Thousands of Torontonians from Israeli and Palestinian communities took to the streets again Sunday as violence in the Middle East continues to impact life in the city.
At an event on Sunday morning, members of Toronto’s Israeli and Jewish communities gathered to call for the release of hostages held by Hamas and to ask the Canadian government to give Israel its unwavering support.
Hours later, a crowd waving Palestinian flags walked through downtown Toronto calling for a ceasefire and an end to fatal Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
These two separate events are among many that have been held across the Toronto area since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on Oct 7.
The attack sparked a declaration of war from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Hamas, which is listed by the Canadian government as a terrorist organization.
The initial attack and subsequent Israeli response have left thousands of civilians dead. Hamas’ attack focused on civilians, including the mass murder of attendees at a music festival and the capture of more than 100 hostages. The Israeli army’s response, which the country says is focused on Hamas fighters embedded across the Gaza Strip, has seen thousands of civilians die in airstrikes across the heavily populated territory.
Both Israeli and Palestinian communities in Toronto have watched in horror, with regular vigils, demonstrations and gatherings.
‘Bring them home’
On Sunday, hundreds gathered at a Holocaust memorial in Toronto to talk about loved ones who have been killed or captured by Hamas.
One by one, Jewish men and women took the microphone in front, sharing stories of loved ones missing or killed.
“This is a time of crisis and in a crisis, families come together. And for the Jewish community and the Jewish people around the world, we feel like a family,” Toby Trompeter, one of the event’s organizers, told Global News.
“I’m losing sleep, put it that way, I have nightmares. And I’m sure everybody else does. We need to bring (the hostages) home.”
Attendees held cut-outs of cardboard human figures with the faces of hostages they believe have been kidnapped by Hamas. Others in the crowd lifted the Israeli flag or held posters reading “Stand with Israel, Stand for Life” and “Hamas has no regard for human life.”
Another attendee, Shirley Anne Haber, said she had family in Israel, and as violence in the region intensifies, she worries for their safety.
“I am so uplifted, I got together with a few other people a few days ago who also wanted to bring attention (to) what is happening in Gaza with the people who have been kidnapped,” Haber said.
“It is so uplifting to know the community is there for us and there to help out and that everybody is yelling ‘Bring them home, bring them home.’ Everyone understands what is going on with these people who have been kidnapped in Gaza, it must be just horrific for them.”
The harrowing stories told at the microphone washed over the crowd one after another, some met with the repeated chant of “Bring them home.”
Felicia Gopin, also in attendance, said her cousin was killed by Hamas fighters at the Nova music festival where more than 260 people were killed.
“As the child of a Holocaust survivor — and as a person who staunchly supports Israel and defends (its) right to exist — I can tell you this hits not just me, but (it) hits every Jew in Canada and around the world,” Gopin said.
“It is almost in our DNA, this generational trauma that we’re feeling and this just brings it to the forefront for us. So how is it affecting us? It’s affecting us all very, very deeply.”
Hours later, a large group waving Palestinian flags gathered outside the United States consulate in downtown Toronto. The group then began to wind its way up toward Queen’s Park, where the provincial legislature is located.
The crowd shouted in unison as they marched: “Ceasefire now!”
The sights and sounds of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in downtown Toronto have been a common feature for weeks as the Israel-Hamas conflict escalated. Attendees said they’re worried about civilian family and friends trapped in the Gaza Strip amid ongoing airstrikes and fighting.
Yara Shoufani, with the Palestinian Youth Movement, told Global News a ceasefire was vital and called on the Canadian government to echo the demand.
“For Palestinians, we’ve been feeling the trauma of our families living in Gaza and in Palestine and even our daily living in refugee camps waiting to return to Palestine,” she said. “This has been a lifelong process for us.”
Shoufani said that, while she felt “immense outrage,” there was a sense of hope among the large gathering too.
On Saturday, a separate pro-Palestinian rally made its way into Toronto from Pickering, Ont., to protest in Nathan Phillips Square by city hall. After the event, a large group of protestors took to the streets, marching down from the Square to Front Street, and then up University Avenue again.
Gur Tsabar, a member of Independent Jewish Voices who took part in the rally, said he was there to condemn Israel’s current military operations in the Gaza Strip and stand in “full solidarity” with the Palestinian people.
“I think we’re at a critical tipping point,” he said. “The people give me hope, the streets give me hope, the voices we’re hearing on the streets here today, that gives me a tremendous amount of hope. The Palestinians have never had that.”