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Family of suspected hostage, Jewish groups and MPs rally on Hill against antisemitism

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OTTAWA -

The family of the only Canadian believed to be held by Hamas joined a Monday rally on Parliament Hill, where a large crowd gathered to call for an end to antisemitic violence in Canada and for solidarity with Israel.

“There are a lot of innocent people who are suffering,” said Larry Weinstein, the brother of missing Canadian woman Judih Weinstein Haggai.

Weinstein Haggai went missing on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip launched attacks on Israeli soil that killed an estimated 1,200 people.

That's the day Raquel Look's son, Alexandre, who lived in Montreal, was killed at a music festival.

“Our sorrow is deep and immeasurable,” she said. “We want to channel this immense pain into a call for action. This tragedy is not just a horrific personal loss. It is a wake-up call to our politicians. All of them.”

On Monday,thousands of people gathered into a tightly packed crowd on the snow-covered lawn of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Many of them waved Israeli flags. Nicole Amiel, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said organizers had brought in about 7,000 people on buses from Toronto and other 2,000 on buses from Montreal.

Speaking on the outskirts of the rally, Ali Weinstein, the niece of the missing Canadian, says her family has been on an emotional roller-coaster.

First, grief. Then joy for hostages who have been released. And now fear, each time her aunt's name isn't on the list.

Weinstein Haggai has Canadian, Israeli and American citizenships, her relatives say.

The Canadian government has been the most responsive to the family's concerns, they say, and two RCMP officers are in touch nearly every day - though for weeks, little new information has emerged.

Her family says Weinstein Haggai was born in New York state but moved to Toronto when she was three years old. She moved to Israel 20 years later to live with her husband Gad Haggai.

She made puppets to help teach students English, and often posted haikus and meditations on YouTube, her family says. The now-70-year-old would also volunteer to help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which sits less than three kilometres from her home.

As the family tells it, Weinstein Haggai and her husband were out for a walk when the Oct. 7 attacks started, and she sent a text message to members of her community saying that a militant on a motorcycle had shot her husband and she was less severely wounded.

The Nir Oz kibbutz, a collective farming community, tried to dispatch an ambulance, but couldn't do so before Hamas militants arrived. Israeli officials later told family members that Weinstein Haggai's cellphone signal was detected within Gaza, her family says.

For weeks, Weinstein Haggai's family kept quiet because they feared raising her profile with her captors.

They say they were also unsure whether to voice their dismay at how Israel has responded to the attacks, with constant airstrikes and a siege on Gaza that the United Nations says violates international humanitarian law.

Since the Oct. 7 attack, officials in the Hamas-controlled territory say 15,500 Palestinians have been killed as Israel retaliates, including with an expanding military ground offensive.

Larry Weinstein said he's distressed by the rise in hateful speech toward both Jews and Muslims in Canada.

“We're inspired by my sister, who believed in peace and believed in harmony,” he said.

“There can't be any kind of resolution when people are at each other's throats.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which organized the rally on Parliament Hill, said it aimed to show collective strength in the face of what it calls staggering antisemitism.

Speakers referred to incidents in Canada such as shots being fired at Jewish schools, a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a Jewish community centre and a bomb threat against a high school.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather told the rally that some people have been minimizing the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians.

“The last few weeks have left me very angry. Angry that as soon as Hamas murdered Israelis, people started making justifications.”

Housefather was among a handful of MPs who recently travelled to Israel at the invitation of Jewish federations in Canada, including Liberals, Conservatives and one independent MP. Most of them attended Monday's rally.

An NDP spokeswoman said the party's MPs were invited to attend, but none were available. However, MP Matthew Green told reporters Monday he had “certainly” not received an invite.

The party has called for a ceasefire in the latest Israel-Hamas war, and a spokeswoman noted leader Jagmeet Singh has met with relatives of those killed by Hamas and denounced antisemitism.

At the rally, Housefather said the trip confirmed his belief that the Hamas attack amounted to a pogrom against Jews.

“We saw bullet holes and blood traces and cars that were run off the road when their occupants were killed. We heard from survivors - stories of rape, torture and murder. We met with families of Canadians who were massacred and with families of the hostages,” he said.

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman said she was “outraged” at Canada's political class for what she deemed to be a failure to protect Jewish people.

“It was easy to be pro-Israel when this first happened, and it's much harder now. And now we see who they really are,” she said of politicians.

“Canada has somehow become a country that abandoned our long-standing principled position, and opted for mealy mouthed platitudes from far too many,” Lantsman said.

She called for an end to boycotts of Jewish businesses, and prosecution of those behind vandalism and possible hate crimes.

“It is not over until every politician in this country condemns the faceless, mask-wearing, screaming mobs who are illegally inciting hatred in our streets.”

Speakers at the rallycalled for Canadians to speak out for Israel's right to exist and its need to defend itself against terror. They are also calling on the international community to push for the release of hostages held by Hamas, which Canada deems a terrorist group.

“We cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot accept the silence of those who have yet to speak out,” said Look.

Smaller counter-demonstrations took place near the barriers along the edges of the Parliament Hill lawn, where dozens of protesters waved Palestinian flags and held signs decrying Israel's military actions.

Israel's National Security Council recently increased the threat level for Jewish people in parts of Western Europe, though Canada remains listed as having “no travel threat” for Israelis.

This weekend, Israel resumed deadly airstrikes on southern Gaza after a weeklong truce fell apart on Friday, with both sides blaming the other.

Israeli officials say 137 people are still being held hostage in Gaza. Another 105 were freed during the ceasefire in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians who were being held in Israeli prisons. Most of those released on both sides were women and children.

Those exchanges took place at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Since the truce ended, foreign nationals have been allowed to leave through the Rafah crossing once again. Global Affairs Canada said that included about 130 Canadians who left over the weekend.

The department said in a statement Sunday evening that about 600 Canadians, permanent residents and their family members have been able to leave the besieged territory so far.

Global Affairs Canada also said Sunday night that an eighth Canadian has died as a result of the current conflict, this time in Lebanon.

Later Monday, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association held a separate event on Parliament Hill to urge for peace in the Middle East, starting with a ceasefire.

Yet Israel has recalled its negotiators and Hamas' deputy leader has said that any further release of hostages would only happen as part of ending the war.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

- With files fromLaura Osman andThe Associated Press.

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