Spring Magazine spoke with Kimberly Hawkins, owner of Foodbenders, a catering company based in the west end of Toronto. A vocal supporter of Palestine through her business, Kim has faced ongoing harassment from the Toronto Police, Zionists and hate groups since 2019. She is currently grappling with six different lawsuits and at risk of losing her business license.
As the Instagram account for Foodbenders indicates, your business proudly supports Palestine. What’s been the response?
The media hasn’t been very friendly to me. That is starting to change a little bit in the last couple weeks, but up until recently all media aimed at smearing me. I obviously took a pretty hardline stance on Palestinian freedom and liberation, and if you do that with a public platform or as an academic or lawyer or a real estate agent or a teacher or anything, you run the risk of getting smeared as anti-Semitic.
This happens because there are strong advocates for Israel in Canada and they work pretty tirelessly to make sure that nobody raises awareness about this cause. I’m just one of many people who has stuck their neck out for Palestine and felt the wrath of what I would describe as the Israel lobby in Canada. Part of that lobby is organizations like B’nai Brith or CIJA that will create lies and rumours about you, but there are also media organizations and individuals that help with the smearing.
I think it’s been particularly hard for me because I took a stand against Zionism, which is a level up from criticizing Israel. You know, you can criticize Israel to a certain extent but when you start to address that underlying ideology that the state of Israel is based on and what that means in practice for Palestinians, that’s when you’re going to get the iron fist of the lobby.
When did the attacks on you begin, and who are they from?
I’ve been an activist my whole life and it’s like I got caught, you know. I’ve always had signs about Palestine in the store, but it just never got the attention it got until November of 2019. There was a massacre in Gaza and a Palestinian friend of mine and I were here and we were outraged by the way the Liberal government had covered it. They had instantly tweeted about rockets; in this instance, no rockets had actually harmed any Israelis, it was 42 Palestinians dead in Gaza. So we printed a little sign that said “Gaza under attack,” and we put it in the window.
[The response] was just bad reviews and some people coming here and yelling at me through the window and calling me anti-Semitic, and that went on for about three weeks. I got fed up and I took down the “Gaza under attack” sign and put up the “I heart Gaza” sign. I was so tired of the accusations of anti-Semitism so I put up an expression of love and something that you would think nobody could be upset with. But of course, that’s not how that story ends.
[The attacks] did stop for a while and then when the pandemic happened there was an event in this neighbourhood for Regis Korchinski-Paquet. So I was really upset about that and I put a sign out that said “fuck the police” and that didn’t go over well with everyone. Although, it was really popular! I have to tell you, a lot of people were really for the message. But this led to weeks of the Toronto police harassing me.
They threatened to throw rocks through my window, and even tried to charge me with a hate crime at the city because I had said something on my Instagram about how “there’s no such thing as blue lives.” They took pictures of the “I heart Gaza” sign and the “fuck the police” sign and put it into these online hate groups, like the Proud Boys and Urban Infidels. So I started getting hundreds of death threats, and even rape threats, and really scary pornographic images, and things saying that they were going to bomb my store.
At what point did the JDL (the “Jewish Defence League”, a violent extremist group) get involved, and what did they do?
I think the JDL started harassing me as early as November 2019, because I was getting these threats and these really awful messages. Vandalism was happening, but I couldn’t pinpoint who was doing it and I couldn’t say for sure it was the JDL because they weren’t advertising that they were doing that. When Rebel Media put out its piece, the JDL became publicly involved and started using their various platforms, like their Instagram account and Facebook pages. [They] would put out a notice to [their] people.
In practice, it’s like stalking, vandalism, death threats. They steal things, they vandalize things, they intimidate other people shopping here. They’ve recently tagged “slut” into the back of my car. A woman came and spray-painted the Star of David over the heart sign, in broad daylight. The reason that all of this happens, and they never get charged and they keep getting away with this, in my opinion, is because I have this conflict with the police.
If you talk to other organizers or Palestinians in this movement, they will tell you that the JDL is a thorn in their side for everything they do. The JDL will get involved or do something violent or create threats and there’s really no stopping what they will do to silence you. And if they can’t do it through some semi-legitimate means, that’s when they’ll start to use violence and intimidation and even beat up people.
