‘It would have been better had they done nothing,’ says the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s CEO about recent school board training around antisemitism

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board did not consult the Jewish community or even its own Jewish employees before hiring a consultant who was “wholly unqualified to educate about anti-Jewish hate,” the Jewish Federation of Ottawa charges.

“Things that aren’t acceptable with any other minority group are acceptable when it comes to the Jews. And this is because of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board’s blatant disregard for the well-being of Jewish students and complete and utter disregard for any basic principles of equity training and a complete abandonment of effective antisemitism training,” Andrea Freedman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa said in an interview with The CJN.

“It would have been better had they done nothing.”

Last spring, the board cancelled a speech that Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on combatting antisemitism and internationally noted human rights expert, was to give to senior staff.

A series of emails obtained by Toronto lawyer Michael Teper—who filed a Freedom of Information Access request—shows that senior staff were concerned about Cotler’s defense of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition has been adopted by the Ontario, Quebec and federal governments, among others.

“He (Cotler) will dive deeply and unapologetically into the IHRA definition and examples. It will not be a safe space for some,” wrote school superintendent Shannon Smith.

In an address to the OCDSB on Sept. 13, Teper, a board member of the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, urged trustees to re-invite Cotler and to repair relations with the Jewish community.

“Please, stop doing stuff that you think is for us, but without us,” he said to trustees over Zoom. “Please, stop using for your equity training, eccentrics who do not enjoy support from our community’s leadership or have disturbing social media histories just because they happen to have fancy diplomas and their point of view happens to match the biases held by certain individuals.”

The chair of the OCDSB was unavailable for comment, a board spokesperson said.

Ottawa Federation has tried working with the school board to discuss the issue of training, but the meeting was repeatedly pushed off, Freedman said. Then they learned the training had already taken place, she said.

“The Ottawa Carleton District School Board has moved from complete inaction to tokenism to harmful action and they have to be held accountable, they have to do better,” she said

The board had hired Jeffrey Wilkinson, who earned a PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, to offer training to the trustees.

Wilkinson, a music teacher, has “openly campaigned” against the IHRA definition, Freedman said. His doctoral thesis makes “offensive Holocaust comparisons that have no place in effective education to combat antisemitism,” Freedman wrote in a press release.

The thesis (which is entitled lsrael/Palestine Experience and Engagement: A Multidirectional Study of Collective Memory Through an Analysis of Trauma, Identity and Victim Beliefs) includes “misleading historical maps, a completely inaccurate history of the State of Israel and equating the Holocaust and the Naqba,” Freedman wrote in a letter sent to trustees in August.

“While the Palestinians have indeed suffered from the conflict, as many have suffered from conflicts around the world, there is a significant difference between the systematic attempt to eliminate an entire people and the unfortunate consequences of war—one that was neither desired nor started by the Jewish people,” the letter stated.

(Naqba, which means catastrophe in Arabic, refers to the 1948 war and the establishment of the State of Israel and the displacement of Palestinian residents).

While the Ottawa Federation supports teaching about Islamophobia, Raja Khouri, a Palestinian who co-presents with Wilkinson, is primarily focused on anti-Israel advocacy, Federation wrote. “His social media posts are almost exclusively focused on defaming the Jewish state.”

Wilkinson, for his part, says he is surprised that his role in the training has generated so much controversy.

While he is opposed to the IHRA definition, he has not “actively campaigned” against it, but has written two articles about it.

“I believe we can define what antisemitism is for us, without having a set of examples that have been used to silence another group that we disagree with,” he said in an interview with The CJN.

“If any particular definition of an oppression, even if by accident, turns out to silence or oppress another group, we need to consider those consequences.”  

Wilkinson declined to detail exactly what he discussed with trustees, but said his approach has been taken out of context.

“Because I talk about Palestinian trauma and Jewish trauma side by side does not mean that I’m equating the size or scope of the Holocaust and the Naqba. That’s ridiculous, they’re entirely different.

“But to the individual who suffered them, the traumas are just as great on an individual level.”

While his thesis in some places refers to Israel as a “settler-colonial state,” Wilkinson said he doesn’t use that term in his sessions.

“But other people experience it that way and I acknowledge that experience.”

He became interested in human rights education while he was teaching music in a Toronto-area school board for more than 25 years.

“I’ve given hundreds, if not thousands of presentations on anti-racism, on antisemitism, on homophobia, on various forms of how we experience the other and how we can become more appreciative of others’ differences.”

The decision to hire Wilkinson and Khouri comes as students at OCDSB schools are experiencing a “wave of antisemitism,” Freedman said.

Just days after school started, Federation is supporting a family whose son was invited to participate in an online chat group called “we all hate Jews.” In the group, students talked about a gas chamber in one of the kid’s basements and told the boy he should go to it.

A handful of students have moved districts to schools they see as safer or have enrolled in the Catholic system, Freedman said.

“It’s really problematic when parents are forced to contemplate and make many important decisions based on a school board’s ineptitude in handling an urgent issue.”