A small, grassroots group of pro-Israel activists – Never Again Group (NAG) – has become a thorn in the side of the well-established Hamilton Jewish Federation. The Federation came out publicly in defense of what it believes is the right of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) to host a virulently anti-Israel event at a local YWCA, and then it censured NAG for its efforts to stop it.

CJPME and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) praised the federation for its stand in favour of the event, which took place at the beginning of April and promoted Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state.

In a column by Wade Hemsworth in the Hamilton Spectator, Gerry Fisher, federation executive director, defended the YWCA’s decision to host the program.

In an email blast on May 4, Federation President Larry Levin said, “The Hamilton Jewish Federation has called the current conflict between CJPME and a small, independent group of pro-Israel supporters to be unfortunate….

“Hamilton Jewish Federation believes in the principal that until CJPME’s message is found to be in violation of Canada’s anti-hate laws, they are entitled to deliver it, free from intimidation or abuse from anyone, regardless of how dishonest and repugnant their messages may be.

“The real victim in this conflict is the YWCA. Caught between two extremist views, YWCA has innocently been drawn into and possibly damaged by a conflict that has no place in Hamilton.

“We stand with the leadership of the YWCA, the United Way and all others of good will in Hamilton who expect more responsible behaviour from those who attempt to influence public opinion.”

Levin also said in his email blast that it is “counter-productive for public recriminations to be made against [the federation] by groups or individuals who disagree with the federation’s positions.”

A few days later, a city attorney sent a letter to Levin, telling him to “stop these character assassinations against these people who publicly disagree with your position.”

He cited “numerous inaccuracies,” the use of “hyper words…that are defamatory,” and Levin’s claim that NAG used threats and intimidation tactics.

According to the lawyer, Levin’s email “smacks of an attempt to logically advise against dissent of the federation’s positions – a definite hampering of free speech.”

Len Lifchuz, CEO of United Way of Burlington & Greater Hamilton, was present when Never Again Group’s Rose Lax met with YWCA administration on its premises to express her concerns about hosting an Israel-bashing program there.

“I have no reflection of any threats or intimidation on the part of either party,” Lifchuz categorically stated.

Two floors of the YWCA building house at-risk women, and Lax assured staff that regardless of the meeting’s outcome, NAG would refrain from holding a protest there, although it would be their right to do so.

“I do recall her [Lax’s] immediate reaction and commitment, without prompting, to ensure that there would be no action [picketing, he clarified afterwards] when she learned of the women living in the building,” Lifchuz said. “Ms Lax was very concerned about these women.”

NAG and others who are similarly minded have challenged the federation to an open debate in the Jewish community at a mutually convenient time, but these invitations have gone unanswered, Lax said.

Regarding Levin’s description of the “current conflict between CJPME and a 'small group of pro-Israel supporters'” as “unfortunate,” she said. “They expect [us to] find common ground when there is no common ground.”

Rabbi Daniel Green, spiritual leader of Adas Israel Congregation, said the issue “has nothing to do with free speech. The question is whether we want to see Israeli Apartheid Week and other programs with a radical agenda invade all our public spaces. The YWCA has a mission to foster an inclusive environment for all Hamiltonians. Any event that sows divisions and undermines the harmonious relationships between ethnic groups belongs elsewhere.”

Furthermore, NAG “has vigilantly defended Israel and battled anti-Semitism with great determination and effectiveness. We, as a collective, owe them a debt of gratitude. For a Jewish organization to publicly label them as ‘extremists’ and equate them with those who seek the destruction of the Jewish state is profoundly troubling.”

Levin did not respond to the many attempts to reach him via phone and email.

Atara Beck is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor who will be moving to Israel in August. Most recently, she was staff writer at the Jewish Tribune.