Pro-Palestinian protests in Ottawa schools are creating a ‘toxic environment,’ says the local Jewish Federation CEO

Recent pro-Palestinian protests in Ottawa schools were organized by a group that supports violence and they are preventing Jewish students’ from attending school without fear of harassment, according to the city’s Jewish Federation.

The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) organized walkouts in several Ottawa schools on May 13, in commemoration of Naqba Day, which coincides with the founding of the State of Israel.

The following week, on May 20, students were encouraged to wear keffiyehs and Palestinian flags in class.

“We don’t disagree with freedom of expression, we don’t disagree with the desire of any student to wear a keffiyeh to school,” said Andrea Freedman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. “What we disagree with is an organization that calls for the removal of the State of Israel.”

Federation has raised their concerns with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), but the board does not agree that students’ safety is at risk, Freedman said in an email blast to the community.

“The PYM shares a name with an organization well known for its antisemitic rhetoric,” the Federation wrote in a community email on May 19. “The possible reach of such a group into our schools creates a toxic environment, especially for Jewish students and teachers.”

The school board has “abdicated responsibility at the present moment for the safety and security of their Jewish students and their right to study in a harassment-free environment,” Freedman said in an interview with The CJN.

“They’re allowing their students to be indoctrinated with hate under the guise of freedom and justice. The school is treating this as routine student advocacy, it’s not,”

At a protest last month in Manhattan, which the Palestinian Youth Movement participated in, there were calls to “globalize the intifadah,” as well as chants of “We don’t want no two-state, we want all of it,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

The group’s website describes it as “independent, grassroots” movement. “Due to the accumulating challenges as a result of the ongoing Zionist colonization and occupation of our homeland, our determination to fulfill our aspirations for return and liberation are stronger than ever,” it states.

In an email sent to the local Jewish Federation earlier this week, the Ottawa school board said it had reviewed information about the Palestinian Youth Movement, but “did not see a clear connection between the student group in Ottawa and this organization, although the name is the same.”

Student at a pro-Palestinian walkout in Ottawa, May 13, 2022

The board will not intervene in peaceful protests or walkouts, the letter stated. “Given we have no evidence of staff involvement or that the students leading the walkouts and other actions are acting in ways that are not aligned with their own sincerely held beliefs, we will not interfere with students wearing Palestinian flag colours, displaying flags on their person or wearing a keffiyeh. The OCDSB values representation and is committed to ensuring that classrooms are places where all students are comfortable with their identities known and acknowledged.”

Meanwhile, a training session for Ottawa school board staff by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, was abruptly postponed by the board this week, with little explanation, Freedman said.

In an email to The CJN, the OCDSB said it had organized two professional staff development events in recent months, hosted by the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship on the topic of antisemitism. “While the third session was postponed, we will continue to work with partners to arrange future learning sessions,” the email stated.

The school board confirmed that there was “at least one student demonstration,” on May 20 and that some students at schools wore keffiyehs or carried the Palestinian flag.

“If any student feels uncomfortable with these demonstrations, we encourage them to speak to a trusted adult at the school so that they can work with them to ensure their needs are addressed,” the email said.

The board has also initiated Google Hangouts for Jewish students as part of Jewish Heritage Month: “These weekly sessions have served as an opportunity for students to connect, discuss and support one and other across our school district.”

The OCDSB was recently found at fault in an Ontario Human Rights case involving a student who was not Jewish, but who suffered antisemitic insults and abuse from a fellow student.

In the case, which dated back to 2015, student David Armitage was assaulted and the family car was defaced with antisemitic graffiti. The school board suspended the student who was responsible. Because he was a youth at the time, he is referred to only as AB in the complaint.

Two months after the incidents, the school permitted the student to re-enroll in school, although Armitage had repeatedly said he did not feel safe with the other student in attendance. Armitage ended up completing Grade 12 online at home, because of his fears.

“The failure to assess the impact of AB’s return on the applicant created a barrier to the applicant accessing a meaningful part of his educational experience,” Adjudicator Leslie Reaume wrote in a decision released by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal on Feb. 28.

The Armitage case illustrates the issues Jewish students face, even though David Armitage wasn’t Jewish, Freedman said.

“In this case, they (the school board) claimed it wasn’t antisemitism because he wasn’t Jewish. They claim it’s not antisemitism because it’s about Israel. Jews are the only group that isn’t allowed to identify what hate feels like based on their lived experience,” she said.

Freedman says the Ottawa Federation gets “repeated complaints and concerns from parents and in most cases… extreme dissatisfaction with the (school board’s) actions to protect their students’ safety.”

“It used to be that we said that our university students were on the frontline and they still are,” Freedman said. “Unfortunately, so too are our high school students at an even more tender age.”