Embattled NDP candidate Sara Jama is apologizing for her “harmful” comments in a video circulating online that party leader Marit Stiles acknowledges “caused real concern for members of the Jewish community.”
The mea culpa came after the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center met with Stiles on the eve of Thursday’s byelection in Hamilton Centre to choose a replacement for Andrea Horwath, the former NDP leader who quit provincial politics last year to become Hamilton’s mayor.
Wiesenthal Center chief executive Michael Levitt called the video “disturbing” and said it contained “wild conspiratorial accusations” that required a meeting with Stiles “for a frank discussion on antisemitism linked to her party’s candidate.”
“Jewish people deserve to feel safe, and should never be targeted because of their faith or their culture,” said Jama, a 28-year-old disability activist and frequent speaker on policing and Palestinian concerns in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The video, as reported by the Star, showed Jama speaking at a rally in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square in May 2021. In it, she accuses Hamilton police of protecting “Nazism” and targeting “Black Muslim Palestinians saying we don’t have the right to push to exist.”
“And the same liberal-minded people will continue saying, ‘But, you know what? It’s fine if these things are happening because the issue will go away if you get the right people in positions of power,” she continues in the video posted to Twitter by a group called Documenting Antisemitism.
“It’s fine that, you know, Israel’s illegitimate because Netanyahu’s not there, and we know that’s not true because the same people will continue to fund the killing of people here locally and globally.”
Her reference to right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made around the time he was being forced from office by a coalition of opposition parties. He has since returned to power.
Jama’s campaign had not responded to requests for an interview on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to explain her remarks in the video, but sent the Star a statement — including her apology — before voters headed to the polls on Thursday.
“I apologize for my comments which have been harmful. This was never my intention, but I recognize the impact,” she said in the statement.
“These issues are complex and my poor choice of words in the video that has been circulating has not helped. I apologize for my comments which have been harmful,” Jama added.
“If elected, I will be an MPP for everyone, and I will work to bring communities together to fight back against hate. I pledge to speak out against antisemitism and show up for the community when I am needed.”
The Hamilton Jewish Federation also raised concerns about the controversy.
“No matter who wins the byelection, what has surfaced has caused a lot of pain to the Jewish community,” the group said in a statement. “This impact must be acknowledged and addressed … particularly in the context of rising hate in this city.”
United Nations Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland said in January that Israelis and Palestinians remain on a “collision course amid escalating political and inflammatory rhetoric as well as heightened violence in the West Bank,” the Associated Press reported.
Underlying the ongoing violence is the Palestinians’ decades-long quest for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory and has built dozens of settlements that are now home to roughly 700,000 Jewish settlers, including Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. The international community widely considers the settlements to be illegal.
Stiles has stood by Jama as “a well-known human rights activist” since accusations of antisemitism were made two weeks ago by B’nai Brith.
The group called her a “radical activist who has been associated with groups that have frequently targeted Israel,” such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. B’nai Brith urged the NDP leader to drop Jama as a candidate, as did Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser.
“Sarah Jama has been unequivocal in her condemnation of antisemitism, but her choice of words in the video have caused real concern,” Stiles added in the statement to the Star. “I want to acknowledge that harm, especially in a climate of rising antisemitism.”
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East took issue with the B’nai Brith accusations, calling the organization a “pro-Israel” advocacy group promoting “disinformation against Palestinian activists” to fuel a “smear campaign.”
In a candidates’ debate last week on Hamilton cable TV, Jama said she has a “messy history around anti-racism” but maintained “me standing up for Palestinian rights … cannot be conflated with antisemitism.”
The controversy marks the second time recently the New Democrats have had to deal with concerns about antisemitism.
Last November, before Stiles was acclaimed as leader, MPP Joel Harden (Ottawa Centre) was rebuked by interim NDP leader Peter Tabuns and forced to apologize for remarks at the August 2021 Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine.
Harden told the forum “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.”
At the time, Tabuns said he was “very angry” at Harden’s comments, and Levitt said confronting Jewish neighbours about the actions of Israel is “textbook antisemitism.”
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