Attempts to get away with defamation in the name of opposing hate

The use of amorphous terms like “hate” or “anti-Semitism” to defame and silence people who speak out against Israel’s occupation of Palestine and who advocate for Palestinian rights.

By Mira Katz

A serious issue at this time in Ontario is the use of amorphous terms like “hate” or “anti-Semitism” to defame and silence people who speak out against Israel’s occupation of Palestine and who advocate for Palestinian rights. It is also extended to apply more broadly to matters of war and occupation. Educators in particular are being targeted, with the allegation that by opposing Israel’s occupation or even sharing information which clearly opposes occupation in a general sense, they are spreading “hate” and anti-Semitism. These allegations are then used to trigger police powers to either suspend educators from work or prevent them from getting work. 

In most cases the charges are not substantiated, but the damage is done by inciting suspicion about them and by trying to make educators reluctant to stand up for what they believe on all fronts. This is what defamation is all about: those who have seized control of public institutions have the power to  act as “judge, jury and executioner.” By imposing criteria for judgement based on personal views and opinions or views and opinions which accord with those demanded by self-serving narrow private interests, they are destroying lives with impunity. The same is taking place wherever notions of “political correctness” or accusations of what is called “cultural appropriation” are imposed. First the individuals are defamed and simultaneously deprived of due process and even of their livelihoods. Defamation is a medieval practice which violates fundamental common law principles which do not permit people to be “outlawed.” To be “outlawed” means the person is subjected to “civil death.” To be deprived of civil rights means you can be  treated as “fair game” – as animals which can be shot during one of the King’s hunting parties in his “Great Forests.” It must not pass!

In a recent example, on May 22 the Toronto Sun published an editorial by Sue-Ann Levy that targeted an educator with the Toronto District School Board who had provided a compilation of resources for teachers to use for teaching about the Israel/Palestine conflict. It was clearly based on informing educators about the rights of the Palestinian people as an occupied people and their experience living under Israeli occupation. The resources were provided as part of an opt-in Gender-Based Violence Mailing List run by the educator through which he provided regular information for teachers.[1]

The compilation included information on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of opposition to the Israeli occupation. In the article Levy made clear her problem was with the political views of the educator, stating that their personal Facebook account contained “pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel posts,” as if such positions were somehow illegal, or evidence of criminality and proof that her defamation of the educator was justified. The article states that “An educator with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is under investigation after he allegedly sent a virulently anti-Israel manual out to teachers that suggests a documentary and a book about a terrorist, recommends children’s books that characterize Israelis as thieves and murderers, and gives advice on how to teach students about the hateful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.”

The TDSB has launched an investigation and has removed the educator from their duties while it takes place. A petition was issued almost immediately in support of the educator in question by colleagues, showing that such attempts to silence those who speak out will never be accepted. The petition is reprinted below.

Another recent case involves the allegation that Dr. Valentina Azarova had her initial offer of employment revoked by the University of Toronto as a result of her past work on war crimes by Israel and its violations of human rights, especially on the question of the building of settlements. As a result of these actions academics have taken stands to not participate in events organized at U of T and a number of organizations have ended their partnership with the university as a way to support Dr. Azarova and show their opposition to attempts to silence criticism of the occupation by academics.[2]

Those who stand for freedom of conscience and against occupation cannot accept that educators become subject to tests of conscience about their views on Israel’s ongoing occupation, whether in the name of opposing hatred or anti-Semitism or any other justification. When educators model what it means to stand up for one’s beliefs, to speak out against injustice and to be leaders in society, it provides the youth with confidence that they can do the same.

Note

1. The Mailing List “includes resources, event announcements and other news and articles related to gender-based violence prevention, sexual violence prevention and healthy relationships using a critical anti-racist, intersectional, and decolonial framework that call out anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. These resources use a power analysis and support critical thinking and action on transforming conditions that enable harm and creating ones that promote healing, care, dignity and liberation. These resources aim to support 2SLGBTQ+ youth with multiple identities and belonging to BLACK, INDIGENOUS, RACIALIZED and DISABLED communities. They are in support of Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous self-determination and LAND BACK.”

