Peel school board’s move to add ‘Nakba Remembrance Day’ to its calendar spurs objections from Jewish parents—and the Ontario education ministry

The Peel District School Board 2023-24 Days of Significance calendar includes a note at the top that reads: "This calendar highlights secular and creed-based days of significance. It helps to identify some of the important days of significance, however it is not designed to be a complete listing of all secular and creed-based days." (Peel District School Board)

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce is joining calls from Jewish parents and educators urging the Peel District School Board to reverse a decision to list Nakba Remembrance Day as an observance on the board’s calendar of significant days.

Arabic for “catastrophe,” the Nakba refers to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, also known in Israel as the War of Independence. The term has come to be associated with the displacement or expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during or as a result of the 1948 war, and the establishment of the State of Israel in parts of the previous British Mandate for Palestine.

In a statement sent to The CJN, Lecce criticized the politicization of Ontario classrooms.

“School boards should focus on ensuring students and staff have a safe space at school, so they can get back to basics in the classroom on what matters most: reading, writing, and math,” Lecce wrote.

“After the horrifying events on Oct. 7, I made my expectations clear to all school boards that there is no room for influence of personal opinions or personal world views in Ontario classrooms.

“At a time when so many Canadians are divided, it is critical that schools bring people together, not further divide our society and students. The Peel District School Board should reverse their decision and leave politics outside of the classroom.”

Members of the Jewish community, including a newly formed not-for-profit group called Jewish Educators and Family Association of Canada (JEFA), discussed the issue with Lecce during a town hall event, featuring the minister and other elected officials, on April 9 at the Prosserman JCC. While it was public, the event was off the record.

Peel District School Board, a diverse suburban region just west of Toronto, includes religious holidays from many faiths, including Judaism. Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is also on the calendar.

Nakba Remembrance Day on May 15 was added to the Peel board’s Days of Significance calendar in advance of the 2023-24 school year, said school board spokesperson Malon Edwards. (The day is commemorated one day after Israel’s May 14 independence day holiday, Yom Ha’atzmaut.)

“We value the diversity of the communities we serve in the Peel District School Board. The board has a Months of Recognition/Days of Significance committee to review applications from PDSB community, students, staff and families for new days for each school year,” Edwards said in an email to The CJN. He confirmed that calendars posted since June 2023 would have also shown the observance.

“Applications for this day were reviewed and it was identified as a Community Observance day for this year. Community Observance days recognize the diversity of PDSB communities with no specific actions for schools.”

Peel’s director of education and board chair declined to be interviewed on the subject, Edwards said.

The Peel District School Board 2023-24 Days of Significance calendar on the school board’s website includes a number of dates of significance and a “reference” column which includes both faith-based and secular “days of significance,” some of which are referenced as “Community Observances.” (Peel District School Board)

JEFA has launched an online campaign from within the Jewish community, encouraging people to write to Lecce protesting the addition of Naqba (or Nakba) Remembrance Day.

The suggested wording for a letter states: “Including the ‘Naqba Remembrance Day’ marks the first time a school board in Canada has officially adopted a day of significance that is in objection to the independence of a sovereign, democratically elected country…. This marks a dangerous precedent with other school boards now facing mounting pressure to follow suit.”

Tamara Gottlieb, a founding member of JEFA, tells The CJN that Jewish students and families feel that school boards, trustees, the education ministry, and Lecce are passing the buck on responding to the high levels of antisemitism in Ontario’s public schools.

“It’s a continuous cycle of students and parents experiencing significant challenges within the system, with [these] entities pointing the finger at one another,” she says.

“We’re now in a situation that’s quite serious for both Jewish teachers and Jewish students in terms of their safety in schools and their regular exposure to antisemitism. Somebody has to stop pointing fingers and start taking action.”

Gottlieb describes a burden on Jewish parents to monitor their children’s public school environment.

“The incident in Peel is really symptomatic of the bigger challenges within the system,” she says.

“One of those challenges is that incidents relating to antisemitism are not dealt with in the same way that other forms of racism would be addressed.”

Gottlieb calls the education system itself “opaque and difficult to navigate” for parents and teachers.

“[They’re] exhausted, and rightly so, in trying to figure out who can help them to make change that’s needed.”

She says the issue is not only over the Nakba Day commemoration.

“It’s not that the community wants the Nakba Remembrance Day removed. They do, but actually the goal is to have an education system where parents don’t have to spend every moment of their day policing the system, because that’s what it’s come to right now. And that’s a totally unfair burden to place on parents,” says Gottlieb.

“When we look at next steps, there is a very sincere and highly motivated desire to bring about needed change to the system. Because antisemitism continues to escalate and as more parents and educators try to address the challenge, we are recognizing that systematic change is required.”

Gottlieb says the group will continue to advocate for the removal of Nakba Remembrance Day from the Peel school board calendar.

“This is a priority for our members,” she says. “And so it’s a priority for the organization.”

Stephen Reich studies educational policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Reich says when teaching historical events, students need to be provided context and sufficient background knowledge before being asked critical questions about them.

The Peel board did not specify activities for schools with the Nakba Remembrance Day observance. But Reich says history can’t be taught in half-measures.

“You want to cover those events, history has warts and benefits. If you want to do that, then you have to have a comprehensive history,” he says.

Reich cautions against educators looking at history through the lens of the present.

“What we’re starting to see in Canada is that making Jews uncomfortable, making Jews feel like they have no claims to social justice,” is part of what’s going on, he says. “Making Jews feel that they have no claims to be the light unto nations in terms of re-indigenization, in terms of resurrecting a dead language, in terms of returning to one’s homeland, in terms of persevering in the face of tragedy.”

“Antisemitism always works by casting the Jew as the worst possible example of an ill in society,” says Reich, who thinks other school boards are likely to follow Peel’s lead with the inclusion of Nakba Remembrance Day on school calendars.

“Israel is cast as the worst possible example of the ills of international relations, of the ills of political conflict between countries,” he says.