast of Canadian reality; not of the wintry kind. There were two older ladies, standing quietly with a ‘ceasefire now’ placard. Haranguing no one – fair ball, this is Canada. But opposite them beside the Sir Galahad statue were apparent representatives shall we say, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), a designated terrorist organization in many countries though inexplicably, not Canada. They screamed at the crowd, “Hamas is here, Hezbollah is here, we’re coming for you.” It’s one thing to read that these views exist in Canada. It’s quite another, in fact jarring, to witness it from a distance of three feet. An older gentleman beside me counselled, “Ignore them.”

With that, I rolled up my Maple Leaf, tucked my chin in the collar of my jacket and crossed Wellington Street. The wind was cold on my face, but my spirit was warmed by the three hours I had just spent with Canada’s Jewish community. May the menorahs burn brightly in this Festival of Lights.

Photos: Dan McCarthy