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Victoria councillor asks for signature to be removed from controversial letter

Susan Kim, who did not write the open letter, has faced intense backlash since her name was discovered on it

Victoria Coun. Susan Kim has asked for her name to be removed from an open letter advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza that has sparked backlash for a line characterizing sexual violence in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israelis as “unverified.”

In a second public statement, Kim apologized for signing the letter and said she regrets not being more careful in anticipating the impact it would have on community members she represents.

“I signed this letter in a moment of immense grief and felt urgency to call for an end to violence and support the people of Gaza,” she says in the statement. “In the process, I failed to critically assess the impact this would have on community members directly affected — including Jewish and Palestinian community members — experiencing loss and grieving loved ones.”

The open letter criticized NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, claiming he “repeated the unverified accusation that Palestinians were guilty of sexual violence.” The letter, titled Stand with Palestine: Call on Political Leaders to End Their Complicity in Genocide, is no longer publicly available.

Kim expressed gratitude for Jewish and Palestinian community members who have spoken with her and offered guidance on how to take action while being more considerate, collaborative and accountable.

“This is a time when many of us are feeling raw and shaken as we advocate for peace and justice,” Kim wrote. “I am going to continue to connect with all of those impacted by this conflict to better understand perspectives that are not my own.”

Kim, who did not write the open letter, has faced intense backlash since her name was discovered on the letter, along with those of more than 2,100 other people. A petition calling on council to censure her was started by Janice Williams, who ran unsuccessfully for Victoria council in the last election.

In Alberta, the executive director of the University of Alberta’s sexual assault centre was fired for signing the open letter.

Israeli authorities have said they are investigating several cases of sexual assault and rape during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks that killed an estimated 1,200 people, mainly civilians. Hamas also took roughly 240 captives back to Gaza.

Last week, Israel’s national police chief showed a small group of international reporters video testimony from an eyewitness at a music festival in southern Israel who described watching a woman being violently sexually assaulted by multiple people before she was shot in the head.

Mayor Marianne Alto told members of the media Thursday at city hall that she does not have the authority to control councillors outside of council chambers and has no power to remove a councillor.

“Only the voting public has the authority to choose the representatives and to decide on their longevity,” she said.

Alto said she would not comment on the content of Kim’s statements.

Asked about the attention given to the line in the open letter referring to sexual violence, Alto said she thinks it’s important to report on the whole story and “it’s never a positive thing to simply pick and choose particular aspects of it.”

Tara Ehrcke, a Jewish resident of Victoria who started a petition in support of Kim, said many people are feeling a need to speak out about the ongoing violence in Gaza and it’s a challenging, complex issue to wade into.

“To speak with full certainty and confidence is extremely challenging. But the alternative, which is to not say anything, is to accept the status quo of what’s happening,” she said.

The focus should be on the main message of the letter Kim signed, which is the call for a ceasefire, Ehrcke said. “There’s a lot to say about the conflict and everything that’s happened, but the immediate need is to prevent future deaths,” she said.

The Israeli military has killed more than 12,000 people in Gaza since the attacks by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip, which has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2005, restricting the flow of essential goods and the freedom of movement of Gazans.

Ehrcke said she feels some trepidation speaking publicly on the war, because of the intense response to others, like Kim, who have spoken out.

She noted that those criticizing Kim appear to be doing so without all the information on the letter, such as when it was written.

Ehrcke said it’s not clear how long ago the open letter was written, and in the early days following the Hamas attacks, some initial statements were retracted, so seeking verification was reasonable.

Israel’s cabinet has agreed to a four-day pause in its assault on Gaza in exchange for the release of 50 of the hostages. The Israeli government said it would extend its pause by a day for every 10 additional hostages released. It’s unclear when the pause would take effect.

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-with files from The Canadian Press and the Associated Press