‘Heil Hitler’ salutes, swastikas and Holocaust COVID incidents reported at two Toronto public schools

Officials from two public schools in heavily Jewish neighbourhoods in Toronto have sent letters home to families reporting “upsetting and unacceptable” incidents of antisemitism against Jewish students last week.

According to the Toronto District School Board, two separate cases happened at Charles H. Best Junior Middle School, on Wilmington Avenue in Bathurst Manor.

A Grade 8 student was targeted with “a simulation of the Nazi salute or the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute,” said Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokesperson for the TDSB, adding this happened in the school yard. That incident is still under investigation, but sources say it was two students making the gesture in class.

The second one also happened in a classroom, she said, and involved the construction of a swastika made out of small blocks, which was done in front of the same Jewish student. Sources say another student intervened and took the shape apart.

In both these cases, the students involved are facing consequences, but Schwartz-Maltz declined to explain what that specifically entailed, preferring to focus on using Holocaust education and training as the solution.

“What’s more important than consequences is teaching them why it was wrong,” she said. “You can consequence them all you want, but if you don’t explain to them what it is that you did and the impact it had on those kids and everybody else that was exposed to it, then what have you done?”

Ledbury Park Elementary and Middle School

The principal has apologized for the incidents, in a letter sent home to students, according to Global News.

“This is very upsetting and unacceptable,” wrote Elever Baker, the principal. “We take great pride in our school as a welcoming, safe, and inclusive place and this has always been our message to students.”

Meanwhile, at the Ledbury Park Elementary and Middle School on Falkirk Street, in Lawrence Manor, families received a strikingly similarly-worded letter Tuesday informing them of an antisemitic incident involving a teacher.

According to letter sent by the interim principal, Serge Parravano, and obtained by The CJN, a teacher likened the COVID-19 vaccination passport mandates to Jews being forced to wear the Yellow Star during the Holocaust. The teacher has been removed from the school, he told the parents, and is now on home assignment, pending an investigation.

“This is very upsetting and unacceptable,” Parravano wrote. “We acknowledge and regret the harm this incident caused to members of our school community and to our shared school climate.”

In both schools, the administration is calling in resources from the TDSB’s Equity department as well as outside training. At Ledbury, Holocaust educator Michelle Glied Goldstein will be brought in to share her late father’s story and hold workshops.

One to three incidents per week: TDSB

The timing of the trio of incidents comes just a week after International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday Jan. 27, when thousands of Toronto public school students in Grades 4 to 8 took part in special educational programming. This included a unit where the animated film The Tattooed Torah was screened.

They also come in the aftermath of a new study released Jan. 26 by Liberation75 that found over 90 percent of Canadian students wanted more education to learn about the Holocaust.

Shari Schwartz-Maltz, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board, gives a media briefing Tuesday Feb. 8, 2022 outside Charles H. Best school in Toronto. (CityNews).

Truckers’ convoy part of the problem: TDSB

Schwartz-Maltz, who is also chair of the TDSB’s Jewish Heritage Committee made up of Jewish teachers and trustees, said the timing of these latest cases wasn’t a surprise.

The truckers’ convoy protests in Ottawa and other parts of the country have flooded social media and news coverage with Nazi symbols, she said. Other images have shown signs likening vaccine mandates with the restrictions that Nazis imposed on European Jews at that time.

“When you watch television news, as we’ve been doing lately, and you watch the demonstrations, you see people unfurling flags with Nazi insignia. It normalizes it, right?” she said “Kids watch news, kids watch social media. So if it’s normal, if it’s normal in downtown Toronto, why can’t I use it?”

In most cases, “nine times out of ten”, Schwartz-Maltz pointed out, the spike in antisemitism incidents which the school board has been seeing this year, can be explained as ignorance, rather than intentional hatred.

“I would like to emphasize that it happens a lot. We are seeing swastikas at our schools pretty much weekly,” she said.

Ontario funding for training and security

The incidents come in the wake of a series of recent announcements by the Ontario government aimed at curbing rising antisemitism in the province.

  • $148,000 for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Canada to create bilingual classroom resources, including workshops and webinars for parents and students.
  • $150,000 for a similar project aimed at students in Grades 5 to 8 that will focus also on gaming and social media antisemitism. This funding will go to The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
  • $25 million for security and staff training costs at religious places of worship, including synagogues.

The incidents at Charles Best and Ledbury Park are even more upsetting to Michael Levitt, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto, because of their geography. Both took place in very heavily Jewish areas.

“It’s hard to believe that this is 2022, in Toronto, in Canada and in this case, in a neighbourhood, Bathurst Manor, that is home to Toronto and Canada’s Holocaust survivor community, and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Remembrance Memorial. I mean, it’s so disturbing,” Levitt said, referring to the striking structure erected in 1991 in Earl Bales Park.

Despite all the work his group has been doing on Holocaust education and antiracism training in schools, “obviously, we need more.”

“And there needs to be a continuation and a commitment from TDSB and I guess school boards across Ontario and across the country to be addressing and to be training staff on how to identify these situations and how to hold students or whomever is responsible accountable, and also how to support the students that are being targeted by this hate,” Levitt said.

TDSB moving to keep promises on antisemitism

The TDSB has been mired in controversy for the past nine months over its handling of the case involving a staff member, Javier Davila, who sent antisemitic and anti-Israel educational material to teachers during the May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas. In November 2021, the TDSB narrowly voted not to censure a Jewish trustee, Alexandra Lulka, for sounding the alarm about the contents of some of Davila’s material, on her social media platforms.

The TDSB’s director of education has pledged to do better to make Jewish students and teachers feel safe, and to move on existing pledges to bring in training throughout the system about antisemitism. Similar efforts are underway to combat Islamophobia.

Last Friday, February 4, the board’s application process closed on an initiative to hire some facilitators from the Jewish community to create training modules on Understanding Judaism and Jewish Culture. Teachers throughout the board will be provided with live modules, as well as self-directed modules of 25 hours in length.

“The TDSB is focusing on a number of areas to address antisemitism as well as other forms of discrimination,” explained Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesman, calling it “a first step”.

The modules will be done under the auspices of the Board’s Human Rights Office.

Trustee Shelley Laskin (Ward 8) called it ” a real tangible sign” of the progress she has been pushing for within the board, especially to get tools and training to recognize antisemitism when it happens.

“That’s why professional learning is so important for our educators who don’t have a lot of experience with Jewish culture,” Laskin said.

For the last few months, a staff member from The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has been seconded to the TDSB’s equity section, to lend a hand.

“These most recent incidents underscore the need for impactful antisemitism education for middle school students,” said Noah Shack, a CIJA vice president in Toronto, in a news release. “The incidents reported at Charles H. Best Junior Middle School are absolutely unacceptable and represent just the latest examples of antisemitism manifesting in schools across the GTA and throughout the province.”