2. Other examples include:

In 2016 Nadia Shoufani, a teacher at St. Catherine of Siena Separate School in Mississauga, was suspended pending further investigation after she spoke at a rally in support of the Palestinian people. The incident was referred to the Ontario College of Teachers for investigation and review after groups such as B’nai Brith and Canadian Jewish Advocacy went all out to try and punish Shoufani for her statements and for being outspoken. For example, speaking on behalf of Canadian Jewish Advocacy, Berl Nadler, Co-Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in the GTA stated, “We applaud the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board for taking decisive action by suspending Shoufani. We are appreciative that [Mississauga] Mayor Crombie and other officials have been sensitive to our concerns and responsive in this serious matter. It is disturbing to think that someone who is entrusted with the responsibilities of a teacher would be among the leading voices at a toxic, anti-Semitic event like Al-Quds Day.”

“We have already filed a complaint with the Ontario College of Teachers, and will be following up to urge the College to take meaningful action in this case,” added Joel Reitman, Co-Chair of CIJA in the GTA. “We are particularly concerned that a teacher with a record of such extreme activism would be in a position to transmit her noxious worldview in the classroom, and are hopeful that the College will take steps to mitigate this risk.”

In response to the complaint Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the union representing Shoufani, said, “A teacher should never have to worry that their professional reputation will be attacked in an effort to prevent them from exercising their right to free expression […] Ms. Shoufani was expressing herself as a private citizen.” (Emphasis added.)

In 2007 a teacher in the TDSB was subjected to a witch hunt after a national media campaign was launched against him because he had put forward a motion for his provincial union to endorse the BDS movement. His school board was pressured into investigating him, while no accusations were ever formally presented to the teacher. He was moved out of the school to teach from home while a formal investigation proceeded. The investigation involved interviewing his students to try and see if he had been “promoting hate” in the classroom. After the Board turned up nothing to substantiate their fishing expedition, students defended the teacher and even started a petition to have him brought back.

Workers Forum, May 26, 2021 – No. 49

Petition – Protect Students and Education Workers

To Director Falconer, Interim Director of Education, TDSB

We, the undersigned, are writing in support of Javier Davila, an educator in the Toronto District School Board who was recently targeted by Postmedia Columnist Sue Ann Levy. Levy has a longstanding track record of Islamophobia and has been censured from the NewsMedia Council of Canada for a “serious breach of journalistic standards for accuracy in reporting.” The same newspaper within the same 24 hours has insisted that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic in and of itself.

Her article was aimed to publicly discredit and vilify Mr.Davila for sending out carefully curated educator resources on Israel and Palestine. These resources have been reviewed by multiple organizations, experienced educators, Human Rights and legal experts who have all concluded they are legitimate, anti-oppressive resources. There are no instances of anti-Semitic content within the resources (from May 16th, and May 19th). The resources are consistent with the TDSB’s commitment to equity, anti-oppression, anti-racism, Indigenous education, and on-going mission to decolonize our schools. They are also consistent with Mr.Davila’s professional duty to uphold the principles of the OCT, and to principles of equity consistent with the Vision for Learning directed by the TDSB.

Hence the hypocrisy, and intent behind this article is highly questionable, and should not have been the basis for any punitive action or investigation from the TDSB towards Mr.Davila.

It is important to state that through his position as a Student Equity Program Advisor, Mr. Davila has consistently shared invaluable resources with educators through an opt-in mailout list. The GBVP mailout has been active for 12-years and supported countless educators in:

– Using a critical anti-racist, intersectional, and decolonial framework that calls out antisemitism and Islamophobia;

– Using a power analysis and supporting critical thinking and action on transforming conditions that enable harm in order to support learners in creating ones that promote healing, care, dignity and liberation;

– Aiming to support 2SLGBTQ+ youth with multiple intersecting identities and who belong to BLACK, INDIGENOUS, RACIALIZED and DISABLED communities. They also support Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous self-determination and LAND BACK movements.

