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December 13, 2021 12:00 pm

Antisemitism and Canada’s Largest School Board

avatar by Ian Cooper


Skyline of Toronto, Canada. Photo Credit: Aaron Davis, Wikimedia Commons, June 2020.

There’s an activist wave rising at Canada’s largest school board, and the Jewish community is increasingly concerned that this wave is going to come crashing down on them.

It all started innocently enough.

In response to the George Floyd murder and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) placed an emphasis on addressing the problem of anti-Black racism in Canada. As part of these efforts, the TDSB decided to invite Desmond Cole, a local activist and author, to speak to 600 educators over a four-day period.

Cole’s first book, “The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power,” benefited from fortuitous timing with its January 2020 release, and was well received by the Canadian press.

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As it turns out, Cole decided to use part of his TDSB event to rebrand himself as Canada’s standard bearer of the “Free Palestine” movement.

The moderators tried to shut down Cole’s anti-Israel tirade by reminding him why he was invited in the first place, and the TDSB issued a tepid apology to affected staff.

That should have been the end of the matter. But unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Having now established his personal victimhood, Cole, who is not Palestinian, decided to “investigate” an imagined epidemic of anti-Palestinian racism at the TDSB, a campaign that culminated in a rally at Toronto’s Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute.

The Board has been off kilter ever since.

In a letter to staff the following day, the TDSB’s Director and Associate Directors of Education stated: “As educators, we understand that language and context matter. The phrases ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘From the River to the Sea’ have been in contention. These expressions mean different things to different people because of the diversity of lived experiences in the TDSB community and beyond.”

To many in the Jewish community, this statement had an unfortunate whiff of “fine people on both sides” to it.

“Free Palestine” is routinely used to threaten Jews — for example, when a Toronto Jewish elementary and middle school was vandalized with the slogan in 2018.

Nevertheless, one could argue that the statement is merely an expression of support for the two-state solution. But the expression “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” which was out in full force at the Toronto event, cannot be so charitably interpreted. It has a single unambiguous meaning — namely, a desire to bring about the destruction of Israel, by political means and by force if necessary, and to replace it with a Palestinian state.

There are no “lived experiences” or post-modern literary acrobatics that can endow the phrase with any other meaning.

In the face of a plainly antisemitic demonstration, the TDSB’s plan of action was to offer “professional learning exclusively on antisemitism, and anti-Muslim hate in addition to other forms of discrimination.”

Comforting — except for the fact that neither Toronto’s Jewish community nor the Zionists within it, demonstrated any anti-Muslim hate, and evidence of anti-Muslim bias at the TDSB is scant to non-existent.

More troubling, at least some senior TDSB employees have a shockingly expansive definition of Islamophobia.

A week before the Garneau Collegiate demonstration, the Board’s Director of Education was already on the defensive, as she was forced to explain why one of her superintendents refused to allow a book club event for teenage girls that featured the work of Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Her book is published by Penguin Random House Canada, which is also Cole’s publisher. Apparently, Murad’s memoir of her enslavement by the Islamic State was considered potentially offensive to Muslims and might stoke Islamophobia.

The Board has clarified that cancellation of the event did not reflect its official position, but the fact that one of its 20 superintendents cannot distinguish between the Islamic State, which is truly terrifying to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and anti-Muslim hate, should be deeply troubling.

In another misstep, the TDSB’s Integrity Commissioner recommended that one of its publicly elected Trustees, Alexandra Lulka, be censured for calling out antisemitic materials distributed by a Board equity adviser this past May.

Among the acts of “legitimate resistance” mentioned in the materials were “martyrdom operations (called ‘suicide bombing’ by Zionists).” The materials went on to explain that “Palestinian resistance is the only barrier stopping the Zionists from completely fulfilling their mission to annihilate the Palestinian people as a whole.”

Suggested reading and viewing included a book by, and a documentary about, Leila Khaled, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist, who hijacked a TWA flight in 1969 and an El Al flight in 1970. More recently, Khaled’s September 2020 online appearance at a San Francisco State University conference was banned from streaming on Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook, in compliance with US export control, sanctions, and anti-terrorism laws.

Not exactly someone who should be on a reading list for Canadian teachers and schoolchildren.

In a 10-7 vote last week (at which the Chair of the Board was wearing a scarf that bore a resemblance to a keffiyeh), the Board’s Trustees decided not to censure Lulka after all.

The TDSB is responsible for the education of 247,000 full-time students and another 130,000 “life-long learners.” Its unwillingness to call advocacy for the destruction of the Jewish State by its true name — and its willingness to silence those who do — does not bode well for Canada’s Jewish community.

Ian Cooper is a Toronto-based lawyer.

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