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Record-breaking Okanagan cyclist 'heartbroken' after being dropped from event over links to Israel

A world champion kickboxer and cyclist who lives in the Okanagan has accused an event organizer of giving in to “threats and hate” after she was dropped as a speaker because of her connections to Israel.

Leah Goldstein, who was born in Vancouver and lives in Vernon, was set to deliver the keynote address at the International Women’s Day event in Ontario but was told in January, months after accepting the invitation, that she was no longer welcome.

The organizer, INSPIRE: The Women’s Portrait Project, said it had rescinded Goldstein’s invitation to speak at the event “in recognition of the current situation and the sensitivity of the conflict in the Middle East.”

It added that it wanted to “create safe spaces to honour, share, and celebrate the remarkable stories of women and non-binary individuals.”

Goldstein, 54, served in the Israeli military in her youth, later working in the country’s police force.

She was a kickboxing champion at the age of 17 and made history as a cyclist when she became the first woman to win the 4,800-kilometre Race Across America.

<who> Photo credit: Leah Goldstein/YouTube

She said INSPIRE’s decision to disinvite her was “deeply upsetting,” adding she was “hurt,” “angry” and “heartbroken.”

“I’ve been a speaker for nearly 10 years and have told my story in front of real estate agents, business managers, garbage collectors, CEOs, motorbike dealers, government agencies and many diverse women’s groups,” she said. “Not once has someone (to my face, to the organizers, nor anonymously) ever claimed to have been offended by my presentation. Not once.”

She added that she assumes she was hired to “speak about overcoming sexism and failures” rather than because she was “a soldier and a cop.”

“As a Jewish woman, I would never be offended if a Palestinian woman were to speak about her obstacles and life journey,” she said. “I thought that’s what women were supposed to do for each other – listen and support!

She added: “Instead, it seems you have chosen to give in to threats and hate – and this is the saddest part. You removed me and made a statement to your audience, without even giving me a chance to make my own. Why wasn’t I contacted personally? Don’t you think I at least deserved that tiny shred of dignity?”

<who> Photo credit: Leah Goldstein/YouTube

Goldstein said she hopes “for peace” and that “humans can learn to treat each other with respect and love.”

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League said it is becoming increasingly common to see Israeli speakers disinvited “simply because of their nationality” or army service.

“Let’s be clear: Boycotting Israeli speakers is hurtful, antithetical to free speech and ultimately counterproductive,” Marina Rosenberg said.

“It fails to recognize the complexities of the situation.”

More than 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were massacred in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 after terrorists from Islamist group Hamas launched a war against the Jewish state from its base in the Gaza Strip.

Hundreds more people, including young children and seniors, were kidnapped and imprisoned in Gaza.

Israel has retaliated by sending troops into Gaza, prompting a humanitarian crisis and, according to Hamas, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of Gazans.

Selina Robinson, a former minister in BC’s NDP government, was targeted by anti-Israel activists earlier this month after she made a comment about the founding of Israel.

She ultimately resigned, with Premier David Eby saying he wanted her to step down.

Robinson’s office was later vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti. She was also allegedly sent a death threat.

During the affair, nine rabbis signed a letter addressed to Eby supporting Robinson and expressing disappointment in the premier’s decision to accept her resignation.

"We believe you have capitulated to a small but loud group of people," said the letter from the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, chaired by Jonathan Infeld.

"This is dangerous for our community and the strength of our province’s democracy."

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