Ontario NDP legislator apologizes for, but doesn’t retract, Middle East statement

By Allison Jones in Toronto

A New Democrat member of Ontario’s provincial parliament apologized Wednesday for a statement she made about the conflict between Israel and Hamas though she did not retract it, as publicly demanded by NDP Leader Marit Stiles.

Sarah Jama, who was elected earlier this year in a byelection in Hamilton Centre, published a written statement Tuesday decrying “the generations long occupation of Palestine” and what she called apartheid and human rights violations in Gaza, without mentioning the attack on Israel by Hamas militants that has been described as the worst civilian massacre in the country’s history.

The premier called on Jama to resign as a member for provincial parliament, while several Jewish groups called on Stiles to kick Jama out of caucus.

Stiles said late Tuesday that Jama’s statement was not approved by the caucus. She publicly asked Jama to retract it and “state clearly that she decries any violence against both Israeli and Palestinian people.”

Nearly 24 hours later, Jama posted a new statement on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, as a reply to her original statement.

“I heard many voices yesterday raising concerns about my post,” Jama wrote. 

“I hear them – and above all, I understand the pain that many Jewish and Israeli Canadians, including my own constituents, must be feeling. I apologize.  To be clear, I unequivocally condemn terrorism by Hamas on thousands of Israeli civilians. I also believe that Israel’s bombardment and siege on civilians in Gaza, as was also noted by the United Nations, is wrong.”

Stiles said Wednesday afternoon that Jama’s original statement caused harm to Jewish people and didn’t reflect the party’s position.

“In working with MPP Jama over the last 24 hours, I understand the personal impact that this is having on her as someone with Palestinian family members,” she wrote.

“At the same time, I have made it clear that all members of our caucus condemn Hamas’ terror attacks, and we stand in support of the federal NDP’s position in calling for an end to further bloodshed. MPP Jama has reaffirmed her commitment to this.” 

The attack and Israel’s ensuing response in Gaza have killed at least 2,200 people so far.

Premier Doug Ford had called on Jama to resign.

“Marit Stiles and the Ontario NDP have proven time and time again that they tolerate these hateful views and actions by keeping Ms. Jama in their caucus,” he wrote in a statement issued before Jama’s apology. 

“As premier, I’m doing what Ms. Stiles won’t and calling on Sarah Jama to resign immediately as a member of the provincial parliament. Her views do not represent Ontario. They have no place in the legislature, and they have no place in this province.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center were among the Jewish groups that called on Stiles to kick Jama out of caucus.

“The implications of her comments extend far beyond the confines of her social media platforms, as they reflect poorly on the Ontario NDP as a whole,” the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote in a statement.

“Her continued presence in the party not only undermines the values and principles that the NDP stands for but also sends a disturbing message that her views are tolerated, or worse, condoned.”

Jama also faced criticism from Jewish groups during her successful byelection campaign in March, with B’nai Brith accusing her of being a “radical anti-Israel advocate.”

She said the criticism centred around what she describes as standing up for Palestinian human rights and her association with student groups “running Israeli Apartheid week on campus 10 years ago,” which shouldn’t be conflated with anti-Semitism.

“I am against antisemitism wholeheartedly,” she said during a debate.

Jama has also recently reposted a statement from the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario branch, facing its own public condemnation for statements by its president.

The day after the attack on Israel, Fred Hahn posted that he was thankful for the power of resistance around the globe because resistance is “fruitful” and “brings progress.” Hahn has since written that he would never endorse violence and that everyone deserves to live in peace.

CUPE Ontario said it has now been “targeted by a highly organized pro-Israel lobby that seeks to control the anti-Palestinian narrative fed to Canadians and intimidate any person or organization that fails to comply with its agenda.”

“This lobby rejects any attempt or even reference to context, nuance or appeal to even-handedness in the history of Israel/Palestine,” the union wrote in a statement. 

“True to form, it has targeted CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn and CUPE 3906 for their recognition of Palestinians’ rights under international law to resist occupation through armed struggle.”

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow took several attempts at her own statement over the weekend, starting with an unequivocal condemnation of the attack by Hamas, followed by a post acknowledging Palestinians’ pain. 

She then deleted both statements on social media and sent a third condemning the attack while mourning the loss of innocent Israelis and Palestinians.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2023.