Spike in ‘violent rhetoric’ since Oct. 7 attack from ‘extremist actors,’ CSIS warns

Spike in 'violent rhetoric' since Oct. 7 attack from 'extremist actors,' CSIS warns
Pro-Israel protesters, left, and pro-Palestine protesters face off as police keep the two groups separate at a demonstration in front of a synagogue in Thornhill, Ont., Thursday, March 7, 2024. Newly released documents show federal officials had separate discussions with Jewish and Muslim leaders about the domestic turmoil being caused by the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Israel-Hamas war has led to a spike in “violent rhetoric” from “extremist actors” that could prompt some in Canada to turn to violence, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warns.

The statement comes as newly released documents illustrate discussions last fall between the spy agency, the federal Public Safety Department and Muslim and Jewish leaders about responding to a reported uptick in hate crimes spurred by the conflict.

“While the long-term impacts of the current crisis cannot be easily predicted, it is clear that this conflict has raised tensions within our society,” wrote CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam.

“Violent rhetoric from extremist actors has increased since the attack by Hamas and, as the conflict continues to unfold, it is possible that these events could impact certain individuals’ intent to mobilize to violence.”

The agency’s role is to monitor and identify any threats and alert the government. That doesn’t include lawful protests and dissent, which are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Balsam added.

Documents released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act detail summaries of discussions federal officials had separately with Jewish and Muslim leaders about the ongoing domestic turmoil.

One such document says CSIS representatives “assured all participants that they will continue to monitor threats and to look for evidence of attacks being planned.”

The agency remains in talks with leaders from Muslim and Jewish communities to hear their concerns, Balsam said. Director David Vigneault met with the federal envoys to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia last fall, he added.

Over the course of their meetings, federal officials heard concerns from Muslim and Arab leaders about public rhetoric around the war, including what one attendee felt was “silence” from the government about how the situation in the Middle East would impact the safety of Palestinians and other Muslims living in Canada.

Concerns were also raised about free speech.

“Activists are receiving backlash, being labelled as antisemitic, and facing various consequences for shouting chants such as, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ as well as calling for ‘intifada,'” the documents said.

In Arabic, intifada is a word with meanings that include shaking off oppression. In English, it is most commonly associated with two periods of particular intensity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which included a series of attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups on public venues inside Israel.

Community leaders also told officials that activists were being “heavily surveilled” and “their right to free speech is being stifled,” the note says.

Internal emails sent to RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme also obtained through access-to-information laws show officers were recording the chants and slogans that appeared at what was billed as a pro-Palestinian protest in Toronto in late October.

“Still legal and not looking like moving to violence,” wrote deputy commissioner Mark Flynn.

Jewish leaders along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others have decried examples of protesters glorifying Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack against southern Israel at demonstrations in cities across Canada.

One such incident remains under investigation by Ottawa police.

B’nai Brith Canada released an annual report on Monday documenting cases of antisemitism across the country.

Richard Robertson, the group’s director of research and advocacy, said it has never seen such high levels of antisemitic incidents happening on a daily basis, both online and in real-life acts of violence.

“The 2023 statistics make it abundantly clear when there is unrest in Israel, Jewish Canadians suffer unduly,” he said at a news conference Monday.

“The levels of antisemitism were already on the rise prior to the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict.”

The documents obtained by The Canadian Press outline how federal officials consistently heard from Jewish leaders about the need for police to take more action to stop “the hateful rhetoric expressed at rallies.” It specifically points to the use of the term “Zionist.”

“As an overwhelming majority of Jews identify as Zionists and believe in the need for a Jewish state … calls for attacks against Zionists should be seen as calls for attacks against Jews.”

The note said the RCMP was equipping its front-line members with a “tool kit” explaining the conflict’s historical context to help officers “identify signs of overt and covert hate that may be seen at protests.”

The national force also encouraged local police to pay attention to Jewish-owned businesses and schools, not just synagogues and community centres, according to a summary dated Nov. 29.

The documents also indicate Public Safety Canada would be reaching out to universities “to discuss the dampening of rising tensions and antisemitism on campuses.” It later said it was relaying information to schools “on the current threat environment.”

In the months since, protesters have set up pro-Palestinian encampments at McGill University in Montreal, the University of Ottawa, Vancouver’s University of British Columbia and most recently at the University of Toronto.

School administrators say hate will not be tolerated, warning students will be punished if they run afoul of university policy.

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2024. 

— With files from Dylan Robertson

The Canadian PressThe Canadian Press

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