Antisemitism in Canada: Toxic Classrooms

by Barbara Kay, National Post

What follows is an edited excerpt from testimony delivered at a hearing of the Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism this month.

My attention has been drawn to the disturbing phenomenon of overt Jew hatred in high schools, especially those with high populations of students from countries where Jew hatred is officially sanctioned in the law of their countries of origin.

As a case in point I offer one particularly disturbing story, because I believe it points to wider issues of concern for the educational system and for our society. It involves a Jewish teacher in an Ontario French high school whose name I cannot reveal because she fears physical retaliation.

"Miriam" had taught in French language schools in the 1970s and 1980s in schools with large Lebanese Christian populations without incurring any anti-Semitism. In her current career she works amicably with Muslims. A child of Holocaust survivors, Miriam is demonstrably neither racist nor anti-Muslim.

In 2001 Miriam started teaching at a school largely populated by children of refugees, mainly from Djibouti and Eritrea, countries where there are no Jews but where hatred of Jews is deeply entrenched in the culture.

During the academic year of 2002-2003 Miriam started to encounter anti-Semitic taunts from students, such as "Does someone see a Jew here, someone smell a Jew? It stinks here." When she reported this and similar insults to the principal, the principal did not follow up. Indeed, the principal seemed more concerned about the students' sensibilities than hers.

The principal instructed teachers not to offend their Muslim students; they were not to look students in the eye, they were not to gesture with the forefinger to bid them approach and they were not to interfere with male students who were physically aggressive to male teachers.

During the invasion of Iraq, moments of silence were held in the classroom. Cultural presentations involved only Muslim culture and no Canadian content. Students were allowed to leave assembly during the playing of the national anthem.

The crisis of this story occurred when Miriam admonished a student for wearing a Walkman in class. The student screamed at her: "I don't have to listen to you; you are not a person, you are nothing, you do not exist as a person." When Miriam demanded he accompany her to the principal's office, the student followed her down the hall yelling, "Don't speak to me, don't look at me, you are not human, you are a Jew."

Although the student was ultimately suspended for 10 days, his parents expressed puzzlement about the punishment since, they patiently explained, the teacher was after all Jewish. They complained about the severity of the punishment to the school board.

There were no sensitivity courses laid on for the students or the parents. When, over her objections, the offending student and another guilty of the same offence were returned to Miriam's class, she decided she could no longer work under such circumstances. She contacted the Hate Crime Unit of the local police and reported everything.

The School board treated Miriam as the source of the problem and asked her to retire. A top litigator told Miriam she had an excellent case for a lawsuit but fearing for her family's safety under the glare of publicity, she decided not to sue.

Lest you assume Miriam was paranoid or Islamophobic or that this was an isolated case of a few bad apples: In 2004, the year Miriam left, a full 60 out of 75 francophone teachers asked for a transfer, not because of anti-Semitism but because of anti-Westernism, a growing discomfort in other areas for which anti-Semitism is the proverbial canary in the mine. French-Canadian children had already stopped enrolling and as I understand it, the school is now virtually all-Muslim, including the teachers and principal.

There are many immigrants entering Canada from countries where overt Jew hatred is endemic to the culture and even officially sanctioned in law. When they arrive here, it is somehow assumed they will absorb Canadian values, but they don't and their toxic attitudes persist. Instead of confronting their bigotry, this principal and the school board chose not to apply long-standing normative codes of behaviour and human rights law.

An instinctive political correctness set in. Out of fear of being labeled racist or Islamophobic

those in charge stifled their commitment to professional ethics and behaviour codes reflecting Canadian standards of pluralism and respect.

Imagine a reverse situation. Imagine if the aggressors and bigots were heritage Canadians harassing a Muslim teacher with these hateful words. It would have been a cause celebre and the media would have called for an investigative inquiry into the origins of the serious social problem represented by these racialized students and their families.

If preventative measures are not taken, if it is not made clear in no uncertain terms through education and persuasive push-back in this school and all schools where there are critical masses of students arriving from countries drenched in anti-Semitism, Jew hatred will metastasize in those cultural communities that consider it a norm, increasing exponentially.

There are many such schools in Britain and Europe where the atmosphere is so strained and hostile to anyone but Islamic kinship groups that they are simply no-go fiefdoms -Islamic mini-societies within the larger culture. We mustn't think that can't happen here, because it can. It is happening already.

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