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Vernon cyclist shocked as keynote speech dropped due to Israeli background

Leah Goldstein says organizers’ decision to cancel her International Women’s Day speech over her past career with Israel Defence Forces is antisemitic
Vernon’s Leah Goldstein became the second woman to win the 500 Mile Solo Division of the Hoodoo 500 Ultra-Cycling Race in Utah, and did so with a new record time. (Facebook photo)

A renowned Vernon professional cyclist says she was “hurt, angry” and “heartbroken” after her invitation to be a keynote speaker at an International Women’s Day festival in Ontario was cancelled due to her past service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

It’s a move that Leah Goldstein said felt like “a sick joke,” given that organizers admitted they were responding to pushback from “a small group” of protesters and that Goldstein, a Canadian-Israeli dual citizen, hadn’t served with the IDF since 30 years ago, in a training aspect rather than combat capacity.

Goldstein, 55, can often be seen cycling around Vernon, but on March 8 she was set to be in Peterborough, Ont. for Inspire’s International Women’s Day Event. Tapped to be a keynote speaker, she planned to talk about her career as a cyclist and the time she was a 17-year-old World Kickboxing champion, while sharing messages about bravery, growth and overcoming sexism as she’s done over her 10-year public speaking career.

But last month, Inspire festival organizers withdrew Goldstein’s invitation to speak. Goldstein says they first told her by text that she would need to provide a statement about Israel to preface her keynote speech, which, speaking to The Morning Star, she said was “absurd,” adding she shouldn’t have to remark on the ongoing and divisive Israel-Hamas war when her talks are never political.

“I’m a Jewish woman. What kind of statement do you expect from me?”

Goldstein said she didn’t plan on providing a statement, but it didn’t matter. The next day the decision was made to cancel her appearance altogether.

Goldstein said she was shocked when she received the email, and all she could do was stare at the wall “for two hours” in disbelief.

A few things bothered her. One is that she says the emailed communications came off as “accusatory,” as though she had done something wrong, or that her involvement with the IDF three decades ago made her unfit to be platformed in the current political climate amid the war. Also, she said the organizers seemed to have capitulated to a small number of protesters who had pressured them to cut Goldstein from the event.

Goldstein panned the decision as being antisemitic, and unbecoming of a forum that champions diversity and inclusion in its program.

The decision appears to have backfired. Since news of Goldstein’s disinvitation broke (Goldtein posted a statement on her website on Feb. 17), Goldstein has been interviewed by news outlets around the world, including the Jerusalem Post and Fox News. Meanwhile, Inspire cancelled the entire Women’s Day event on Tuesday, Feb. 20. Its website is currently private and its Facebook page has been shut down.

“I had probably 50 requests now to speak in Toronto,” she said.

Goldstein explained her parents came to Canada from Israel when her mom was seven months pregnant with her in 1969. She was born in Vancouver and went back to Israel when she was 17, in 1986. She joined the IDF and went on to work in the Belush, an Israeli secret police agency, for about 10 years.

She said while it wasn’t mandatory for her to join the IDF because she was born in Canada, “I needed the skills the military would give me in order to do the job that I really wanted to do,” which was to work undercover for a spy agency.

She worked in a division teaching soldiers self-defence and was one of the first female instructors to train them in the unit.

A lieutenant introduced her to the sport of duathlons, which kickstarted her 10-year cycling career. (She’s still on the bike; in 2022 she became the second woman in Hoodoo 500 ultra-marathon history to become the 500 Mile Solo Champion). She said that would have been about all she would have said about her Israeli background in her keynote speech.

Now thrust in the spotlight by the controversy, Goldstein said she’s still not inclined to be pulled into a political debate, despite the fact that she’s become a target of antisemitic remarks and labelled by some as a genocide supporter. While she’s proud of her time in the IDF, she is heartbroken by the loss of life on both sides of the war, and believes that “hate and violence is not going to help bring us together.”

Goldstein said the decision to censor not because of anything she’s said, but because of her background, will serve to “fuel hatred” rather than avoid it.

Goldstein will not pursue legal action over the matter.

Black Press Media has reached out to the organizers of the now cancelled event. They did not respond by the time of this story’s publication.

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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