Hundreds of people attended two rallies in downtown Calgary today to support Palestinian rights, the call for a ceasefire in Gaza and to demand the release of hostages.
Calgary police say around 1,000 people were at the Justice for Palestine rally, while at least 200 hundred people were across Macleod Trail at Olympic Plaza showing support for Israel and to demand that the hostages abducted by Hamas be released.
Among the people there was a man who was recently arrested by Calgary police for using a phrase heard at pro-Palestinian rallies across the country.
Policed charged Wesam Khaled earlier this month with causing a disturbance.
Hate motivation was applied to the charge but last week the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service determined there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction on the charge so the matter was stayed.
On Sunday Khaled was back, after being barred from attending protests as part of his release conditions, according to his lawyer.
“It’s Zionism that feels threatened by the chant. It’s Israel’s racist system that feels threatened by the chant. Jewish people in this country should not feel threatened by the chant. We are opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism,” Khaled said.
Khaled explained to reporters on Sunday what he said happened when he was arrested by Calgary police on November 5.
Khaled said he was told in custody that the charge came from his use of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The phrase was again being chanted at Sunday’s rally at Calgary City Hall
“Anytime that the police lay charges in a speech related matter it causes a chilling effect,” said Khaled’s lawyer Zachary Al-Khatib
Al-Khatib said it appears his client was arrested for chanting a phrase which originated shortly after the founding of the modern state of Israel. He said there’s nothing hateful about calling for freedom and equality for Palestinians from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
“Hate speech has a very narrow definition and that’s for good reason in Canadian law. We don’t want to police political speech. We don’t want people to promote hate or violence or things that would undermine society so there’s a balance to be struck but it’s a balance that airs very highly in favour of open speech,” Al-Khatib said.
One of the organizers of the pro Israel rally says the chant is worrisome because to many Jews it means the elimination of the Jewish people.
“From the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea it’s basically the whole of Israel so when they chant free Palestine from river to the sea they’re basically chanting to remove all Jews from the land, and is part of that chant that’s a chant to annihilate the Jewish people from the land of Israel,” said Ortal Luzon.
“It does worry us as a people that the chants are being called freely in public all over the country and all over the world. It worries us, because as we said before, we promised as a Jewish people ‘never again’, and again, it seems with these chants , there’s a chance of it happening again,” Luzon said.
The director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the charges were inappropriate. James Turk says the phase is interpreted in different ways.
“What we are talking about is a phrase that is deeply disliked by some and loved by others and ambiguous to others, but is perfectly legal. For the police to weigh in and say we won’t permit this in Canada, they are undermining the foundation of democracy,” Turk said.
Khaled said the charges should be dropped not stayed.
His lawyer says this issue highlights the need for contentious charges to be vetted by Crown prosecutors in advance.
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