The JDL has a horrible history of assault. The individuals that run it here aren’t necessarily the same people that were charged in the US, but it’s all the same group. It’s kind of a by any means necessary version of Zionism. That’s why in Israel you see all these signs like, “kill all the Arabs” or “gas all the Arabs.” This organization has a history of laying bombs and murdering people in Mosques, and is outlawed as a terrorist organization in the US, yet fully operating here and calling up the Toronto police whenever they feel like it. These are some of the things that I got called anti-Semitic for, for saying that the JDL had influence over these actors. But you don’t even have to take my word for it, because they advertise it on their Facebook page when they’ve made a successful lobbying effort with a politician.
I had to sacrifice a lot with these guys. They did a lot of damage. It would be really great if that loss was not in vain and somehow what happened to me could be exposed so we could get them shut down, put them out of business. Because Palestinians are going to continue their struggle for liberation, whether the JDL likes it or not. The best thing we could do now would be to get these guys out of the way so that the Palestinian movement can continue on without [people] being harmed, having their careers ruined, or being violently attacked in some cases.
What pro-Israel bias have you seen and experienced from politicians?
There’s an overall pro-Israel vibe. We had the mayor flying the Israeli flag on “Israeli independence day”. We haven’t heard any condemnation from the Premier, the Prime Minister, or the Mayor on what happened in Sheikh Jarrah or what happened in Gaza recently, or any time ever. And yet whenever there’s something that Israel wants said, they’re all over Twitter talking about it. We never hear any sort of empathy for the Palestinian side of it though. So I think there is a culture of pro-Israel that exists in the institutions.
I can give you a specific example. There’s a politician in Ontario that has spent a lot of his career up until recently (when he became an anti-lockdown champion) promoting the IHRA, which is the definition that aims to protect Israel and Zionism from criticism. So he’s been a big force in the lobby movement for the IHRA. He’s spent time shutting down Palestinian events, and lobbying police to have these events shut down.
So when all these things were happening with me, he worked with other people in the community to file a complaint against me that I have violated a bylaw against discrimination. He classifies Zionism as this unchangeable form of identity and worthy of protection under the bylaw of the city and the Human Rights Code in Ontario. So he lobbies to have this charge go through, he’s very successful, he forces an investigation, he organizes people to create fake testimonies against me. I am now receiving a charge, and he’s able to use the entire scandal to receive a $1.7 million grant from the government to “combat anti-Semitism” as a result of my comments about Zionism.
Tell me about the lawsuits you’re dealing with.
There are six. The one is the lawsuit I just told you [about]. That one specifically deals with a hashtag I had, “#Zionistsnotwelcome.” They were trying to argue that this was a store policy and that I systematically discriminate against people who are Zionists or Israeli citizens. This is not possible to do and I don’t do it. And the whole purpose of this is to codify the IHRA by getting a precedent case. So if I get charged [for] using this hashtag as discrimination, then Zionism becomes a protected group [under] the law.
Then I have other cases. One is an ex-IDF soldier who is also a TV star. I reposted a story that he didn’t like. He thinks that’s defamation, I think it’s free speech. He’s suing me for about a million dollars. I think it’s $850,000.00. So we’ll find out how the judge feels about our two different positions.
And then I have a case against the JDL for their harassment of my store and the damage they did to my business, which I’m only suing them for $35,000. [That] couldn’t even begin to address how much they did here—I would need probably a million but that’s not reasonable. And then they are counter-suing me, because they claim that I have given the public the impression that they’re terrorists and hateful people, that they hate Palestinians and Muslims. So we’re going to court to prove it. In a defamation case, if someone is saying they defamed you but what you said about them is in fact true, then that’s your defense. So in both of my civil court cases, I’m going to use the truth as my defense: there’s so much evidence that the JDL is a terrorist organization, I think I’ll be able to prove it in court.
You mentioned on your Instagram that you’re at risk of losing your business license?
Yeah, that’s the one with the city bylaw violation of the anti-discrimination clause. That court date is set for September. I mean, they’ve already started. They were able to cut off my Ubereats account, my website. Several payment processors abandoned me. I had Paypal drop me for a little while. They’ve already been trying every institutional means they have to shut me down.
