Source: SayPalestine/Twitter

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 12, between 200 and 250 students attending Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto walked out of their classrooms. They entered the streets chanting “Free Palestine!”, “Hey, hey, TDSB, Palestine will be free”, “TDSB, we will not be silenced!”, “Justice for Javier Davila!” and “Justice for Desmond Cole!”. During the hour or so of protesting, drivers honked in support or parked their vehicles and joined in support. The students demanded an end to anti-Palestinian racism at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). All those opposed to the oppression of the Palestinian masses must back these students to expose the systemic racism that they are so bravely countering.

Student demands in the face of attacks

Only two days after this protest, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC), a pro-Israeli government lobby, launched a Twitter attack against the high school students. They claimed that these young people promoted genocidal slogans and the annihilation of the Jewish people. The Independent Jewish Voices, a collective of Jewish people in Canada opposed to the oppressive actions of the Israeli government, quickly replied, standing behind the students and countering the myth that this was in any way antisemitic.  Painting these students as promoting violence and death is a disgusting slander and shows the lengths to which this pro-Israel government lobby group is willing to go.

In a press release, the students demanded the safety of Palestinian students and workers at the schools who face attacks for expressing their cultural identity. They demanded an end to silencing those who speak out for justice and instead provide resources to help them. They demanded the TDSB reject the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, which is discriminatory and dehumanizing against the Palestinian people. 

They demanded an apology by the TDSB to Desmond Cole, a prominent activist in Toronto. Cole faced attacks and online abuse after attending as a guest to a TDSB event. Ironically, this event was organized to educate TDSB staff about anti-racism and equity. With hundreds of workers present, Cole simply used the term “Free Palestine” and this garnered a backlash from TDSB executives. This is a term which is not antisemitic, and only expresses the demand to recognize the overwhelming oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. TDSB’s director, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, apologized for the “harm” caused by this statement. 

The Toronto Sun also spun the narrative to make it seem like Cole was being antisemitic. As we explained last month, the capitalist media, lobby groups and Canadian government are not serious about fighting antisemitism, but instead are weaponizing it to silence and discriminate against pro-Palestinian activists and the left. 

Cole is not alone in facing this type of attack. In a recent article, Cole explains how a Black student was suspended from school for saying the words “Free Palestine” during morning announcements. A journal that includes the experiences of Palestinian children is banned from TDSB school libraries. Children who expose the erasure of Palestinian history are accused of being antisemitic. Multiple students have been barred from wearing the keffiyeh (traditional Palestinian scarf) and warned about even mentioning the word “Palestine”.

The students demanded the TDSB implement a “fair policy” in their investigative procedures after unfairly suspending a teacher, Javier Davila, on home assignment. Davila was suspended and attacked in May of this year for sharing educational material with students about the Israel-Palestine conflict that countered the right-wing propaganda instituted by the board. Davila, a teacher with the TDSB, was targeted by Sue-Ann Levy, a Toronto Sun columnist with a track record of Islamophobia and inaccurate reporting. Instead of taking the side of their own staff member, the TDSB bent to Levy and other pro-Israeli government lobby groups. Multiple organizations, teachers and legal experts reviewed Davila’s material and concluded that it did not contain any antisemtitic content. A website organized by education workers was created to defend Davila, demanding the TDSB not bend to hate groups and racists, demanding a letter from the TDSB to condemn Israeli’s illegal occupation in Palestine and a commitment to human rights. But importantly, the movement eventually helped to reinstate Davila without discipline. 

In another example, in the summer of 2020, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce ordered all the province’s schools to remove from their curricula a video that was a resource for Grade 10 civics classes. The video called for the ending of the occupation of Palestine, but also for Israelis and Palestinians to live in equality, peace and with human rights. This is genocidal hatred according to the government. 

These are some of many examples of how there is a coordinated attempt by capitalist institutions like the TDSB, the provincial government and pro-Israeli government lobbies to erase the existence of Palestine.

How the students organized

On Monday, Nov. 8, students at Marc Garneau began to discuss how to support Cole and Davila. By Tuesday, they decided to take action. Word began to spread on social media after a student was suspended for wearing the keffiyeh. The students “wanted to protect their teachers from being targeted and punished by the TDSB”—similarly to what happened to Davila. A Twitter handle and contact info was made to represent them.

By Thursday, students came to the school wearing keffiyehs to express Palestinian culture and faced a backlash from staff. As staff clamped down on the students, word spread across social media and it drove more students to join the cause. By Friday tensions reached a boiling point. Students arrived wearing keffiyehs and colours of the Palestinian flag with posters they had been crafting all week. At 11 a.m. students stood up in their classrooms and started chanting down the hallways. This encouraged other students to join in. “The hallways echoed with voices chanting together” said their statement:

“We got together and decided to walk out because enough is enough. Students are not allowed to express their Palestinian culture without fear of suspension or worse. Things as simple as Palestinian poetry and dance. It’s as if the culture is to be erased,” one demonstrator said. 

Students and workers unite to defeat racism!

The student walkout is a bold and much-needed example of how to push back against those who really sow racism in society.

Contrary to the accusations of antisemitism, these students have shown that you don’t fight anti-Palestinian racism with antisemitism. The diverse show of 250 students, alongside the support of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, tells a different story than the Toronto Sun. The video that was banned explicitly talks about unity between Israelis and Palestinians—unlike the Ford government’s dog whistling against immigrants, many of whom are both Jewish and Arab. 

Institutions like the FSWC also benefit from stoking fear in the Jewish community. According to them, anyone who criticizes the brutal oppression of the Palestinians is antisemitic. This explains why the FSWC smears these kids in Toronto as violent and genocidal. 

Taking inspiration from the amazing example of the walkout, the labour movement needs to mobilize against real instances of antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism. Now is the time for the OSSTF, ETFO, CUPE and other unions to come out and denounce this rise of hateful attacks from the TDSB, the media, and the right-wing Israeli government. Students are showing the way; it’s time for organizations of the working class to mobilize in support.