Nora Barrows-Friedman 6 October 2022
For the first time, criminal charges have been pursued in a Canadian court over alleged recruitment for the Israeli military.
On 22 September, a judge issued a summons order to Sar-El Canada on allegations that the organization has encouraged or enticed Canadians to volunteer with Israel’s army.
Legal experts say that is in violation of Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act (FEA).
The FEA, which dates from 1937, was originally an anti-communist measure to criminalize Canadians who traveled to Spain to help fight against the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
The judge’s order mandates that Sar-El Canada respond to the claims and attend court hearings.
Rabbi David Mivasair and Rehab Nazzal, both longtime advocates for Palestinian rights, along with their attorneys John Philpot and Shane Martinez, have brought the charges against the Canadian chapter of Sar-El – a group of “volunteers for Israel” – in a private prosecution case.
Mivasair has previously campaigned to strip the charitable status of another Zionist organization that funneled money to projects supporting the Israeli army and has challenged the Canadian government’s protection of the Jewish National Fund’s involvement in the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their land.
Mivasair stated that he and Nazzal believe “that the recruitment in Canada of volunteers to assist the Israeli military ought to be a concern of all Canadians.”
“This case is about an alleged violation of Canadian law,” stated Nazzal.
“We are confident that the court will carefully consider the evidence available and adjudicate this matter in a fair and impartial manner,” she added.
For years, activists notified the government as well as the Toronto Police Service alleging that Sar-El Canada was in violation of federal law, but, Mivasair explained, “they both failed to act.”
The attorney Shane Martinez said that to the best of their knowledge, “there was no competent investigation of that complaint and certainly there were no charges that were ever laid.”
He said that “there appears to be a disinterest by the government and the police in relation to pursuing this issue, and for that reason, the matter was pursued as a private prosecution out of a civil duty to ensure the rule of law was upheld here.”
“If the court ultimately makes a finding of guilt, that could send a message of denunciation and deterrence to those who are allegedly involved in recruiting volunteers to assist foreign armies,” Martinez added.
Addressing claims in court
Sar-El Canada, which has long advertised its programs in Canadian media, is alleged to have “acted as an intermediary to recruit or induce individuals to volunteer in a non-combatant role with the Israeli military,” according to the attorneys Philpot and Martinez.
Further allegations include that “once in Israel, volunteers would reside on military bases, wear military uniforms, and complete tasks that would otherwise be assigned to soldiers.”
Sar-El Canada will have to address these claims in court, Martinez said. The legal process is underway, with preliminary hearings, disclosures and administrative issues to be addressed before the trial date can be scheduled.
But he said that the federal prosecutor has the right to take over the case at any time, or to end the prosecution altogether.
“Notwithstanding that, we’re cautiously optimistic that the case is going to move ahead, [that] there won’t be intervention, and that ultimately the court will be able to consider all the evidence and adjudicate the case on its merits in a fair and partial manner.”
“Broad logistical support”
Sar-El was founded in the early 1980s and operates in more than 30 countries.
It boasts that more than 160,000 volunteers have been brought in through the organization to “provide broad logistical support” to the Israeli army by volunteers in a non-combatant capacity, and that “a number of its Jewish volunteers” have since moved to Israel.
“Volunteers with Sar-El reside on Israeli military bases, they wear uniforms provided by the Israeli military, they follow their codes of conduct, they take directions from – and act for the benefit of – the Israeli military,” Martinez explained.
Corporate records indicate that Sar-El Canada has been in operation since 2006, he added, “and it is alleged that the recruitment inducement has occurred since that time, and continues up until this day.”
The Jerusalem Post has reported that the organization received funds from Israel’s defense ministry, and that Sar-El volunteers have been drafted into the Israeli army.
Long history of recruitment
Though the legal case against Sar-El Canada is the first of its kind in pursuing criminal charges, activists have long demanded that Canada end its support of Israel’s military recruitment practices.
In 2020, 170 prominent Canadian faith leaders, activists, artists and intellectuals called on justice minister David Lametti to investigate and potentially take legal action “against all those involved in recruiting and encouraging recruiting” in the country for the Israeli army.
John Philpot, one of the attorneys suing Sar-El, filed a formal complaint with Lametti over Israel’s recruitment within Canada.
Lametti deferred responsibility to the police, motivating Philpot to complain to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The CBC has reported that Canadian government agencies do not keep track of how many of its citizens join the Israeli army.
In 2019, the Israeli consulate in Toronto bragged that a representative of its military would be interviewing potential recruits.
This new legal case against Sar-El Canada “is a significant step forward to address an issue that has, for quite some time, been of concern for many individuals and groups here,” Martinez noted.