Kaplan-Myrth: As Holocaust Remembrance Day looms, what are we learning?

Rising antisemitism and intolerance mark the daily experience of many in Ottawa and across Canada. If we do not heed our history, we are headed for troubled times.

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I am putting pen to paper a few days prior to international Holocaust Remembrance Day. I am a Jewish woman physician, a school board trustee for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

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Although I could write at length about the horrors of the Second World War, of the genocide of six million Jews — one-third of the world’s Jewish population — about the murders of people on the basis of their religion, sexual orientation and disabilities, instead I feel compelled to write about hateful trends that are on the rise today.

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As a trustee candidate for the OCDSB last summer, I joined other candidates and previous OCDSB board members at the National Holocaust Monument for a tour led by the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship. One of the other candidates asked the leader of the event, “Was there anything that preceded the Holocaust, that led to the genocide?” That question, although asked innocently, spoke volumes. The history of discrimination against Jewish people goes back millennia.

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As a candidate, I was also approached by individuals and organizations asking me whether I would be as racist and bigoted as they are. They wanted to know whether I’d take a stance against “critical race theory,” whether I’d “protect their children” from 2SLGBTQIA+ students and staff, whether I’d ban books, whether I’d take “social justice” off the curriculum. I deleted their emails. But the problem doesn’t disappear in the spam folder.

Fast-forward to November, 2022. When I put forward the motion to temporarily reinstate masks in our classrooms to ensure the health and safety of students and staff in response to the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and RSV, the OCDSB boardroom filled with disruptive protesters. What does this have to do with antisemitism? Within the onslaught of mail about the proposed mask mandate, there were also targeted attacks on me as a Jewish woman. During and after our board meeting, I was bombarded by horrific antisemitic slander and death threats.

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Antisemitism has sharply increased in the last few years in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world. Antisemitism encountered by students and staff in Ottawa schools has been reported in the news recently. If you were to speak with Jewish students and families, however, you’ll learn that antisemitism (in the form of overt Jew hatred, Nazi symbolism, threats, name-calling and coins tossed at the feet of Jewish students) is commonplace.

It was standing room only as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board met in November to decide if masks should be mandated in schools again.
It was standing room only as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board met in November to decide if masks should be mandated in schools again. Photo by Julie Oliver /Ottawa Citizen

Thinking about the conditions that preceded the Holocaust, there was no internet, no social media, no anonymity, but there was radio, there were newspapers, there was widespread disparaging public discourse about Jews. Those who did not actively stand up against Jew hatred condoned it through their silence.

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Today, in 2023, Holocaust denial is a common theme, as is blood libel, the myth of Jews controlling media and banks, the conflation of Judaism with Israeli politics, and general scapegoating of Jewish people throughout history. Antisemitism is misunderstood, overlooked, dismissed. No other form of racism or discrimination would be so easily shrugged off.

This brings me back to school boards. Antisemitic incidents in Ottawa schools were overlooked year after year, despite conversations with trustees and senior staff and reassurances to families and the Jewish community that action would be taken. Antisemitism was not adequate addressed by any of the OCDSB’s resources.

On Jan. 17, 2023, at our meeting of the committee of the whole, I therefore put forward a motion for the OCDSB to hire a Jewish Equity Coach. More than 1000 Jewish community members, rabbis of diverse affiliations (orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist), as well as representatives of Jewish organizations and leaders from across the political spectrum, came together to consider the motion. After thoughtful discussion, the OCDSB expressed unanimous support for the motion, which should be ratified when it goes back to board at the end of January.

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Predictably enough, within hours of the committee of the whole meeting, antisemitic emails once again flowed into my inbox. Emails that call for my entire family to be killed, sent to gas chambers, that I should be raped, with subject lines that refer to me using the K-word, assertions that what I have “done to the children of Ottawa is unforgiveable.” The juxtaposition of anti-mask/vaccine rhetoric and racist, antisemitic, misogynist hate is a worldwide phenomenon.

People are shocked when I share what I have received, and people assume that the vehemence of the online hate is somehow related to people’s ability to remain anonymous via email or on Twitter. But the hate is trickling down to the real world. What is happening in our board rooms is not anonymous. These are people looking us in the eye and echoing the trolls we block online. The danger to our society is significant.

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Sadly, as antisemitism and racism and bigotry are on the rise, school boards have become a battleground for standing up for human rights and social justice.

