MANDEL: The sad politics around a Jewish Heritage Month …

Posted By on May 26, 2018

It began as an outrageous mockery of Canadas first Jewish Heritage Month. And ended with Jewish students learning the importance of fighting back.

When Noa Elfassy and her friends from Forest Hill Collegiate recently returned from March of the Living an emotional two-week trip that takes Jewish high school students to Poland to examine the horrors of the Holocaust and then to Israel to learn about the birth of the Jewish state they were told their schools annual Holocaust Remembrance assembly wasnt being held this year.

So the Grade 11 students decided to organize their own two-day program and were asked by school administrators to hold it in May to coincide with Canadas inaugural Jewish Heritage Month.

The teens invited the Holocaust survivors from their trip to speak at their school andto publicize the event, they hung a blue and white banner featuring the Star of David and Jewish Heritage Month in English and Hebrew in the school foyer.

For a week, there was no issue.

But on the eve of their program, the banner was removed without warning or consultation. When questioned by concerned students and parents, principal Reiko Fuentes said the banner was too controversial because it resembled the Israeli flag.

Too controversial? Have anti-Israel politics now invaded our high schools as well as our universities and ironically at a high school whose population is 30% Jewish?

Everyone was pretty enraged, Noa said.

As was her mother. Yael Elfassy called Fuentes. Her response was: I dont understand why you have to use the Israel flag when there are Jews all over the world.

Elfassy was rightfully appalled. The fact that the educator of my child doesnt understand that Israel is the Jewish state and the Israeli flag is as much a flag of the Jewish people as it is of Israel is disturbing, she said. She has no right to tell Jewish students to remove Israel from their heritage.

No right at all.

What did this say to those students at a time when a recent Toronto Police study found Jews were again the single most targeted group for hate crimes in Toronto: even your high school is not a safe harbour? A month set aside to celebrate Jewish identity and inclusion was instead used as just another excuse for discrimination.

The school and the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) are unilaterally deciding what elements of Jewish heritage theyre allowed to mark at school, complained Aidan Fishman, national director for the League for Human Rights at Bnai Brith Canada.

Added Bnai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn: This month is supposed to symbolize the acceptance and inclusion of Jewish students and teachers in Toronto schools, but is now marking the exact opposite.The administration at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute must immediately return the Jewish Heritage Month banner to its rightful place, and apologize to the Jewish students who have had their heritage denigrated by their own principal.

TDSB trustee Alexandra Lulka took to Facebook: Jewish students must feel welcome in TDSB schools. This incident creates a toxic atmosphere. The TDSB does not get to dictate to Jewish students what aspects of their identity are appropriate for Jewish Heritage Month.

The TDSB did not return a request for comment.

The principal promised a meeting with parents and students to discuss the matter but that meeting never happened. Instead, Fuentes announced the banner would be closeted in the library where Jewish Heritage Month events were being held.

And what is most telling? The principal didnt bother to show up for the students program Wednesday.

In protest of the banner decision, many of the Forest Hill students wore the Israeli flag colours of blue and white and held a rally outside the school. Jewish organizations issued outraged press releases and their representatives met with TDSB brass. To see the whole community come together and really support us was awesome, Noa said.

By the end of the day, the banner was back in the foyer of Forest Hill Collegiate.

This was a victory for diversity, her mother said. This should just be an example of fighting for what you believe: We all have a right to our voice as long as there is no hate in that voice.

But as for the apology they deserve? Dont hold your breath.

mmandel@postmedia.com

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