Freak Show in Hamilton Centre Byelection: Privileged Minorities Fall Out — Anti-Semitism Allegations; Disabled Lobbyist; LGTQ Militant

Antisemitism charges upend Ontario byelection race in NDP stronghold

It was expected to be a smooth cruise to victory in the NDP stronghold of Hamilton Centre but the campaign has been buffeted by allegations of antisemitism.

Rob Ferguson

By Rob FergusonQueen’s Park Bureau

Sun., March 12, 2023timer4 min. read

updateArticle was updated 3 hrs ago

HAMILTON — It was expected to be a smooth cruise to victory in a riding staunchly New Democrat for almost two decades under former party leader Andrea Horwath, who quit last year to become mayor of Steeltown.

But accusations of antisemitism against NDP candidate Sarah Jama — which she denies — are buffeting the campaign in Thursday’s Hamilton Centre byelection, putting the disability activist and the party’s newly minted leader Marit Stiles on the defensive.

B’nai Brith issued a statement Monday calling Jama “a radical activist who has been associated with groups that have frequently targeted Israel,” including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and urged Stiles to drop her as a candidate.

Jama acknowledged her own “messy history around anti-racism” during a candidates’ debate broadcast on local cable TV the next evening, but said “nothing has been called out in terms of things that I’ve said.”

That history includes ties to Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights during her student activist days at McMaster University. The group has called for a Palestinian state “from the (Jordan) river to the sea” — often interpreted as erasing the state of Israel.

“Me standing up for Palestinian human rights … cannot be conflated with antisemitism,” the founder of the Ontario Disability Justice Network added in an exchange that followed a question from a viewer.

“I’m really against antisemitism in our communities, but I’m also for human rights, and that includes the rights of everybody, whether it’s Black people … Indigenous people in our communities and Palestinian people,” said Jama, 28, who campaigns in a power chair because she cannot walk after being born prematurely with cerebral palsy.

“Being disabled gives me another lens of compassion. It’s one thing to talk about supporting vulnerable community members, but it’s another thing to share in those experiences.”

As part of her activist efforts, Jama was given a $100,000 ticket — and ripped it up — at a 2020 city hall protest in support of homeless people that violated COVID-19 stay-at-home laws, seemingly at odds with frequent New Democrat calls for Premier Doug Ford’s government to maintain tight restrictions to limit spread of the virus. The charges were later dropped.

Jama was acclaimed the NDP candidate in November after running unopposed for the nomination.

Stiles, whose New Democrats rebuked MPP Joel Harden (Ottawa Centre) last fall for antisemitic remarks before she became leader, fielded questions on Jama for three straight days at the legislature — with a nod to her “messy history” remark.

“When you’re at a rally, and we’ve all found ourselves in these situations where you really can’t control what somebody is doing over here and over there, you learn from that, right?” Stiles told reporters.

“Sarah Jama is a well-known human rights activist who has always stood up against hate, antisemitism and racism and I look forward to welcoming her at Queen’s Park.”

Liberal candidate Deirdre Pike, a training facilitator in the LGBTQ community and a former social justice planner in her second run at the riding after losing to Horwath in the 2018 provincial election, said Jama needs to do a better job “clearing the air.”

“There is a problem when respectable organizations like B’nai Brith are calling you out,” added the 60-year-old who got a boost going door-to-door when 1,500 Liberals gathered in Hamilton last weekend to chart a course for picking a new leader.

“Solutions to Israel need to come through diplomatic and negotiated solutions, not through, you know, extreme groups that use phrases that can be quite triggering.”

At a time when Premier Doug Ford is facing criticism over opening the Greenbelt, a lack of affordable housing and a crisis in health care, the challenge is that the byelection campaign is garnering little attention, said McMaster University political scientist Peter Graefe.

“I don’t think people are really talking about it,” he told the Star. “Locally, it’s not much of a story but the parties are trying to use this as provincial messaging.”

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser — whose party has eight MPPs at Queen’s Park compared to the New Democrats with 30 — said concerns about Jama’s candidacy are key to the tone Stiles is striking for the NDP in the wake of the Harden controversy in November.

“It’s a test of leadership.” he told reporters at Queen’s Park, urging Stiles to drop Jama. “Sometimes doing the right thing is really, really hard.”

Harden was forced to apologize by former NDP interim leader Peter Tabuns for remarks at the August 2021 Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine.

The Ottawa MPP said he has “asked many questions of Jewish neighbours here about how much longer we should put up with this … the single greatest threat, the single greatest origin of violence in the Middle East, it is unquestionably the state of Israel.”

Tabuns told reporters he was “very angry” at Harden’s “hurtful” comments about confronting Jewish neighbours over actions by the state of Israel, a tactic Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre president Michael Levitt called “textbook antisemitism.”

Progressive Conservative candidate Pete Wiesner, 47, who skipped the cable debate to campaign in-person with voters, said the Jama situation is “certainly in people’s decision-making process now.”

On leave from his job as a Hamilton police sergeant in the crisis response branch, which deals with marginalized communities like the homeless, Wiesner is hoping to build on Ford’s outreach to labour that helped the PCs win additional seats in the June provincial election, including two in the former NDP stronghold of Windsor.

PC candidates finished a distant second in the riding in the last two provincial elections, with Liberals in third place and Greens in fourth.

Ten candidates are running in Thursday’s vote, according to Elections Ontario.

Deirdre Pike Liberal Candidate