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Quiet flag-raising in Ottawa, party in Montreal as Canadians mark Israel national day

MONTREAL — Ceremonies marking Israel's national day took different forms in Canada on Tuesday, from cheering crowds at a party-like demonstration in Montreal to an unofficial event in Ottawa that drew a strong counter-protest.

MONTREAL — Ceremonies marking Israel's national day took different forms in Canada on Tuesday, from cheering crowds at a party-like demonstration in Montreal to an unofficial event in Ottawa that drew a strong counter-protest.

Israel's flag was flying at Ottawa City Hall on Tuesday morning to commemorate Israel's 1948 creation, but the official public ceremony was cancelled this year.

Instead, the city said, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa organized a private event, but officials refused to say when or where it was happening. City officials said they had information suggesting that holding a public event posed a risk to public safety, though they gave no details.

Despite the official event's cancellation, some members and supporters of Ottawa’s Jewish community met at city hall near the Israeli flag for a noon-hour gathering. The blue-and-white contingent were met by a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who tried to drown them out with chants including, “We don’t want two states, take us back to '48” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is almost free."

Jessica Strauss, a member of the Israel gathering, said the event is usually a joyous time for the Jewish community, but this year “all of the hate and anger is so visible. For me, that’s been a really shocking rude awakening.” 

Israel's national day was overshadowed by the war in the Gaza Strip, where more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed since October, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The war was sparked when Hamas fighters from Gaza broke into southern Israel on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, mostly Israelis.

The decision to forgo a flag-raising ceremony in Ottawa had sparked backlash from the Jewish community, including federal politicians such as Liberal MP Anthony Housefather and Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman. Mayor Mark Sutcliffe posted on social media on Friday that he had asked police and the city to come up with a way to hold the event safely, but city officials said Monday that would not happen.

In Toronto, Mayor Olivia Chow's office released a statement Tuesday saying she would not attend a flag-raising ceremony because "she believes raising (the flag) is divisive at this time, and understands the deep pain and anguish felt by many in the community."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, on the other hand, hailed Israel's "establishment as an independent and democratic state" 76 years ago

"Today, we also recognize the many challenges Israel has faced through its existence, including the attacks of Oct. 7, 2023," Ford said in a statement. "I continue to pray for the safe return of the hostages who were taken in the attacks and condemn hatred and antisemitism in all its forms, wherever it is found."

In Montreal, a DJ pumped out pop tunes from a stage while hundreds of Israel supporters, many with the country’s flag draped around their shoulders, danced and cheered in a downtown park. A heavy police presence guarded the perimeter as the crowd, which included many teens and schoolchildren in uniform who arrived on buses, bounced big beach balls above the crowd and linked arms to dance.

Attendees who spoke to reporters expressed pride and support for Israel, even as they said they were saddened by the loss of life in Gaza.

“I think everyone who feels Jewish in their heart wants to come out and support Israel and support peace, which is most important, and I’m hoping that will be in my lifetime,” said Dorrie Davidson, who waved a big Israeli flag on the sidelines of the event. She said she wasn’t deterred by criticism of Israel, or by counter-protesters.

“They have a right to speak as well, and so do we. They have a right to believe in what they believe, and I have a right to believe what I believe, and this is it,” she said.

Paul Hirschson, Israel's consul general in Montreal, struck a more militant note as he promised that Israel would pursue those responsible for the Oct. 7 killings “to the ends of the Earth.” He said 132 hostages, by Israel's count, are still being held by Hamas, whom he called a “death cult,” prompting chants from the crowd of “Bring them home!”

Across the street, cordoned off by police tape, Montreal student Ethan Zbily was one of a few dozen people waving Palestinian flags in protest. He said he felt “disgusted” and “angry” by the festive event at a time when Palestinians are being killed.

“Today we see these people over there celebrating, while all of us are in mourning,” said Zbily, adding that he was there to support a ceasefire and an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.

As the event ended, police formed a line to prevent departing Israel supporters from approaching the pro-Palestinian demonstration on the other side of the street.

A flag-raising also took place on the grounds of Ontario’s legislature. Solicitor General Michael Kerzner addressed the crowd, as did Stephen Blais from the provincial Liberal party. A handful of pro-Palestinian supporters showed up and chanted in front of a line of police officers, but the event ended without issue.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

— With files from Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa, Liam Casey in Toronto and The Associated Press

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press