Healthcare workers slam their CEOs for slandering pro-Palestinian protesters

Feb 21, 2024

Healthcare workers slam their CEOs for slandering pro-Palestinian protesters

After 15 hospital CEOs in Toronto mischaracterized a peaceful pro-Palestinian rally as antisemitic, many of their employees have joined thousands of voices demanding an apology and retraction of their “fabrications.”

Toronto healthcare workers are pushing back against their employers, demanding an apology and a retraction for what they say are “false accusations of antisemitism over the fabricated Mount Sinai story.”

“The statement that you signed after the emergency 'Hands Off Rafah' demonstration on Monday, February 12, 2024, was based on fabricated information which has caused significant damage by reinforcing racist stereotypes of Palestinians, slandering protestors (sic) as antisemitic and unnecessarily instilling fear in the public,” reads a letter signed by the Health Workers Alliance for Palestine (HAP) and other pro-Palestinian groups, including Jews Say No To Genocide.

The letter was sent Tuesday, Feb. 20, to the 15 CEOs who accused protesters at that rally of antisemitism for momentarily stopping near — and some of them climbing atop — an entrance to Mount Sinai Hospital, an institution which has Jewish roots but treats anyone. 

“It’s absolutely disgusting and shameful that the hospitals’ CEOs say absolutely nothing about [Israel’s] targeting of healthcare workers, or the targeting of [25] hospitals in Gaza … and yet they’re willing to almost instantly sign on to a letter that’s based on a lie,” says Dr. Ben Thomson, a nephrologist at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital and member of HAP, a national organization representing healthcare workers. He was at the Hands Off Rafah rally on Feb 12. 

Speaking to The Media Co-op by phone about the letter campaign, Dr. Thomson mentioned that workers like him will face “almost inevitable” repercussions for speaking out.  

In the letter, they criticize the various hospitals’ CEOs for not taking the time “to understand what had actually occurred” during the few minutes that the rally passed by the Mount Sinai Hospital on University Ave. 

The Hands Off Rafah rally

Describing it as “a wonderful and beautiful demonstration” attended by more than 3,000 people from various ethnicities and religious denominations, Dr. Thomson says the rally lasted for around four hours and had virtually no issues along the commonly-used route, which had police present the entire time. 

Organizers say the people who climbed the hospital’s entrance had also climbed various other structures along the way. That included Spiderman4Palestine, who has shown up at nearly every rally, climbing whatever building or structure they can. 

A detailed account of the events from The Grind also notes that protesters didn’t arrive at the site until around 8 p.m., long after that entrance to the hospital on University Ave. had closed at 6 p.m.. Dr. Thomson confirms that, and estimates that they couldn’t have been there longer than a few minutes.

He says demonstrators, including his colleagues, are both “confused and appalled” that everyone, from the CEOs, to the mainstream media and politicians from all levels of government, are pushing antisemitism narratives that are “patently false.” 

“Even the most elemental assessment would confirm that that’s complete and absolute nonsense,” he says. “Instead of commenting on any of the most egregious and horrific crimes [committed by Israel], they focus on someone who climbed an awning on a part of the hospital that was closed.”

None of those CEOs have made similar official, unified statements about the actual bombing of 25 hospitals in Gaza.

Anti-Palestinian racism

“It’s institutionalized anti-Palestinian racism,” says Dr. Thomson, referring to the CEO's letter. Last October, after posting pro-Palestinian views on his X (formerly Twitter) account, he was suspended for one month from his job, threatened and had his address shared online. 

In its first annual report documenting anti-Palestinian racism (APR), CJPME found over 500 expressions of it in Canadian institutions throughout 2022. The 2023 report is expected to find many more examples, says CJPME president Thomas Woodley. 

According to CJPME, the intended effect of this racism is to silence Palestinian perspectives and thus suppress criticism of Israel and Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism and smearing all allies of the Palestinian people as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and antisemites.

It might explain why following the Feb. 12 rally, Toronto Police Services’ increased their presence at demonstrations along Hospital Row

By Feb. 17, Jews Say No To Genocide issued an emergency press release saying the police had threated pro-Palestinian supporters with a $10,000 fine if they climbed the platform of a sound system truck — as they have been doing weekly since October — while it was moving. 

Dalia Awwad, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), says police announced this “just minutes” before the rally started. She says when she asked the police what law they were breaking, they “were not able to answer.”

No one was fined at that rally.

Screenshot of news release from Jews Say No To GenocideScreenshot of news release from Jews Say No To Genocide

In an email to The Media Co-op on Feb. 19, Toronto police media relations officer Cons. Laura Brabant said: “Police spoke to protest organizers and cautioned them against driving the truck with people sitting on the trailer or hanging off the sides, for safety reasons. Organizers agreed to this. We didn’t mention anything about a $10,000 fine.”

Awwad says it’s all “clearly a scare tactic” to “brutalize and criminalize” pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and now the cops “are grasping at different types of straws.”

But it’s not working, says Awwad, because despite “their fear tactics and the fear-mongering … people are still coming out.”

Continued pushback

Since Israel’s disproportionate retaliation against Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, there have been nearly weekly and peaceful pro-Palestinian marches calling for a ceasefire.

By the time of writing, almost 14,000 people have also signed a petition demanding that Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh “immediately remove his post on X smearing anti-Genocide protesters,” in reference to the protest that passed by Mount Sinai Hospital.

On Feb. 14, pro-Palestinian demonstrators also disrupted question period on Parliament Hill to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, chanting “Free free Palestine, stop arming Israel.”

That same morning, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow — who like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mischaracterized the Feb. 12 rally as “unacceptable” and “antisemitic” — appeared to walk back her original statements. 

“I wasn’t there. I haven’t seen a police report on that event,” she said on the CBC’s Metro Morning Show on Feb. 14. “Right now, there seems to be different interpretations.” 

Awwad credits Chow’s backtracking to the “swift pressure that’s being placed on politicians” to “hold them accountable.”

But while it  is a “slight adjustment,” she adds, “it does not take away” from the fact that she had acquiesced to pressure from the media, politicians and the pro-Israel advocacy groups.

“She may have said something in the media that was better than before, but her actions still remain very racist towards Palestinians and other marginalized folks in this city.”

The Mayor’s Office did not reply to The Media Co-op’s repeated requests for comment.

A window of opportunity

Given the tension between the healthcare workers supporting Palestinians and their employers, Dr. Thomson says “many physicians who have been suspended have struggled to go back to work.” Many relationships will be hard to mend, he says, after the many “vile, disgusting and untrue” allegations lobbied among colleagues in the past five months.

That’s perhaps why although Tuesday’s letter demands an apology and a retraction from the CEOs, he’s not holding his breath, “given the ease at which they came out” against the demonstrators and the “number of suspensions in their facilities of people who are pro-Palestine.” 

That’s why for him, it’s important to continue speaking up, despite the consequences. 

“I think there’s a window now where there needs to be a long-standing sustainable, peaceful solution where Palestinians have their own state, they are free, and they live with dignity,” he says. “Something I haven’t seen within my lifetime.”

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