Free speech shut down at Toronto school

I object to the willingness of the CJC to interfere in a public school and tell students what they can and cannot do to promote dialogue and discussion.

In grade 11, I transferred from the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT) to Northern Secondary School, a public school also in Toronto. My decision was primarily because I could no longer stand to be in the untenable situation at CHAT where anyone who strayed from the party line —that of an “Israel is always right” mentality — was branded an anti-Semite and a traitor. Dissent was muffled and propaganda was rampant.

For you see, unlike most students at CHAT, I am active in a group called Jewish Youth Against the Occupation (JYATO), as well as various other local social-justice oriented groups.

I hoped that by changing to Northern, I would be able to express myself freely, and engage in educated and open debate. Until now, this was the case.

At Northern we have a number of student-run, student-oriented and student-council-sanctioned clubs. One of them is the “Peace-Justice-Environment” club, which is a merger of two previous clubs: “Students for Social Justice” and the “Youth Environmental Organization.” At the first meeting of our newly united club, one campaign we decided to organize was a weekly film series of movies with a social-justice slant.

I was put in charge of this film series, and decided that our first movie was to be Jenin Jenin by Mohammed Bakri about the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin, the Israeli invasion of that camp, and the emotional responses of the inhabitants. It is important to know that Jenin Jenin does not have a narrator, guide or interviewer. It is simply ten or so inhabitants of Jenin telling their stories, expressing their opinions and their emotions. It is a beautiful film and the director, Bakri, a citizen of Israel, is well-known among Israelis for winning numerous Israeli film awards. When the movie first came out in Israel it was banned for public showing, but after an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court the ban was lifted.

Our group picked December 10, International Human Rights Day, for the screening, booked a room for the lunch hour, got a staff advisor to sign off on all our posters, and began advertising the event.

The day before the event, our staff advisor informed us that our principal, Bob Milne, had received a number of complaints about the movie, and asked that our advisor screen the movie to view it for potentially racist or hateful content. He was also asked to screen Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel, a right-wing propaganda piece that the Northern Israel Solidarity Club (another student club at the school) wanted to show. He watched both movies, said that neither contained racist content, and noted that Jenin Jenin, while biased as all documentaries are, was far less political and propagandist than Relentless. I went home that night fairly certain that the event would go ahead the next day as planned, though something told me there could be trouble.

I got to school rather early on the morning of December 10 and went straight to the office of this staff advisor. I found him looking rather distraught on the phone. I found out after he hung up that he had been on the phone with Len Rudner of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The staff advisor told me that Rudner objected to the showing of the movie as it was too one-sided and potentially anti-Semitic. When asked by this teacher whether or not Rudner objected to the showing of Relentless, he had no objections. When asked whether or not Rudner had seen Jenin Jenin, his answer was that he had not seen it.

As the student organizing the event, I felt obliged to call Rudner back and hear his objections. I explained who I was, my role in showing the movie, and asked his objections. Bluntly and simply he told me his objections were that “There was no massacre in Jenin” and that we were advocating the position that there was. I asked him if he had seen our posters advertising the event. He said no. I told him that our posters said “Operation Defensive Shield or War Crimes and Massacre?”, clearly showing that there are differences of opinion as to what happened.

At this point, Rudner had to “end the call” as he said he was going into an underground parking garage. He said he would call me back in the afternoon if I left him my number. I have yet to hear a word from him.

After ending the call with Rudner, I decided I would call Bernie Farber, executive director of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Farber told me that he was “dealing with the principal” and refused to speak to me until he had discussed it with him first. I pointed out that I was the student organizing the student-run event for a student club which got its rights to organize from the student council. (Gee whiz! Students organizing autonomously!). He refused to speak to me, and ended the call. (Please note that in a form letter sent in response to inquiries to the CJC, they claim that Farber wouldn't talk to me only because he was on the phone at the moment with the principal, Bob Milne. This is a fabrication as the principal told me he would not speak to Farber until he — Milne — had met with me as the student organizer).

At 10:30 that morning my staff advisor and I met with Milne. He told me that Farber said in an email that to show the movie could potentially violate the Safe Schools Act, as when the movie had previously been shown, it had caused racial violence at another school. I was intrigued at hearing that Jenin Jenin had been shown at another school, and that it had caused violence. I asked which school, but Farber had not told Milne that. I asked when, but Farber had not told Milne that. Generally when something related to Middle East education occurs in Toronto or the area, I hear about it from my activism with JYATO, especially when it occurs in a school. I have yet to be told when or where this occurred and remain skeptical as to the event's existence.

I also learned in this meeting that Milne had received calls from the Superintendent, Director of the School Board, the Canadian Jewish News, as well as former school trustee, Shelly Laskin, which puzzled me as she has no authority over the school, and I wondered how she had heard about the events. Part of my puzzlement was laid to rest when I found out that the CJC had called her at home the day before. At the end of our meeting, I was told that the movie's showing was to be “delayed” until he could consult with others on the school board. He assured me that he has always opposed censorship and would make sure that students are given the opportunity to express and hear all opinions, barring racism.

I believed him, and in an email I sent to some interested parties, I asked them not to call Milne as he was already overwhelmed with calls, and I thought we could deal directly with him as students. Looking back, this was a mistake as he only received calls from people wanting to stifle free speech and shut down the showing of both movies. On Thursday, I found out that both movies were cancelled and will not be shown at Northern.

Since then, I have been meeting with Milne, the student council president, and the head of the Israel Solidarity Club in an attempt to find a solution. It is important to note that the Peace-Justice-Environment Club, the Israel Solidarity Club, and the Student Council president are all united in our opposition to the ban on both movies. Despite some political differences, members have decided that while fighting the ban on the movies, we will organize together a series of educational events on the Middle East, with equal representation to the Palestinian and Israeli narratives, to show that students are capable of organizing events related to controversial topics without their resulting in racial violence, rioting or an unsafe learning environment.

As well, we are gathering student signatures on a petition we plan to give to the administration opposing the ban. We will also stay in regular contact with Milne, who has dealt with us fairly and equitably, and continue to work with the administration.At the same time as working in the school, we will be meeting with our school's elected Trustee, Josh Matlow.

Among our requests of him will be to bring back to the Trustees a motion they passed last year dealing with a similar issue. Last year, a student at Lawrence Park C.I. was putting up approved posters in her school for an upcoming rally protesting the invasion of Iraq. The principal of her school opposed putting up these posters and a debate about freedom of speech erupted. At a Trustee meeting, a motion was brought forward calling for the establishment of a committee to deal with the application of Board policy on controversial issues, as the guidelines are quite unclear and give principals a lot of subjectivity. The motion passed, but it went nowhere. By having this committee established, we hope that no students will have to deal with the stifling of freedom of speech that we students at Northern have dealt with.

Ever since my appearances on CBC and in The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Jewish Congress has changed its opinion and decided that Relentless is also not an appropriate “educational tool.”

I object to their willingness to interfere in a public school and tell students (“advise” is the word they use) what they can and cannot do to promote dialogue and discussion. If they were merely voicing their opinions, why would they not speak to the student who organized the event? Why did they think it was necessary to falsely invoke legislation in an attempt to bully the administration? Of course, I do not know the answers to these questions, because I have yet to have my phone calls returned.

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