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Opinion A Toronto educator is being attacked for standing up for Palestinians

Javier Davila is one of eight student equity program advisers for the Toronto District School Board. (Courtesy of Javier Davila)
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A Toronto educator is on home assignment and under investigation in Ontario after sharing anti-hate, decolonial and anti-oppression materials with teachers through an opt-in mailing list. Javier Davila is one of eight student equity program advisers for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). He has, for years, shared equity and diversity materials with teachers through his mailing list.

On May 16 and May 19, he shared resources about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its history. These were the 26th and 27th mailouts of the school year. Leading with “Understanding Antisemitism at its Nexus with Israel and Zionism,” the guide explained what antisemitism is and the difference between criticizing a people and a state. Other materials include a critique of Canada for supporting Israel and a Washington Post opinion column on Israel’s colonialist project. The guide is filled with work from experts, journalists and critics of Israeli state policy.

Davila’s work provides a counterbalance to persistent narratives and fears that have prevented many from speaking out in support of Palestine or providing anti-oppression and anti-colonial training. Schools often pretend to adopt missions that include critical education. However, when faced with controversy, even in the face of facts and expertise, some schools and boards retreat into themselves and cower.

On May 22, a columnist with the Toronto Sun wrote about Davila after the newspaper obtained the materials he had shared. The column was overwrought and scornful. It was a bit sloppy, too. The columnist misspelled Davila’s name repeatedly (it’s Davila, not DaVila). The piece included a quotation from B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn calling for Davila to be dismissed and for “a full investigation.”

After Davila was put on home assignment, he took to Medium to explain and defend himself, and a petition was shared in support of him. On May 26, the Toronto Sun columnist published another piece attacking him and the petition. Columns like that have a chilling effect on speech. When coupled with a work investigation, the effect is more serious and disconcerting. On May 27, the columnist wrote a third piece, writing “TDSB educator still tweeting virulent anti-Israel messages.”

When we look back at this moment, we will be ashamed of the attacks against Davila and ashamed of those who targeted him and those who support him. History will not be kind to bullies.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario shared a statement in support of Davila, calling out the board and asking it to “fulfill its moral and professional responsibility to support Mr. Davila & other educators who demonstrate a commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression and decolonization.”

In a response to my questions about the case, the board shared a statement. “The resources in question were not reviewed or approved by the TDSB. Staff, including the Board’s Employee Services Dept, are currently investigating this matter. During this time, the staff member will be on home assignment. We are also in the process of removing this staff member’s current and previous group mailings/newsletters from TDSB email inboxes.” The board also shared the Toronto Sun column internally as part of its “In The News” media monitoring email.

On May 28, interim director of education Karen Falconer circulated an email to staff in which she brought up “countless staff members” who are "coming forward and sharing their experiences of anti-Israeli racism, antisemitism, anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia here at home.”

Setting aside the fact that “anti-Israeli racism” doesn’t exist, given that Israel is a state, not a race, Falconer’s email goes on to say “it is critical that you are cognizant of the impact of your comments when expressing your opinions. When comments create harm, are racist in nature, or are discriminatory, they cannot be condoned. Before expressing an opinion — online or otherwise — please ask yourself: Does this lead to productive dialogue? Will this cause harm to any of my students or colleagues?" On its face, the message seems appropriate. But in the context of the investigation into Davila and his home assignment, the undertone is clear and chilling.

What the board didn’t mention in its statement, Falconer’s email or anywhere else, as far as I can tell, is that there has never been such a public outrage in 12 years of mailouts. Nor did it mention that Davila had yet to receive a negative email in response to his mailouts before the column attacking him. The board has caved to a column from a newspaper and moral panic, throwing Davila under the bus and sending a disconcerting message to its educators. Some of those folks, administrators in particular, have spoken out through an anonymous letter pointing out that “speaking in support of Palestinian lives does not equate with antisemitism” and noting the “TDSB must be committed to working for ALL students and addressing ALL forms of oppression.”

The right loves to complain of “cancel culture” and “mobs” coming after those who disagree with them. But the devotees of the cult of outrage don’t seem to believe in practicing what they preach.

Today we are in the midst of a shift in discourse as more and more of us recognize oppression and settler colonial violence, and as we mainstream the need to remedy historical injustice and prevent future transgressions. Educators are on the front lines of this moral awakening, and they ought not only to impart critical thinking skills to those they educate but also a commitment to justice and solidarity.

That imperative requires them to set aside any pretense of neutrality — which is undesirable in theory and impossible in practice — and to teach the truth. Each of us should join them as we stand in solidarity with Javier Davila and those who speak up for Palestinians.

Read more:

Noura Erakat and Mariam Barghouti: Sheikh Jarrah highlights the violent brazenness of Israel’s colonialist project

Gershom Gorenberg: Israelis and Palestinians can’t go on like this. Weep for us.

Fareed Zakaria: The only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem

David Ignatius: Israel has no coherent strategy for the Palestinians. The U.S. should push for a reset.

James Downie: Senate Republicans know they chose cowardice in killing a Jan. 6 investigation. They just proved it.

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