Protest images outrage group, elicit apology
Haya Qadoumi of Halifax, left, and Marwa Al-Mansoob join a protest during the Halifax International Security Forum in November. The Atlantic Jewish Council is contacting groups that endorsed the use of swastikas on signs at the rally. (INGRID BULMER / Staff)
The Atlantic Jewish Council is targeting organizations that endorsed an anti-war protest after handmade signs bearing swastikas were spotted at the demonstration.
The rally, held Nov. 17, was initially intended as an anti-war demonstration that coincided with the Halifax International Security Forum. But the protest later morphed to include voices of opposition to Israeli attacks on Gaza when fighting intensified around the same time.
One sign depicted the Israeli flag, an equals symbol and a swastika. Another sign reportedly showed an Israeli flag with a swastika replacing the Star of David.
Jon Goldberg, executive director of the council, said he was shocked and very upset to learn of the signs through a report in the Dalhousie Gazette.
“As far as I’m concerned, any attempt to draw comparisons between contemporary Israel policy and that of the Nazis is anti-Semitism,” he said.
“Any attempt to hold Jews collectively responsible for political actions of the state of Israel is anti-Semitism. And any attempt to use the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism, like the swastika, to characterize Israel or Israelis, is anti-Semitism.”
Goldberg said the council hopes to meet with the presidents of Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University in January to discuss the student groups that endorsed the protest.
The demonstration was endorsed by the Dalhousie-based Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group and the Saint Mary’s Activist Coalition, as well as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, No Harbour for War and Canadians, Arabs and Jews for a Just Peace, said Alia Saied, a co-ordinator of NSPIRG.
Saied said her group disagrees with the use of the swastika and believes the signs were “inappropriate.”
A statement from the group’s board of directors posted Tuesday on its website reads: “We want to be clear: NSPIRG does not endorse the message that was on the signs of the two protesters. Whether or not they believe it is anti-Semitic, the fact is that using swastikas is always anti-Semitic.”
Saied said in an interview Wednesday that while she believes the images were “terrible,” she didn’t feel comfortable stepping in at the time. She said she attended the rally out of personal interest, not as part of her duties with the group.
“If it were only (an NSPIRG) event, I think I would have probably acted differently. But it was an open thing. I felt like, ‘OK, this is a totally autonomous group of people. No one here has agreed to a mandate or to a way of being.’
“It’s not a place where I felt able to control other people’s actions and their choice of expression. Now, thinking about it we probably could have done something. But at the time, I was unsure.”
Saied said NSPIRG and the other endorsing groups with whom she has spoken do not know the people who were holding the signs.
Saied nonetheless offered an apology.
“We apologize. I think that our statement makes that clear, that we don’t take responsibility for other people and we understand the weight of those symbols.”
Goldberg said someone at the rally should have taken action when the signs surfaced. “All they had to do was go over and say, ‘Put that sign down. Take that sign down. Go away. Leave us.’ Nobody did that.”
He added that he wants NSPIRG to be more accountable and transparent, beginning with the fee levied on students at Dalhousie and the University of King’s College. Full-time students at those schools pay $2 per term to NSPIRG, though they can opt out of the fee.
Students at both schools should be informed about the group’s mandate at the beginning of the year, and the process to opt out should be easier, Goldberg said. Right now, students can obtain a refund during a 10-day period in the fall and a five-day period in February.
Saied said about two students opted out at Dalhousie this year and about 15 at King’s asked for a refund.
Goldberg said he also plans to get in touch with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers to discuss that group’s participation in the protest.