Screenshot of Nelson City Council’s Oct. 22, 2023, meeting. Left to right, Topaz Zafrir, Yael Finer and Judy Banfield of the Kootenay Jewish Community Association present their concerns about the rise in anti-Israel and antisemitic events to the council.
Last October, as tensions in Canada were mounting over the Israel-Hamas war, three members of the Kootenay Jewish Community Association in Nelson paid a visit to the city council meeting to convey a request: that the council refrain from taking sides when it came to the emotionally charged protest rally that had taken place the day before. Nelson residents Judy Banfield, Yael Finer and Topaz Zafrir said they were also there to ask the police to continue its protection of Jewish community events, as it had in previous years. “We are very grateful for that,” Banfield said. “Right now, our community is frightened.”
The week before the meeting, Hamas had called to its supporters for a “day of rage.” The response was swift in Nelson, a college town that has seen an escalation of pro-Palestinian sentiment and anti-Israel demonstrations in recent years. About a hundred people turned out to hear speakers who gave accounts of what they believed was happening in Gaza. According to Kootenay Jewish community leader Yael Finer, the presentations included assertions about Israel’s role in Gaza that had already been debunked. The purpose of the rally, she felt, was to incite antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the city. Finer, an Israeli-Canadian who moved to Nelson in 2016, told the council that one of the speakers also made a pitch on behalf of Hamas.
“A final speaker said, ‘Don’t hate Hamas. They’re our brothers, our sons, our fathers,’” Finer recounted.
“The event was supposed to be about peace and education,” she said. “I actually reached out to the organizer, asking to speak at the event as one of the Israeli or Jewish [residents].”
Finer told the council that she empathizes with the Palestinian people and shares concern over the current situation in Gaza. She had gone to the rally to learn. She said her request to speak at the event was denied.
Finer added that one of the speakers was a city council member, “creating a perception of legitimacy” for the demonstration. The mayor later released a statement clarifying that only the mayor’s office represented the views of the city government, including at public events.
Not a new phenomenon
Banfield, who is a former Selkirk College instructor and has lived in Nelson since 1990, said antisemitism isn’t a new phenomenon in the city. She said the planned speech in 2013 of Greta Berlin, an accused antisemite, put the community on edge. Eventually, the Nelson library rescinded the offer for her to speak, but she was later offered a venue at the United Church. Although the gathering remained peaceful, Banfield said anti-Israel and antisemitic behaviour have only grown more evident.
“I have been in Nelson a long time and we’ve always been very open that we’re here and inviting,” she told the Jewish Independent about the local Jewish community. She said that, until recently, religious celebrations used to be open to the Nelson public. However, a couple of years ago, demonstrators picketed a Jewish holiday celebration.
“People were picketing us, basically as being Jews, being responsible for what is going on in the Middle East,” said Banfield. Since then, she said, the community has had to ask for police protection at religious and other community events and to conceal their locations from the public. “We do not feel safe gathering together in an announced venue,” she told the Nelson council.
Last November, demonstrators held another rally, this time calling on the city to formally advocate for a ceasefire. According to several attendees, there were also calls for boycotting local businesses that were assumed or known to do business in or with Israel.
Jeff Shecter, another long-time resident and one of the Jewish community’s first leaders, said even more people turned out for that rally. He said the protests and “river to the sea” chants have unnerved the Israeli members of the community. “[They] were more shocked than the rest of us who were maybe used to it,” Shecter observed. While he said he is not afraid, “to have a demonstration supposedly in support of Palestine without anyone, not a single soul, denouncing what happened on Oct. 7 was a travesty.”
Zafrir, one Nelson’s most recent arrivals from Israel, told the council that the community isn’t trying to stifle anyone’s voice. “We’re not asking you to take sides,” she said. “The Palestinians and whoever supports them have the right to protest, as we have to do so, and still feel safe in our community. Any person in Nelson should feel safe, despite disagreement or place of origin.”
On Dec. 5, acknowledging that it had received numerous calls for action, the city issued a formal letter “calling for peace in Gaza” and appealing for a “cessation of hostilities from all involved parties.” While the information shared among council members briefly mentioned the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the letter that was disseminated to the public did not. Nor did it mention the death toll from the terror attack or that more than 240 people had been abducted by Hamas and most were still missing.
Banfield said she is sympathetic of the pressure that the city council is under. “I mean, they did end up passing a resolution promoting a ceasefire. And I know there was a lot of discussion about it on council and they made it as lukewarm as possible,” she said. “And I guess at this point, the biggest thing for us is that they have given us protection.”
Asked whether she felt the city council understands the Jewish community’s concerns about safety at this time, Finer shook her head. “No,” she said, adding that she had hoped others would understand that anti-Israel protests and picketing of Jewish sites is alarming. “[Even] though there was no direct threat to the Jewish people in the town, it was implied. And that makes me feel terrified,” Finer told the council.
Still, Finer hasn’t given up hope that things could change in Nelson. As the new leader of the Kootenay Jewish Community Association, she’s already thinking about ways to bridge differences and enhance dialogue with those who don’t know, or don’t understand, Nelson’s small Jewish community.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.