I’ve seen a lot of people question what a small business’s motive would be in any kind of justice, but we’re not removed from injustice. A lot of us are just regular people. We took our life savings and started something. We probably worked three or four years for free to make it work, and there hasn’t been a single year here [when] I took more money than my employees. The pandemic treated us in an unjust way when it came to small business closures. We were really cheated out in the way the lockdowns were applied. So justice is our issue too. We’re part of the whole community that’s getting eroded. I would love to live in a world where I didn’t have to make money to survive, but we all do.
You recently posted about the CBC not being able to say “Palestine.”
We’ve known about this for sometime, but now we have that insider email showing us. This is the CBC participating in the erasure of Palestine. They are participating in a genocide when they say things like “there’s no modern country of Palestine. It’s the West Bank. It’s Gaza.” These are terms that are used to erode the Palestinian national identity and the struggle for a Palestinian state. So they are actually just [supporting] Israel, which has come up with a lot of very creative rhetoric to describe its genocide as not a genocide. It would be like us saying there was never a Turtle Island. Israel has colonized the Palestinian land. It’s the same with food: it’s not Israeli Couscous it’s Palestinian couscous, but everyone knows it as Israeli couscous. And this erases Palestine.
That [ruining of people’s careers for talking about Palestine] is going to be a thing of the past. There were people saying slavery was complicated, and how did that age? It’s going to be impossible to not be pro-Palestinian and look at yourself in the mirror. Once these things start, it’s a tsunami. If you think about South Africa, it really fell in the last two years of its history. There was no end in sight, and then boom.
In the past few weeks we’ve seen mass uprisings in support of Palestine. Why do you think this is happening now, and what are your hopes for change?
I think a combination of factors. Everyone’s noticing a sudden shift, but it has actually been a gradual rise and then there was a sudden shift. Even before the things that happened in the last few weeks, we saw B’Tselem (the human rights organization), call it an apartheid. In the past year or so I was already witnessing a little bit of a change, in the last two weeks it’s been an explosion. I think that the events in Sheikh Jarrah and what they did at the Mosque on Ramadan, which is just so horrid, anybody could identify why that is wrong. And then they pair that with another onslaught on Gaza that killed 65 children in a matter of days.
The key thing that’s changed here is that there’s been some sort of breakthrough on social media. The youth in Palestine are organized and invigorated and they’re putting out content, they’re taking risks. The Palestinian youth movement around the world has been breaking the algorithms. They’ve been able to get through. So there’s just been a rise in popularity and willingness to talk about Palestine.
What I also think is that a lot of people want to talk about this, a lot of people want to support it, but they’re scared. And so all that happened was that we needed a mass amount of people to do it for people not to be scared, and when everybody’s doing something it’s a lot easier. So we’re basically ripping off whatever was in the way that was preventing everybody from talking.
I think a lot of people are waiting on my [court] cases to see [whether we’re] allowed to talk about Zionism. And I was so happy when I saw those signs [at the protest] about Zionism. It was one thing to say something about Israel, but if you talk about Zionism, it’s game over in this town. They will paint you as a racist and silence you. The critical discussion on that topic is so taboo, and I think finally people are just brave enough to do it. It’s just that moment.
One other thing that I would think contributed to the breakthrough the Palestinian movement is experiencing right now is the work that Black Lives Matter and the Landback Movement did, especially in North America. Those two movements have really popularized social justice and being a part of decolonization and doing the work, even for white people. And so all those dominos needed to line up. And now this is the moment. This will be the summer of Palestine. It’s like we’ve trained people in what we have to do. Just watching how recently they held down a railway to stop weapon sales to Israel [in Mississauga], this is taking upon the lesson learned from the Landback movement and how powerful that was. Palestinians really came out for these movements, so they did that work of building solidarity in advance of this moment today.
I don’t think it’s going to be an instant one-state utopia. The Israelis will stay, but the apartheid occupation, the institutions that segregate and make people unequal? That can change. I don’t know what version of a state that will be, but equality and human rights for everyone and self determination? Yeah, it’s coming soon. For sure.
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