CUPE president in keffiyeh silences pro-Israel voices on video call

Union President Katherine Grzejszczak wore the garb, while also flaunting a large Palestinian flag sticker on her laptop.

CUPE president in keffiyeh silences pro-Israel voices on video call
Facebook / CUPE Ontario
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Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 905 were taken aback during a morning video meeting when they saw their president wearing a keffiyeh.

The keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headdress that has come into the spotlight in Ontario, as its legislature is currently debating whether it should be banned within Queen's Park.

During an April 17 video conference, Union President Katherine Grzejszczak wore the garb, while also flaunting a large Palestinian flag sticker on her laptop. Members—both gentile and Jew—took offence to the display, with at least one member changing their display picture to an Israel flag during the call.

Videos shared with National Post show Grzejszczak wearing a black t-shirt, before putting on the red keffiyeh.

Grzejszczak is also accused of muting those who voiced their concerns.

“I put up my hand, and I said I would like to speak to the fact that what you’re wearing is a political statement, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable,” one union member told the Post. “And then, before I really could get any words out, she mutes me.”

Grzejszczak told those on the call that it was forbidden to talk "about anything political."

The muted member manually unmuted herself and told Grzejszczak that the Keffiyeh itself was a political statement, to which she was then muted again.

In an email response to the Post, Grzejszczak defended wearing the scarf.

“Part of Israel’s military occupation, apartheid and genocide … is the erasing of cultural symbols such as the keffiyeh.”

“Intimidating and harassing individuals for wearing traditional cultural clothing is a form of racism … we do not tolerate racism in union meetings,” she said.

Members now say they are afraid to speak out publicly out of fear of losing their jobs. "We're all very afraid of the repercussions," one source said.

Multiple coworkers corroborated the series of events and stated that Grzejszczak kicked off the next meeting on April 18 by announcing a ban on discussing her keffiyeh.

During the same meeting, Grzejszczak proposed a motion to secure funding for her candidacy for another union role. Her campaign will focus on "resistance."

“Without resistance, there is no union. A union is about caring for each other and struggling together for better,” it reads. “When you stand up to injustice I want to be there with you because together we have the courage to never back down. I hope to serve as your Member At Large. And, let’s never forget — free Palestine!” she wrote.

During that meeting, one union member asked Grzejszczak to expand on her message.

“Yes, I believe that Palestinians should be free from occupation, free from living under apartheid, and free from genocide and I will always stand for that. Being a union leader, when you are seeing people being massacred, that is a time when you need to open up your mouth and speak and say that is wrong — just like I stand with the rights of workers — I will always stand by the rights of oppressed people,” Grzejszczak said.

Jewish members on the call expressed their opposition to the message but were then accused by Frzejszczak of not understanding her point.

“I do not agree that this is something that has to do with not representing our Jewish members. Frankly, tying a genocide to Jewish people is offensive; some of the folks that are fighting the hardest against what is happening in the State of Israel are Jewish folks … so I do not agree that this is somehow not about representing Jewish (people),” Grzejsczak said.

CUPE 905 members speaking to the Post said that Grzejszczak has not referenced the hostages taken by Hamas, attacks on Israeli civilians, or the rampant anti-Semitism now seen on Canadian streets.

“I don’t feel it’s a safe place for Jewish people,” a second source said.

After Grzejszczak's remarks during the April 18 meeting, a female attendee wearing a black keffiyeh voiced her support for Grzejszczak's candidacy. She then delved into a detailed discussion about the significance of Free Palestine and the historical background of the conflict.

When the first source spoke up again about how this was political talk, she was again muted.

“Our union president speaks of inclusive spaces, but without Jewish perspectives,” a third source said in an email. “When the person who was supposed to represent us all wears clothing that has roots linked with terrorism, we do not feel safe or represented. Her personal views should not represent our union views.”

Ontario MPP Lisa McLeod, who supports the ban on the keffiyeh at Queen's Park, was "not surprised" that union leaders would overstep professional boundaries.

“What we did in the Ontario legislature was make sure that our Jewish members and our Jewish constituents feel safe and able to debate with merit rather than props,” McLeod told National Post. “I would suggest that, given the class action lawsuits that I’ve seen crop up across the province as a result of anti-Semitism in some of the unions, union leaders should be more cognizant of the harm that they may be doing to people’s mental health.”

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