In an equity talk he was asked to give to members of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) two weeks ago, Desmond Cole, a well-known Black author, activist, and journalist in Canada, dared to utter two words: Free Palestine.
The moment he said it, moderators demanded he explain how Free Palestine doesn’t entail the “destruction of Israel.” What a line of questioning in any talk, let alone an equity talk. And not only was Cole’s lecture disrupted, but he was predictably labelled violent, hateful, and antisemitic afterward.
This incident, alongside a series of others at the TDSB, shows what the real scandal is: Canadian institutions have an entrenched structure of anti-Palestinian racism, which includes the erasure of Palestine and Palestinians as a free and sovereign people.
In his incisive response, Cole stated: “If people interpret Free Palestine as being violent, it is because they are benefitting from Palestinians being unfree. Period. In the same way that if you answer Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter, you must have some investment in Black lives being more … undervalued … Otherwise, you wouldn’t quarrel with the statement.”
Cole went on to explain the context of the video on his Twitter account: “I doubt Shirley Chan and Lorraine Linton disrupted my talk simply out of personal discomfort. It seems they and other TDSB staff were directed to interrupt me by their superiors. Staff interrupted two of my presentations with what sounded like scripted talking points.”
Cole’s hunch was astute. In a memo sent out to TDSB staff on September 24, Colleen Russell-Rawlins, the first Black woman to permanently act as the board’s Director of Education, apologized “for the harm that may have been caused” by Cole’s comments. She explained that “it is incumbent upon [TDSB staff] to interrupt and question when content is potentially problematic or inappropriate.” Those who interrupted Cole must have known that they were safe and supported to do so because they already knew that Free Palestine was accepted as problematic and inappropriate by the TDSB leadership.
Anti-Palestinian racism a feature of schools across Canada
This story is but the latest example of the TDSB’s structurally-entrenched anti-Palestinian racism.
Earlier this year, Toronto anti-oppression educator Javier Dávila was targeted with the same attacks that Cole is currently facing. For merely extending anti-racist and decolonial education to include Palestinians and their struggle for rights and freedom, Dávila came under public attack. The TDSB inexplicably decided to investigate him and place him on home assignment. All of the allegations against Dávila were baseless, and yet they had a potentially-devastating impact on his career and certainly on students who were deprived of a proper education about Palestine.
This structural problem of anti-Palestinian racism is not unique to the TDSB but is a feature of schools across Ontario and Canada. 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 posted by a Grade 10 student for a Civics class assignment. But the student in the video was merely explaining basic facts of the Israeli occupation and called for ending the occupation so that both Palestinians and Israelis can live in equality, peace, and human rights. So much for claims of genocidal hatred.
In another grave move to erase Palestine and silence the Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel, the TDSB quietly adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. In August of 2021, 300 TDSB staff, students, and parents, sent a letter to the TDSB leadership asking critical questions about the TDSB’s adoption of the IHRA—which delegimitizes legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy with the brush of antisemitism—and requesting a set of actions that would create an inclusive and equitable learning environment. The letter was confirmed as received by the TDSB leadership but no serious response or engagement has come of it.
By way of dealing with the Cole incident, Russell-Rawlins states in her memo that the TDSB is “finalizing the secondment of a staff member from each of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs [CIJA] and the National Council of Canadian Muslims [NCCM] to work together to help develop classroom resources to address antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiments.”
While the TDSB will use such statements to prove that they’re taking “both sides” seriously, none of NCCM’s support for Cole’s statement on Free Palestine is visible in the memo. The memo is framed as if Cole had in fact said something harmful and violent. The secondment is framed as a response to a hateful incident—the utterance of Free Palestine—the content of which must be therefore overcome in order for inclusive, informed, equitable, and empathetic dialogue to take place. In other words, Palestinian freedom has no place in such a dialogue.
I have no reason to doubt that Russell-Rawlins, Linton, and Chan genuinely strive to enact an anti-racist politics. But their actions cannot be judged only in accordance with their intentions, and we must situate them within the landscape of imperial and settler colonial state power relations in which they operate. We need to ask: is their brand of anti-racism wedded to these power relations? In silencing and erasing Palestinian freedom, I think the answer is clearly yes.
Against this state-sanctioned and superficial kind of anti-racism is the deep anti-racism in Cole’s response, which shows a clear understanding of the intersectional nature of the struggle against erasure and colonization. It is an intersectional struggle that is understood by many in the Jewish community as well, foremost among them organizations like Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), who have also come to the defense of Cole.
In the words of Cole, you are either benefitting from the unfreedom of Palestinian, Black, and other racialized lives, or you join the shared struggle for freedom. Those who find themselves in positions of leadership within the TDSB and beyond need to decide where they stand: with imperial and settler colonial power, or with those who are truly struggling against it.