This has been a rocky spring for Toronto Pride. Among many issues, the most explosive has been the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in the Pride parade.
The controversy has left most people in the LGBT community scratching their heads. Pride has always been a place where various queer groups, organized around a variety of issues, present themselves to the community. Although the parade has always included many viewpoints, there have never been problems. Why all this fuss about QuAIA? Why has the city suddenly waded in? Why is the right-wing press on a rampage?
Central to this tempest in the Pride teapot is Martin Gladstone, an estate lawyer who is now being described in the straight press as a gay activist. You can be excused if you’ve never heard of Gladstone before. I can find no trace of any gay activism until he got his knickers in a knot about QuAIA a year or so ago. But after last year’s Pride he produced a homemade hour-long video, Reclaiming Our Pride, which rather clumsily tries to portray QuAIA as an anti-Semitic hate group, despite the large number of Jews in our membership. He then took his video around to the city and Pride corporate sponsors to convince them to cut funding to the festival because Pride had allowed us to march.
Gladstone might be written off as another busybody with a bone to pick, but that doesn’t explain the huge fuss he’s managed to cause, with the city threatening Pride funding and corporate sponsors running for cover.
The fuss does make sense, however, if we look at the broader picture — a concerted attempt across the country to shut down any discussion of what is going on in Israel and Palestine: Israel’s 40-some year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its illegal settlements, ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, human rights abuses, the apartheid wall, continuing inequality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the denial of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and last year’s war crimes in Gaza. That’s a lot of nasty stuff that a coalition of Tories, Christian fundamentalists and the Israel lobby have decided Canadians shouldn’t be allowed to talk about. Pride is just one target.
The Harper government is central to trying to keep the lid on criticism of Israeli policies. It banned British member of parliament George Galloway from entering Canada because he supports Palestinian rights, as well as Moustafa Barghoutti, a Palestinian MP at the forefront of the non-violent movement against the occupation. It tried to close down an academic conference on Israel at York University last year. It harassed the president of the federal human rights group Rights and Democracy for funding groups that support Palestinian rights. The man finally died of a heart attack. It cut off funding to the Canadian Arab Federation and the church group KAIROS because it spoke out about the massacre in Gaza.
Interestingly, Harper’s motive for all this doesn’t seem to be to attract support from the Jewish community. Jews make up only about one percent of the Canadian electorate and are themselves divided on unquestioned support for Israel. Harper is actually trying to shore up support among Christian fundamentalists, about 10 percent of the population, who have the strange belief that a major war in the Middle East will make Jesus return to earth. They figure that unconditional support for Israel will help provoke such a war. And as Marci McDonald points out in her new book, The Armageddon Factor, they are increasingly influential in Harper’s government.
While the federal government uses funding to silence criticism of Israel, one group on the ground also plays a major role in trying to shut down discussion — B’Nai Brith Canada. Once a respected human rights organization, B’Nai Brith now concentrates on trying to stir up fear in the Jewish community. For example, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently ran a story based on B’Nai Brith information claiming that Montreal’s Orthodox community was “living in fear.” In response, the Quebec Jewish Congress reacted that B’Nai Brith had “limited credibility” in the province, and Montreal Rabbi Reuben Poupko termed the story “a complete and total fabrication of reality.”
Even one-time supporter Jonathan Kay of National Post has written about B’Nai Brith’s “absurd contention that anti-Semitism is a growing epidemic in this tolerant country.” The result, according to Kay: “Older Jews with dark historical memories become terrified, and the donations to B’nai Brith come rolling in.”
Last year it was B’Nai Brith who led the charge demanding that Pride ban QuAIA. Problem was, its main spokesperson, Frank Dimant, is straight and keeps some quite homophobic company. Two years ago, he was appointed inaugural chair of the department of modern Israel studies at the Canada Christian College, a fundamentalist training camp run by Charles McVety. McVety is well known for his campaign against same-sex marriage and his close connections with Stephen Harper. So B’Nai Brith didn’t have a lot of cred, and QuAIA marched without incident, a lively contingent of more than 100, wearing trendy kerchiefs and carrying banners in support of Palestinian queers and denouncing the apartheid system that keeps them isolated.
Enter Martin Gladstone, who at least is gay (his website tells us he lives in the upper beach with his partner and their two dogs).
Gladstone, who seems to have done a quick study of basic propaganda techniques, whipped out a video camera and produced his movie. Whenever the QuAIA contingent is shown, menacing music is played. The sound of chants is distorted so that Gladstone can substitute his own version with subtitles, and to mask the cheers heard from the crowds as QuAIA passes by. His film obsesses on a single anti-Nazi T-shirt (showing a crossed out swastika) worn by one marcher, that he has alternately characterized as “Nazi memorabilia” or an accusation that Israel is a Nazi state. (The right-wing media has now distorted that T-shirt into a veritable army of pro-Nazis.) But central to the movie’s strategy are interviews with people who recount how frightened QuAIA made them feel.
One interview, however, unwittingly gives the game away: Justine Apple, ED of Kulanu Toronto, a Jewish LGBT social group, recounts how she received a call from the police Hate Crimes Unit before the parade. “The tension in my heart just increased as soon as I received phone calls from the Toronto police… these people who were holding these anti-Israel messages in the parade suddenly had been built up in everyone’s heads, that it was a serious thing that they might pose a security risk, that there might end up being violence, and that’s why it led to a lot of tension and fear.”
Gladstone, like B’nai Brith, created a threat where one never existed. There were never any problems between QuAIA and Kulanu, and we posed no threat to anybody in the parade. But because of Gladstone, the Jewish social group was terrified, and Pride was forced to waste money for extra police; and then these facts became talking points in his ongoing campaign with the city to cut funding.
Gladstone self-distributed his movie to every city councillor in Toronto and managed to pull together a collection of right-wing city councillors, many of whom were uncomfortable funding Pride in the first place. They are now threatening Pride’s funding unless QuAIA is banned. For them the issue has the added bonus of embarrassing progressives on council who will be characterized as homophobic if they vote to cut funding and anti-Semitic if they don’t. The only thing that nobody can really understand is why Kyle Rae, who as part of the group Gays and Lesbians Against the Right Everywhere (GLARE) helped organize the original 1981 Pride, and who supported QuAIA’s right to march last year, has now associated himself with this motley right-wing crew.
The bullying hasn’t stopped. Last week Gladstone had his lawyers send two QuAIA members a letter (PDF) reserving “all of his legal rights and remedies” unless we cease our “defamation.” Seems he didn’t like the review of his video that we sent to councillors. Perhaps he should add “thin skinned” and “litigious” to his Facebook profile.
The Christian right and B’Nai Brith must be grinning. Federal funding to Pride has been cut off. City of Toronto is facing a motion to follow suit. Pride, which should have been concentrating on the festival, has been running in circles for months looking for some excuse to ban QuAIA. Last week it decided to ban the words “Israeli Apartheid.” It will spend the weeks running up to Pride fighting off a justifiable community backlash.
Meanwhile, Palestinian queers are waiting to see if their issues will be silenced in Toronto by the likes of Martin Gladstone and Stephen Harper or whether the Toronto community will rally to ensure that Pride continues to represent our community of differences as displayed on the rainbow flag we carry so proudly.