A vigil in solidarity with Israel took place on the Dayton Street pedestrian overpass in Kelowna on Nov. 19. (photo from vigil organizers)
About 100 people held a vigil in solidarity with Israel in Kelowna on Nov. 19, which proceeded without incident.
The two-hour gathering on the Dayton Street pedestrian overpass, which straddles Highway 97, was organized by members of the Jewish community, following a series of peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Organizer Don Alpert said that, in addition to community members, the participants included representatives of at least two churches, as well as Kelowna city councilor Ron Cannan, a former Conservative member of Parliament for Kelowna-Lake Country.
The vigil was encouraged by Rabbi Shmuly Hecht, director of the Okanagan Chabad Centre, who led men present in the putting on of tefillin in a display of Jewish confidence.
Alpert said the pro-Israel public demonstration was the first of its kind in the area. The main purpose was twofold: to give the area’s small Jewish population an opportunity to unite and have its voice heard and to show other citizens that there is “another side” to the Israel-Hamas conflict not reflected by the public activities of Palestinian supporters.
One week earlier, around 300 people held a pro-Palestinian demonstration that started on the steps of the courthouse and concluded with a march. That event, which received local media coverage, was organized by the Okanagan chapter of Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, a Montreal-based anti-Israel lobby group.
Alpert said he and the other organizers decided not to alert the media to their event in order to avoid attracting any conflict with the other camp. There were no tensions, and the only show of disagreement came from a motorist driving under the overpass displaying a Palestinian flag and honking, he said.
There were a few honks of apparent approval and passersby did engage with those in the crowd, asking questions, he added.
The demonstrators carried Israeli and Canadian flags, and placards mostly reading “We stand with Israel” and “Bring them home now,” referring to the hostages taken by Hamas, but also “Hamas (equals) ISIS” and “Rape is not resistance.”
Alpert said those supporting the Palestinians and condemning Israel are getting attention in the Okanagan because of the frequency of their protests and the media coverage. The result is people “only hear one side of the story.”
The Palestinian demonstration outside the Kelowna courthouse Nov. 12 was especially visual: an individual identifying themselves only as Haneen, a Palestinian studying locally, unfurled down the steps a computer printout listing what was said to be the names of every Palestinian civilian casualty between Oct. 7 and 26.
Kelowna is home to about 1,000 Jews, and an equal number are scattered throughout the Okanagan. Originally from Israel, Alpert and his wife Juliette lived in England for seven years before moving to Kelowna four years ago. He was a lawyer, but is not currently practising and she is a family physician. They have three children.
Personally, Alpert said he does not feel any antisemitism in Kelowna or hostility as a result of the war and, in fact, finds a fair degree of sympathy for Israel’s position. “We haven’t removed the mezuzah from our door or things like that, like in other places. We feel quite comfortable.”
He has been involved in ensuring that the Chabad Centre, in which he is active, has taken the necessary security measures. “There has been nothing there so far, but we need to be vigilant,” Alpert said. “It’s an easy place to find.”
His eldest son is being exposed to differing points of view on the conflict at his high school, but Alpert said the educators are stressing that the discussion must remain civil.
Unlike elsewhere in British Columbia, Okanagan elected officials have generally remained neutral or understanding of Israel’s position. The area’s MPs, Tracy Gray for Kelowna-Lake Country and Dan Albas for Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola are Conservatives, and have not strayed from that party’s stance supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. Right after the Hamas attack, Albas issued a clear statement “I stand with Israel” and condemned those in Canada who “celebrated these terrorist actions.”
In contrast, some 60 British Columbia politicians, at three levels of government, have signed a parliamentary e-petition sponsored by Quebec New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to demand an immediate ceasefire (before one happened), as well as an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Over 286,000 signatures appeared on the petition by the Nov. 23 deadline. The only Okanagan official among the signatories is Penticton city councilor Isaac Gilbert.
Alpert has led the effort, through the Chabad Centre, to raise funds for personal protective equipment for civilian patrols in a kibbutz near Jerusalem, which were launched after the war began. The community collected enough to buy from Canadian sellers two armoured vests costing about $1,500 each and some binoculars. Alpert said the remaining money will go towards helmets, perhaps five to eight. The beneficiary is Kibbutz Maale Hachamisha, which is on the Green Line and borders a hostile village, he said, chosen because his wife’s sister and family live there.
At home, Rabbi Hecht is appreciative of the “care and assistance” the Kelowna RCMP detachment has shown to the Jewish community from the start, increasing its presence around the Chabad Centre and the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre, which houses Beth Shalom Synagogue.
Overall, he said, the Jewish community has “displayed incredible resilience and pride” as the conflict goes on.
Hecht has been urging greater public expressions of Jewishness during this time, such as putting up mezuzot and wearing kippot on the street.
“We have to shine our Jewish light right now; retreating is not an option,” he said. “We all need to be more outwardly Jewish, not less.”
The OJC did not play any role in the vigil but, in its latest newsletter, states “many members of our community” took part, that it was peaceful and received “a great response from drivers and passersby.” There is an accompanying photo.
“Everyone is praying for a swift conclusion to the war, an end to the violence in the region, and for the safe return of the hostages,” the newsletter states, continuing with the proviso: “Please note that the OJC is a social and religious community. We stand for Judaism and peace. Political events and activities of individual members are at their own discretion and are not organized by the OJC.”
OJC past president Steven Finkleman, who currently chairs several synagogue committees, told the the Jewish Independent, “We are all Jews here, and we do not want to be divisive amongst ourselves.” He emphasized that he was speaking personally and his comments do not necessarily reflect OJC policy.
“I am not on the board, so I can’t answer officially from the board’s point-of-view but only as an individual member of OJC,” Finkleman said via email. “I do know that there were several members of OJC at the event, but I’m not certain how they were made aware of the event, perhaps they are on Chabad’s emailing list.
“There is a fairly strong and active pro-Palestinian group whom I monitor, far outnumbering the group of Jews that were at the vigil. I personally think that flag-waving and asking members of the community to participate only contributes to possible division in the greater Kelowna community.
“We have had a lot of supportive emails (about 50), mainly from Christians, and have received zero negative communications. I think we have to be cautious about lowering ourselves to the level of flag waving and demonstrations that the opposition has done on a few occasions here in Kelowna.”
Finkleman, a retired pediatrician originally from Winnipeg who has lived in Kelowna 40 years, said he has had “some very gratifying contacts with Muslim students” and engaged confidentially with Palestinian supporters at the University of British Columbia campus in Kelowna and in the community,” private dialogue that he believes is more productive than public demonstrations.
Janice Arnold is a freelance writer living in Summerland, BC.