Pro-Palestinian groups decry real estate events at synagogues over allegations occupied land being sold

Pro-Palestinian supporters are calling for a second real estate event planned north of Toronto to be called down over concerns it involves the selling of land in the occupied West Bank.

On Sunday, dozens of people gathered near the Aish Hatorah synagogue in Thornhill, Ont., to protest an event that organizers say was aimed at helping people in the Toronto area buy property in Israel. They were met with pro-Israeli counterprotesters and Jewish leaders took issue with the Sunday protest taking place outside a synagogue.

But pro-Palestinian protesters say companies associated with the event market property in the West Bank, where over two million Palestinians live under Israel’s military occupation, according to the United Nations (UN).

A similar event is expected to take place Thursday at another synagogue in the area. It is unclear whether the two events are connected.

“We weren’t there because it’s a synagogue, we were there because we were protesting against a real estate show,” said Ghada Sasa, who was at the protest over the weekend. 

“[These events] shouldn’t be allowed to happen when they’re explicitly advertising land on occupied territory.”

Sasa said the issue is personal to her as her grandfather’s family was “expelled” from the land in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which was when the state of Israel was established. They’ve since not been allowed to return, she said.

She is calling for an immediate “injunction” against upcoming real estate events selling land on occupied Palestinian territory.

The UN, alongside Canada, consider Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to be in violation of international convention, with the federal government saying they “constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” 

The protest is the latest local flashpoint arising from tensions sparked by the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, which killed some 1,200 Israelis and foreigners. Israel has since responded with a relentless assault that has so far killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Palestinian figures.

A woman looks past the camera with her hands on a desk.
Natalia Birnbaum is a Realtor with an office based in Toronto, Ont. She helped organize a real estate show in Thornhill, Ont. that pro-Palestinian demonstrators protested against on Sunday. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Natalia Birnbaum, a Realtor who helped organize Sunday’s event, told CBC Toronto it’s “absolutely, 100 per cent false” that property located on “disputed” land was promoted during the event.

“There was no sales for anything in the West Bank, anything on disputed territory,” she said, noting the projects on offer were being built on “existing” and “established” areas.

“I don’t know … where or how they’re getting this,” Birnbaum said.

Home In Israel, an Israeli real estate company that’s associated with U.S.-based real esate franchise Keller Williams, said despite the protests, the event was a “great success” and thanked people who showed support, according to a post that was translated from Hebrew on their Facebook page.

The translated post said it’s a “privilege” to help Toronto residents buy property in Israel “for investment and/or for their upcoming immigration to Israel.”

Real estate events have been going on for years: rabbi

The upcoming real estate event on Thursday appears to be part of a fair, with other events happening in New Jersey, New York and Montreal, according to the “great Israeli real estate event” website.

According to the website, real estate agents will help customers inquiring about projects in places such as Modiin, Ma’ale Adumim, Neve Daniel and Efrat, which are considered Israeli settlements by advocacy group Jews Say No to Genocide.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin said the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue has agreed to host the event on Thursday, just as it and other Jewish institutions have been doing for years.

“Many people in the Jewish community purchase property in Israel because we want to be able to have a connection to the homeland,” he told CBC Toronto.

A woman looks past the camera.
Chelsey Lichtman is a member of advocacy group Jews Say No to Genocide. She said the real estate shows in Thornhill, Ont. are advertising properties in the occupied territories of West Bank. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

While he couldn’t say if any of the promoted property is located in the West Bank, he said the “vast majority” of the land is located in “Israel proper.”

If Thursday’s event is met with more protests, he hopes people remain “peaceful,” adding that anyone that uses weapons or exercises violence should be “arrested by police and prosecuted by the law.”  

If people are taking issue with this, Korobkin said, there are ways to address it other than through protest — something Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada agreed with.

Richard Robertson, B’nai Brith Canada’s director of research and advocacy, said in a statement the group is concerned for members of the community near the synagogues at the upcoming events, and are calling on police to prevent similar protests from happening.

“Nothing justifies targeting a house of worship,” said Robertson. “To target a shul is antisemitic and can never be tolerated in Canadian society.”

But Chelsey Lichtman, a member of advocacy group Jews Say No to Genocide, said it’s “sacrilegious” to use synagogues as places to hold real estate events.

“The synagogues are holding events that [are] trying to get Canadians to invest in stolen Palestinian land in Israel,” said Lichtman, who works as a real estate agent.

“Selling stolen Palestinian land contributes to the ongoing colonization of Palestinian people.”

Police to monitor upcoming event

In an email, the City of Vaughan says it will continue to work with police “to uphold community safety and protect all of our residents.”

The city said the event on Sunday was initially scheduled to be held at its Garnet A. Williams Community Centre but was cancelled after city staff learned of a use “not permitted” in the space.

On Sunday, York Regional Police (YRP) arrested a 27-year-old man from Vaughan following a confrontation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators near Aish Hatorah.

No injuries have been reported, but police said the man was witnessed shouting obscenities at the protesters, and at one point, discharged a nail gun that was he carrying. 

The accused is facing several charges, including assault, assault with a weapon, possessing a weapon dangerous to the public and mischief.

In an email statement to CBC Toronto, YRP said it’ll be present on Thursday to monitor any demonstrations. 

“We are there to ensure it is safe, peaceful and lawful,” the statement said.

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