This resource has been received by a diverse group of educators, including Jewish educators who have expressed enthusiasm at the nuance and clarity demonstrated in the resources. The TDSB has already taken an institutional stance on decolonization, as well as all forms of racism and oppression including anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Indigenous racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia. Exceptionalizing its stance on Palestine sends a conflicting message to educators, students and our school communities. Rather, to target educators for denouncing ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism in the global South takes a radical political position which harms many students, educators, and community members within the TDSB who have experienced similar violence.

We urge you to be consistent in your application of decolonizing principles. Israel, much like Canada, is a settler colonial state with the distinction of the intergenerational trauma on both sides of this issue. The TDSB’s genuine commitment to decolonization of our schools in Canada requires international solidarity and opposition to all forms of imperialism and colonialism or it suffers from appearing hollow.

The TDSB has a moral and professional responsibility to support and defend Mr.Davila and educators like him who demonstrate a commitment to decolonization. This is a nuanced conversation, and as anti-oppressive educators, we have a responsibility to ask for intentionality and care in having these discussions, in ways that are trauma-sensitive, name power dynamics, and call out antisemitism and Islamophobia. We cannot merely ignore this issue, and to do so is to be complicit in the violence itself.

Instead the TDSB’s response has served to legitimize an intensely right-wing journalist, by providing institutional credibility behind her baseless claims. The fact that the TDSB’s response to Sue Ann Levy included mention of confidential employer-employee processes without even informing Mr.Davila himself further demonstrates an institutional abdication of responsibility and good-faith. By doing so, the TDSB is creating a platform to permit the abuse of educators like Mr.Davila from known right-wing hate groups. This stands in contradiction with the TDSB’s own policies to create safe schools for all, and its on-going commitment to “maintaining a learning and working environment which actively promotes and supports human rights.”

Any disciplinary action that may be considered against TDSB employees like Mr.Davila will constitute an attempt to silence, intimidate, and increase vulnerability for those who have remained steadfast in their commitment to fulfilling the TDSB’s mandate of equity, anti-oppression, Indigenous education, and the decolonization of our schools, outlined in the Equity Policy and Multi Year Strategic Plan. It also sets a precedent of demonstrating that the equity praxis of the TDSB is limited to simply talking the talk, while never actually walking the walk. This is unacceptable, and needs to be addressed immediately.

We call on the TDSB to:

– Not deign to respond to the incredibly biased reporting or messaging of known hate-groups or individuals affiliated with such groups;

– Fulfill its moral and professional responsibility to support Mr.Davila and other educators who demonstrate a commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression and decolonization, and publicly denounce attempts at censorship by:

  • Not surveilling the social media of anti-oppressive educators;
  • Understanding that the identities and lived experiences of anti-oppressive educators inform their activism and need to speak out against institutional violence;
  • Extending tangible support to educators who are harassed for their anti-oppressive work within the TDSB;
  • Challenging the toxic culture of silence around many equity issues, especially Israel and Palestine which prevents ALL TDSB educators from engaging in this work confidently;

– Release a statement condemning Israel’s illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine. This precedent has already been established within the TDSB, and demonstrated through efforts to respond to anti-Black racism and anti-Asian racism within education through public statements that stress an institutional position on the issue;

– Follow through with its stated commitment to “build capacity among leaders to facilitate learning in human rights, equity and anti-oppression” by developing scholarship, educational resources, and training on Palestine – and, more broadly, settler-colonialism and imperialism in the global South by including organizations that have consistently demonstrated a commitment to Human Rights and integrity such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Teachers 4 Palestine (T4P), Palestine House, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Standing for justice is never easy, but we urge the TDSB to remember the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In this instance, it’s painfully apparent that the TDSB has proven through its actions to be siding with harm, violence, censorship and oppression. We urge you to do the right thing as the world watches.

To sign the petition or view the list of signatories click here.

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