Toronto Eatery That Served Up Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism Closes

Dec. 8, 2020

Foodbenders, the Toronto restaurant and catering business that has been at the centre of a controversy since July for its antisemitic and anti-Zionist social media posts, and for discriminating against Zionists, has closed.

Online photographs as of Monday afternoon show the front window of the Bloor St. West business has been boarded up, indicating more than a temporary shutdown. That followed an announcement on Instagram over the weekend from owner Kimberly Hawkins that she will be closing.

“The four legal cases against me hold very serious consequences for free speech in this country,” Hawkins wrote. “Given the gravity of what’s at stake, I have made the decision to close Foodbenders and focus on giving my very best defence in court.”

Foodbenders store window boarded

Foodbenders generated worldwide headlines over the summer when it told its Instagram followers: “#zionistsnotwelcome.” Other posts alleged that “Zionists are Nazis”; denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “Zionist puppet,” and glorified Leila Khaled, who hijacked two airplanes in 1969-1970 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a designated terrorist entity in Canada.

Other posts accused Jewish groups of controlling the media and elected officials, justified terrorism against Israelis, and accused Israel of “systematic genocide.”

A sandwich board outside the eatery once proclaimed, “F@ck Mossad, IDF, Bibi.

Amid the ensuing outcry, several food ordering and payment apps, including Ubereats, Doordash, and Square, dropped Foodbenders.

Foodbenders and Hawkins now face a raft of legal challenges, including a $750,000 lawsuit from Shai DeLuca, a Toronto interior designer with Canadian and Israeli citizenship, who alleged he was defamed in social media posts.

The Bloordale business also faces two complaints before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. One is from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the other on behalf of GTA resident Elena Aschkenasi, 86, whose parents fled Nazi Germany. She claims Hawkins discriminated against Jews when Hawkins publicly stated her refusal to serve Zionists.

On top of that, B’nai Brith Canada requested that the city revoke Foodbenders’ business license for breach of a by-law that prohibits discrimination based on race, colour, or creed.

Hawkins was charged by municipal licensing officials last month and may have to appear before the Toronto Licensing Tribunal.

“Our position remains that Foodbenders should have its business license revoked by the City of Toronto for fostering discrimination,” B’nai Brith stated. We will continue to follow that process and provide updates.”

Hawkins said she has raised some $47,000 for her legal defense fund.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly located Foodbenders on Bloor Street East. We regret the error.

Editorial: A Nobler Use for Social Media

Oct. 19, 2020

The following is an editorial that ran in the National Post on Oct. 17, reprinted here with permission:

Properly used, social media can be a powerful educational tool

We live in an era of fake news and forgotten history. Social media is a breeding ground, or at least an amplifier, of the former. Tackling that challenge will be the work of years. But, properly used, social media can also be a powerful educational tool. And the first step in making it so will be at least adopting a do-no-harm policy. There was an overdue but welcome step in that direction this week.

Twitter and Facebook, the social media giants, both said that they will ban Holocaust denial on their platforms. This is long overdue. (Some important background on this can be found elsewhere in these pages, reprinted with permission from the Canadian Jewish Record.) Holocaust denial is not a matter of opinion or free speech, it is an overt form of anti-semitism, and it is right to treat it as such. It is perplexing, and alarming, to be blunt, that the social media giants needed this long to take action to deny the organized Nazi slaughter of six million Jews and millions of other “untermenschen” — racial and social undesirables. But having finally done the right thing, albeit belatedly, the companies deserve at least muted credit. They dawdled, but they did the right thing in the end.

The challenge, and opportunity, is now to find a way to leverage the power of these sites to teach the history, warts and all, that is the birthright of mankind. Historical illiteracy is a real and growing problem. It is not limited to the Holocaust, of course, but the problem there is particularly acute, and illustrative: a recent survey found astonishing levels of ignorance regarding the basic historical truth of the Holocaust among young American adults; comparable Canadian surveys reveal numbers that aren’t quite so appalling, but are certainly nothing to be proud of, either.

