Toronto District School Board will explore ‘multiple meanings’ of slogans following pro-Palestinian rally by students

(Credit: @free_palestine_tdsb/Instagram)

Educators with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) say they will work to ensure that students and staff understand the “multiple meanings” of expressions about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A letter sent home on Nov. 15 to parents of students at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, in Flemingdon Park, acknowledges that a few days earlier, students there led a lunch-hour rally at which signs and chants of “Free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” were used prominently.

Jewish groups have protested that those slogans call for the destruction of Israel and are hateful.

“Those expressions mean different things to different people because of different lived experiences,” states the letter to parents, signed by an executive superintendent and a superintendent of education.

“Some members of the Jewish community have experienced these phrases as antisemitic and hateful. Some Palestinians use the phrases as a statement of their rights as people.”

It was the “understanding” of participants that the protest, held Nov. 12 outside the school was “about freedoms and rights of Palestinians.”

The board said it “will work with staff and students to ensure they understand these multiple meanings and ensure hate is not part of the discussion.”

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre alleged that school staff amplified the pro-Palestinian messages on social media.

In a letter to TDSB director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins and other board officials, FSWC said the phrases in question call for the destruction of Israel “and the expulsion and murder of the Jewish people.”

The Jewish advocacy group called on Russell-Rawlins to provide “a plan of action to reassure families in our city that the TDSB is committed to upholding the rights of Jews in the TDSB system (staff, students and parents) not to be subjected to hateful propaganda while at school.”

FSWC has requested a meeting with the board to discuss bringing education programs on antisemitism to teachers and students at Marc Garneau and other schools in Toronto.

“It’s time the TDSB step up and take responsibility for allowing such a toxic environment to fester through its inaction on previous incidents of antisemitism, creating an atmosphere in which lashing out against the Jewish community is acceptable and Jewish staff and students are left feeling attacked and voiceless,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of policy at FSWC.

In its statement, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) outlined the meanings of the phrases used at the student rally.

For example, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” is “a common call-to-arms for pro-Palestinian activists,” CIJA pointed out. “It calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people. It is also a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to Hamas, which called for Israel’s destruction in its original governing charter in 1988.”

The board “needs to take urgent, concrete action to address systemic antisemitism,” said Noah Shack, CIJA’s vice president, GTA. The incident at Marc Garneau is the most recent in “a series” of antisemitic incidents that have not been fully addressed by the board, Shack said.

For example, in September, activist and author Desmond Cole’s remarks at online learning sessions for educators were supposed to be about anti-Black racism but went off-script to robust support for the Palestinian cause. The board apologized for “harm” caused.

Earlier this year, Javier Davila, a TDSB Student Equity Program Advisor, was put on home assignment for distributing pro-Palestinian resources to teachers, then reinstated to his job without further discipline.

In the letter to parents, the board said its position “has and always will be to support our students in being able to tell their stories and understand conflicting experiences of oppression.”

Students and the administration will continue to discuss what happened at the protest at Marc Garneau, “and how to incorporate the concerns raised in ongoing learning,” stated the letter. “Collectively, we must rise to the challenge of creating a deeper understanding of each other in classrooms and workplaces and focus on our shared humanity.”