On Jan. 20, 2023, an open letter was written to students, families and communities by the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) to address accusations of “child abuse” and “pedophilia.” Apparently, people showed up at a committee of the whole meeting in Waterloo to express anger about the Ontario curriculum’s inclusion of education about gender identity and sexuality; to protest WRDSB voluntary collection of demographic data to ensure that the school board has resources to support 2SLGBTQIA+ students; and to complain about certain books in school libraries. “We have a duty to uphold the Ontario Human Rights Code and Ministry of Education directions and ensure that the environment is safe for all students regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Gender and sexual orientation rights are human rights,” the WRDSB wrote. The WRDSB cautions that it is not responding to an isolated incident, but to a wider pattern.

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Hate is trickling down to the real world. These are people looking us in the eye and echoing the trolls we block online.

As a trustee in the OCDSB, I have thought a lot about the letter from Waterloo. We should all be deeply concerned by the discomfiting trend of hate, racism and xenophobia across Ontario and, sadly, around the world. The WRDSB letter is brave, in addressing head-on an issue that plagues school boards and other institutions that uphold principles of human rights and social justice. “This is our commitment to creating a system where everyone belongs and is treated with respect,” WRDSB wrote.

Yet there are people, organized and vocal opponents of anything that they frame as “woke,” whose agenda is to silence conversations in classrooms, ban books, disrupt the work of boards, and even — as in my personal experience — threaten and harass those in leadership roles who stand up for human rights and social justice.

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The OCDSB is now embarking on community consultations to prepare its four-year strategic plan for 2023-2027. In the very first meeting, there were at least half a dozen people (some parents, some non-parents, non-OCDSB constituents) who attended with the express purpose of railing against equity, diversity and inclusion as guiding principles in public education. “Don’t teach my child to read by having them read a story about a trans person,” some said. “Don’t confuse our children by presenting your opinions,” some said. Before the meeting, I was concerned about whether we would reach the most marginalized populations, people who historically are the least likely to feel empowered to speak. My colleagues and I stood up to the racism and bigotry on display, but for us — and for any community participants within earshot of the problematic conversations — it was a clear indication that public consultations are not safe spaces.

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Again, not an isolated incident. While there is an expectation that trustees, as elected officials, will respond with some form of diplomacy in the face of racist/bigoted/misogynist constituents, there is a toll that comes from being bombarded by hate. At the end of our community consultation, staff pointed out to me that teachers and school principals (and children) have to deal with these parents (and children) in their classrooms on a regular basis.

It is important to note that people who show up to meetings, or those who write to school board trustees, are not necessarily local constituents. After our failed motion to temporarily reinstate masks in Ottawa schools in November, people who do not live in the Ottawa area boasted on social media that they “shut us down” and that they will travel from board to board for this purpose. Some were among those involved in the convoy in 2021. They are copying a template, a schema, a playbook for disruptions of board meetings that has been a scourge in the United States for years.

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Where does this leave us now, locally, across Ontario and Canada, and around the world?

At a federal level, Prime Minister Trudeau has said that antisemitism is not a problem for the Jewish community to solve alone.

Truly, the real problem is that we live in a society in which someone can sit across from me, look me in the eye, and tell me that he wants social justice taken off the curriculum. Even by writing this, there will be others who come out of the woodwork to express their hate.

So, no, we won’t negotiate about taking human rights or social justice off the curriculum. If anything, we need human rights and social justice on the curriculum more than ever. We need to increase support for Jewish, Black, Asian and other racialized students and their families. We need to increase supports for refugees and newcomers to Canada. We need to increase supports for students with disabilities, and neurodiverse students. We also need more mental health and social supports for students and staff, in the face of increasing violence and dysregulation in classrooms.

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In short, we must teach our children to stand up against discrimination based on race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, disability or neurodiversity. The WRDSB letter ends with the apt assertion, “Hate, racism and xenophobia are not ‘opinions’ that should be gathered through consultation. The hallmark of a democratic public education system should be that we serve all students well, especially those with the least power.”

In my opinion, we should observe Holocaust Remembrance Day as a reflection of past atrocities, and teach children about the history of Jew hatred so that it is understood to be a problem that began long before 1939 and has never ended. Holocaust Remembrance Day should also serve as a warning to the public, a foreboding glimpse of a dangerous trend. If we do not learn from the past, we are headed into troubled times.

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth is a family physician and a trustee for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

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