Canadian school board tightens up anti-Palestinian racism policy as cases of antisemitism skyrocket

What is happening in Canada now may be a foretaste of what is coming to the US and Europe


Pro-Palestinian demonstrators prepare supplies at an encampment on the University of Toronto campus (Photo by COLE BURSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

School district dramas seldom dominate national headlines. An exception is what is happening now at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest and the fourth largest in North America, serving approximately 247,000 students and employing 40,000 staff. Current convulsions in Toronto may serve as a harbinger of what Jews can expect in the US and Europe.

On 18 June, hundreds of Canadian parents, teachers, students, activists and Holocaust survivors gathered outside the TDSB’s main offices to decry what they saw as a woefully tepid acknowledgement of the city’s skyrocketing rates of antisemitism – and a dangerous silencing of their voices ahead of a crucial vote to incorporate anti-Palestinian racism within its overall anti-discrimination strategy.

Student Cole Fisher, who serves as president of the Jewish Student Union at Earl Haig Secondary School, spoke at the rally about how at his school alone “dozens of antisemitic incidents have occurred, involving teachers and students. On 10 October students ran around the school wearing keffiyehs and calling for ‘death to the Jews’ and ‘intifada’”, Fisher said.

Toronto has seen a colossal rise in violent antisemitism since last October, with synagogues torched and defaced, community centres firebombed, schools fired upon, and young students beaten to a pulp or taunted to go back to the gas chambers.

The school district’s anti-discrimination strategy already addresses multiple forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, anti-Asian racism, Islamophobia and homophobia, but it became the epicentre of a new dimension of the Israeli-Palestine conflict last month after agreeing to include a 100-page “anti-Palestinian racism” (APR) report in its learning strategy for the upcoming school calendar year. Subsequent attempts by community members to incorporate a corresponding anti-Israeli racism strategy were voted down.

Even though the APR initiative was voted through, there remains no universally agreed definition offered by the TDSB of what constitutes anti-Palestinian racism. Some Jewish Canadian parents worry that this hastily approved measure could mean that students seen, for instance, waving a flag of the State of Israel or asserting Israel’s right to exist and defend itself may be subject to disciplinary measures or suspension for “exhibiting” anti-Palestinian racism.

“With APR passing, if one kid does a school presentation and says ‘Palestine was taken from me’ but then another kid says ‘it’s actually Israel’ then the second kid could be considered a racist,” Larry Maher, a parent of three kids in the TDSB system, told the JC.

Maher added that the APR’s adoption is unnecessary since fundamental rights and protections are already enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adding that these kinds of school measures can be used to silence voices of opposition to a particular narrative and can open a Pandora’s box of other minority-specific grievances that are otherwise already protected. “We never had this in our time,” said Maher, who also grew up in the TDSB system. “Back then, if you made fun of someone’s ethnicity or race at school, you’d get in trouble and be sent to the principal’s office. But schools are now getting too involved in geopolitics.”

The widespread outcry is not about the school district seeking to stamp out all forms of racism, said Aaron Kucharczuk, a concerned father of three. It’s that “TDSB data show that this past fall incidents of antisemitism tripled, [whereas TDSB] hasn’t shown data indicating that incidents of hate toward Palestinians is a problem – or needs to be tackled”. Kucharczuk, a lawyer, is also a founding member of the Jewish Educators and Family Association of Canada (JEFA), which advocates for more robust antisemitism awareness and training in the nation’s schools – a side job he says he wishes he didn’t have to do. But the rampant Jew-hatred is too alarming to ignore. Faywood Arts-Based Curriculum School, a TDSB school close to Kucharczuk’s home, recently made headlines when 200 adults escorted a traumatised 13-year-old Jewish student to class in May after he was viciously harassed by students, who told him they would “do to him what Hamas did to Israel” [on October 7] and, “We need to kill you all.”

Recent estimates suggest that there are approximately 4,000 people of Palestinian descent in Toronto, with most not part of the TDSB system. According to Kucharczuk, the school board’s misguided focus is a dangerous distraction from the intolerable antisemitism epidemic within Toronto’s public schools and is also interrupting the quality of education, leading to a drop in performance relative to other school districts.

“In an ideal world, the TDSB would make evidence-based decisions. They’d see what the problems are in schools and respond to those. They should be focusing on educating our children and not developing human rights policy,” he added. “Compared to other school boards in Ontario, TDSB used to be above average on standardised tests, but since it changed its approach to equity matters and started implementing more DEI politics, that performance has dropped significantly.”

How Canada’s largest school district addresses anti-Palestinian racism in the months ahead of the next academic year will reverberate beyond Toronto’s — even Canada’s — borders. That’s a major cause for concern for Jewish communities in the United States and Europe, who may soon be faced with an inconceivable situation where supporting a two-state solution in class or affirming Israel’s right to self-defence constitutes discrimination and anti-Palestinian racism.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive