The Toronto Star
By Rob FergusonQueen's Park Bureau
Friday March 17, 2023
New Democrat Sarah Jama easily won the party stronghold of Hamilton Centre in Thursday’s byelection hours after she apologized for “harmful” remarks that rattled the Jewish community.In a statement before voters headed to the ballot box, Jama apologized for her comments in a 2021 video at a Palestinian rally that Israel is funding “the killing of people here locally and globally.”
The 28-year-old founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario — and frequent speaker on policing and Palestinian rights in the conflict with Israel — replaces former NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who quit as MPP in August and later elected mayor of Hamilton.
With all of the polls reporting and low voter turnout of just 22 per cent, the political newcomer had 54 per cent support to 20 per cent for Liberal Deidre Pike in her second run at the downtown riding and Progressive Conservative Pete Wiesner at 15.5 per cent.
“This is an exciting night for Hamilton,” said Jama, who was acclaimed as the candidate in November when no challengers stepped forward for the party’s nomination.
She did not address the controversy in her victory statement.
“I’m ready to get to work.”
What had been a low-key campaign flared in the last two weeks after B’nai Brith issued a statement accusing Jama of being a “radical anti-Israel advocate” for supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and “antisemitic causes.”
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East fired back, describing B’nai Brith as a “pro-Israel” advocacy group promoting “disinformation against Palestinian activists” to fuel a “smear campaign.”
Then, on the eve of the byelection, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said Jama and the NDP under newly minted leader Marit Stiles have failed to “publicly acknowledge the harm done” in the video circulating online.
Jama’s apology citing her “poor choice of words” came after Stiles met Wednesday with Wiesenthal Centre chief executive Michael Levitt, who called the video remarks “disturbing” and “wild conspiratorial accusations.”
The remarks in the video “have caused real concern for members of the Jewish community,” Stiles said in a statement following the meeting. “I want to acknowledge that harm, especially in a climate of rising antisemitism.”
The Hamilton Jewish Federation acknowledged Jama’s apology “regarding the harmful impact of her past words, and her pledge ... to speak out against antisemitism and to show up for the Jewish community.”
The Israel-Palestinian conflict was previously raised at a candidates’ debate on a local cable channel, where Jama said she had a “messy history around anti-racism” and maintained “I am against antisemitism wholeheartedly.”
“Nothing has been called out in terms of things that I’ve said,” she added in an exchange with Pike following a question from a viewer. “Things that have been called out online (are) me standing up for Palestinian human rights, and that cannot be conflated with antisemitism.”
Stiles repeatedly stood by Jama despite calls from B’nai Brith and interim Liberal leader John Fraser to drop her as a candidate, and again after the video surfaced from the 2021 rally where she also accused Hamilton police of protecting “Nazism.”
That is an apparent reference to Hamilton’s Pride festival two years earlier when members of the Yellow Vest movement and other extremists wearing masks and combat-style gear began taunting participants, resulting in a violent altercation that included punching and head-butting.
Pride officials said it took police as much as 40 minutes to arrive in force and filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that police failed to protect LGBTQ participants. Hamilton’s police chief has apologized to that community, acknowledging a “significantly damaged” relationship.
The byelection does not change the balance of power in the legislature, where there are now 82 Progressive Conservative MPPs, 31 New Democrats, eight Liberals, one Green and two independents.