Toronto school board rejects call to censure trustee Alexandra Lulka for speaking out about antisemitism in teaching materials

Trustee Alexandra Lulka at a TDSB board meeting which debated whether to censure her for speaking out about antisemitic materials, Dec. 8. 2021

Toronto public school trustees voted 10 to 7 to reject a report calling for the censure of Jewish trustee Alexandra Lulka, who spoke out against antisemitism in materials sent to teachers, last May.

The vote took place during a Dec. 8 meeting of the Toronto District School Board.

Jewish advocacy agencies, which mounted a campaign opposing the controversial report by the board’s Integrity Commissioner that suggested Lulka violated the board’s code of conduct, hailed the decision as an important first step in fixing a perceived antisemitism problem.

Despite the recommendation against her, Lulka told trustees at the start of the nearly three-hour discussion, she regrets nothing about her actions.

“I have a right and a responsibility to name and condemn antisemitism and I will never stop doing that,” she said. “I had to name and shame those materials for the hateful statements they are.”

She added her social media post about the materials were meant to send “an unequivocal message against all forms of hate.”

The complaint, she added, “was meant to silence me, but I will not be silenced.”

Lulka, who represents a ward with a large Jewish population, faced censure for a tweet that she sent in May after a TDSB employee used an opt-in email group to distribute 100 pages of material on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The documents were not vetted in advance by board managers and were later found to contain references even the integrity commissioner said were antisemitic.

The board’s Human Rights Office noted the materials “could reasonably be considered to contain antisemitic material, references, or allusions” and that “materials contained in the links support the use of violence and terrorism against Israeli Jews.”

Among those references was a link to the website of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group the federal government has listed as a terrorist organization.

After hearing of this material, Lulka took to social media to call for an investigation of the process that allowed it to be sent to teachers without first being reviewed by board staff. Her post did not mention either the employee who sent the documents or Muslims or Palestinians.

Despite that, the Integrity Commissioner’s report found Lulka breached the TDSB code of conduct for trustees by discriminating against Muslims and Palestinians.

The motion to reject the report came from trustee Shelley Laskin who said she “rejects the very notion that (Lulka) should be censured for calling out antisemitism when in fact some materials were found to be antisemitic.”

Laskin took aim at the Integrity Commissioner’s report which said that Lulka “could have carefully crafted a statement to call out the potentially harmful materials while appropriately characterizing other materials as important, positive, pro-Palestinian discourse.”

“So every complaint of racism and discrimination will be called breaches if they do not also catalogue or imagine positives associated with the wrongs they’re condemning? Not everything has two sides,” Laskin said at the board meeting.

Laskin told the board the investigation and recommendation of censure has eroded trust. “There’s now a presumption by the Jewish community that a trustee enraged by possible antisemitism is being silenced.”

Other trustees, supporting Lulka, said that censuring her would place a “chill’ on their comments in the future, and make them concerned to comment on community issues.

After the motion to censure was rejected, trustees passed a lengthy motion calling for an action plan to address issues raised in the integrity report, to provide training for trustees and other staff in hate speech issues. Special provincial funding will also be sought to develop the plan.

Jewish advocacy groups hailed the decision to reject the Integrity Commissioner’s report.

“We applaud the decision of trustees to reject the double standard that was being applied to Trustee Lulka,” said Noah Shack, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Despite this, there is still a lot of education work to be done at TDSB.”

B’nai Brith Canada agreed. “There was never any basis for censuring Trustee Lulka, and the ‘investigation’ into her actions appears to have been nothing but a contrived witch-hunt,” CEO Michael Mostyn said in a news release after the meeting.

“However, this saga is far from over. The TDSB needs to come clean about its initial handling of this issue in May, as well as its deeply flawed investigation. B’nai Brith will not rest until the entire truth is revealed and systemic antisemitism is defeated at the TDSB.”

Michael Levitt, CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, added: “We commend each and every TDSB trustee who voted in support of Trustee Alexandra Lulka and her right to speak out against antisemitism. The trustees understood that censure would set a chilling precedent and impact trustees’ abilities to stand up to hate and discrimination.”

Critics of the report noted its conclusions were based on an investigation by a Toronto law firm, including a lawyer whose comments on social media called into question her impartiality.

With that history, B’nai Brith and CIJA said Morgan Sim should have declared a conflict of interest on the investigation.

“It’s clear that this individual investigator has taken public positions on the matters being discussed and that raises serious questions of potential bias and conflict of interest,” Shack said.

“This was a flawed process that led to a flawed conclusion, but the majority of trustees stood up for a colleague’s right to call out antisemitism,” he added.

The online meeting drew about 70 participants, including trustees.

LISTEN to The CJN Daily: Unpacking the bizarre case of Alexandra Lulka