Education, of course, is essential, and the history education that Canadian students receive has long been known to be woefully inadequate. That can and must be fixed. But that shouldn’t just mean textbooks in classrooms (physical or virtual). The social media tools of today could do tremendous good if properly harnessed by institutions, scholars and living witnesses. Now that the giants have agreed to stop harming the cause, perhaps now they can be put to a nobler use.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Free Speech?

Oct. 9, 2020

By ZACK BABINS

Picture a large Canadian university with a law school. The school is set to offer a directorship to an academic with a long history of pro-Israel scholarship and activism in Zionist causes.

At the last moment, a Canadian Muslim – a federal judge who, along with his family, have been massive donors to this school, likely in the millions – calls the school’s fundraising team. From that point on, negotiations with the Zionist academic are cancelled and the position is somehow “no longer available.”

What would we as a community do? 

Certainly, this school would be labeled antisemitic. It would make the Top 10 list of every “antisemitic school where Jewish students aren’t safe.” We would lament the decline of academia and people would warn their children to stay away from that “Jew-hating school.”

The influencers and organizations that make a living defending Israel would see a spike in donations.

Eventually, the right-wing pundits, Jewish and Gentile, would cry that free speech is about listening to arguments and ideas that you don’t like, and would wonder whether today’s students are so soft (and antisemitic) that they could not tolerate a Zionist Jewish teacher.

This isn’t a hypothetical. We just changed some parts of speech.

Explosive recent media reports alleged that Justice David Spiro, a Tax Court of Canada judge, megadonor to the University of Toronto, and former board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, had improperly interfered in the hiring of Prof. Valentina Azarova.

Azarova, who is not Palestinian but sympathetic to Palestinians, and more than occasionally focuses her academic work on the Palestinian cause, was reportedly quite close to landing a position as director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program. According to the school, the program isn’t hiring a director at all.

Law professor Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, resigned from the board in protest.

The Canadian Judicial Council is now considering multiple complaints about Spiro’s conduct. And over 1,000 lawyers, academics, and activists have signed a petition asking U of T’s law school to apologize and reinstate the job.

And in an open letter to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, a slew of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said they are “deeply concerned” that U of T’s law school dean responded to “external pressure, following the objection of a law school donor to Dr. Azarova’s work on international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine context.”

One would think that the champions of free speech would be all over this one. But the brave “marketplace of ideas” folks, who have no qualms defending transphobes, homophobes, racists and white nationalists under the banner of free speech, are nowhere to be found. Similarly, those who argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” just can’t be bothered to defend an academic who, by their standards, has had her right to free speech violated.

One op-ed submitted by a Jewish organization claimed that “a long history of one-sided critiques of Israel” justified these events. What if the shoe was on the other foot? If a long history of “one-sided activism” surrounding Israel can disqualify you from a job, well, I’ve got some bad news for a lot of my friends who went to Jewish day school, summer camp or synagogue. 

I haven’t even mentioned yet how damaging this move – which any PR consultant could tell you would not remain private for longer than a week – may be to Jewish students who are actually on campus, who will now face slurs and tropes about Jewish power and influence.

Frankly, I’ve never been a free speech evangelist. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but it must be restrained by reasonable limits to protect marginalized communities from hatred and violence. History bears out that hate speech almost never remains “just words.” 

We either care about free speech or we don’t. We either care about academic freedom or we don’t. We either care about outside political interference in our universities – including the “outside agitators” that Hasbara organizations love to remind you are sent to campuses to scuttle BDS motions and anti-Israel campaigns – or we don’t.

To paraphrase the great “Rabbi” Jon Stewart, if you don’t stick to your values when they’re used by your opponents, you don’t have values. You have hobbies.

We have to make a decision – a microcosm of the same decision Israel has to make when it attempts to administer a democratic state that prioritizes one religion that’s necessary to the idea of a Jewish democracy.

Does Zionism – specifically, right-wing, tribal, expansionist, Revisionist Zionism that leaves no room for the humanity of Palestinians – supersede liberal democratic values like free speech? Are you prepared to defend Israel, no matter the cost? 

In other words, we must decide whether we are prepared to sacrifice our souls. I’m not prepared to do that, and I’m not alone.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.