Two familiar and unwelcome guests were singled out as 2,000 Montreal Jews gathered at Dominion Square last Sunday night to celebrate Hakafot Shniyot, as organized by Concordia Hillel, Hillel Montreal and the city’s Jewish community.
Held annually, Hakafot Shniyot is celebrated during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which commemorates God’s gift of the Hebrew Bible to the Jewish people.
While observing the event on a green space nearby, prominent pro-Palestinian activists Samer Elatrash, Laith Marouf and two friends were approached by police and asked to leave for inciting trouble.
“I told the cops that I’m not here to cause any trouble and I don’t have to leave,” said Elatrash. “They said that they would arrest me if I didn’t leave, so I asked them if this was going to be a pre-emptive arrest.”
The police responded with a “yes.”
Despite the ongoing music, dancing and chanting, the increasing number of police officers trying to block Elatrash, Marouf and their two friends began to grow, distracting some of the attention away from the celebrations.
“It would have been fine if they continued to watch, but one of their friends had a backpack and some people got nervous so the cops came,” said Yoni Petel, President of Hillel Montreal. He noted that their presence at the forefront of the Netanyahu riots made their presence conspicuous to police.
As small groups of youth began to gather around the police, curious by the activity, attempts were made to lead everyone away from the chaos to the festivities of the evening.
“Our students of Hillel Montreal came to celebrate Jewish pride, values of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, nothing else should matter now” said Ariela Cotler, one of the organizers from Hillel Montreal.
Crowds continued to cheer on the rabbis and student leaders with Israeli and Canadian flags, as they gave speeches in support of Jewish pride and nationalism.
About an hour after their arrival, Elatrash, Marouf and their two friends were forced to leave the event.
“It seems as though the police is following Netanyahu’s advice on pre-emptive arrests but we are going to follow up on whether this is part of the Canadian Charter for Rights and Freedoms,” said Elatrash.
Marouf maintained that they were just a small group of friends interested in listening to the speakers. “We didn’t bring with us flags to incite anyone, or a big number of people to cause confrontations,” he said. “We just wanted to listen to how things were being portrayed on the podium.”
Last Friday, Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy announced a partial lift on the three-month ban of any activities relating to the Middle East. Both Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Hillel agreed to prohibit any speech or activities that promote anti-semitism or racism against Arabs.
They also agreed to avoid all events or displays that promote hate or stereotype individuals or groups based on ethnicity, nationality, religion or other visible attributes.
According to Noah Joseph, co-president of Hillel Concordia, the event was all about the Jewish community coming together as one, from the most secular to the most religious, to rejoice in receiving the laws of the Hebrew Bible and their continued existence.
“I don’t mind them being here [Elatrash and Marouf] but if the situation was reversed, I wouldn’t go because it’s a religious observance,” said Joseph.
Like many others, Elatrash found out about the event through the Suburban newspaper and did not know that the event had any religious significance since it was publicized as a “pro-Jewish” rally.
It took about a month for Concordia Hillel to organize this first time event, but it is likely to become an annual occurrence due to the tremendous turnout and overall success. Buses from Cote-St-Luc, Hampstead, Westmount, Ville Saint-Laurent, Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Outremont were arranged to transport people to the event after their Sunday evening congregations.
Ilan D. (last name withheld), an economics student said, “I feel connected to the people who are here, it’s the holidays for us, it’s an expression of how we feel about the land of Israel by dancing and chanting and being happy.”