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Anti-Palestinian racism in Canadian schools and what we can do about it

Educators have an important role to play in challenging widespread erasure of Palestinian identity and anti-Palestinian racism

February 13, 2024

10-minute read

Like most people engaging in conversations about Palestine and Israel, I’m afraid of my words being taken out of context, misunderstood, or inadvertently causing harm. I’m especially worried about breaking trust with people and communities about whom I care deeply. As an educator, however, I’m called to balance my fears with my responsibility to learn about and teach the issues, especially as they directly impact the learners in my care.

This “fear-responsibility” balancing act isn’t new. From lesson plans that encourage students to learn and reflect on their responsibility to engage in truth and reconciliation, to teaching about past discriminatory government policies and actions, to the links between carceral violence and racism, teachers help students to connect what they’re learning in school to the complexities of the real world. We need this now more than ever, but it is happening far less when it comes to Palestine and Israel than it should. As an anti-racist educator, I’m called to name this erasure and curricular violence for what it is: anti-Palestinian racism.

While readers may have varying opinions about Palestine and Israel, most would agree that the world we want for future generations must be more—not less—equitable and just. Such a world is only possible if people have the capacity to dialogue and contextualize history and commit to taking on all our challenges together, with humility and care. If the present moment is any indicator, we are failing ourselves and our students at building such a world, and causing great harm in the process.

I’d like to ground this discussion in two examples of the many harmful incidents that have occurred across the country recently, one from before October and the other after.

In March 2023, a Palestinian student wore his keffiyeh to his school’s culture day. The student was told to take off his keffiyeh because, according to the principal, the keffiyeh is a “sign of war.

Telling a student to erase a part of themselves is deeply harmful any day, but the fact that an authority figure asked a Palestinian student to remove his keffiyeh on a school culture day speaks volumes to not just the curricular but the cultural-political landscape in this country. What would the principal’s reaction have been if they themselves had more accurate, dynamic, and positive representations of Palestinian people and their history to draw on? What if instead of telling the student to remove his keffiyeh, the principal had looked up what keffiyehs actually represent?

When we tell a Palestinian student that they need to take off their keffiyeh because “it is a sign of war,” we reinforce dehumanizing stereotypes that there is something inherently violent and divisive about being Palestinian. We are showing them that despite what our equity statements and Education Plans say about all students belonging, these commitments don’t extend to them.

Palestinian students have been experiencing an increase in this type of behaviour over the past several months. On October 16, 2023, a Palestinian elementary school student in the Ottawa-Carleton School Board (OCDSB) was asked to remove a Palestinian flag from their online profile or risk being removed from class. The principal believed that the Palestinian flag was a “political statement” that would make the other students feel unwelcome. The student protested by saying, “you’re not really welcoming me right now.”

Would this principal have responded the same to a student displaying the Israeli flag? The Canadian flag? How can we ask Palestinian students to trust and participate in an education system that equates Palestinian identity itself with “a political statement” that has no place in a classroom?

After this story went public, the OCDSB posted an online statement stating: “While we will not allow imagery that promotes or symbolizes hate, discrimination or violence, students may express themselves using flags or symbols which represent their identity, background or beliefs.”

Of course, a ban on keffiyehs and Palestinian flags would be absurd and grossly violate our educational policies, commitments, and responsibilities. And yet, these kinds of examples illustrate the pervasiveness of anti-Palestinian racism. Until we reckon with this truth, we will continue to perpetuate profound harm.

These types of inconsistent applications of policy and procedures indicate that the problem isn't the action itself (wearing a keffiyeh or critiquing the actions of the Israeli government), it's the fear of how the action will be perceived. In doing this, we are modelling that we will break where and when people apply pressure. This is profoundly destabilizing and scary for young people who require consistency to feel safe enough to ask critical questions and meaningfully engage in the world around them.

The same impacts occur when our values and morals are incongruent with our actions. For instance, we say we value social responsibility and welcome sock drives for Ukrainian refugees but shut down fundraisers for medical aid in Gaza. We say that we support students responding to injustice through student clubs, posters, art installations, fundraisers, and more when it comes to climate justice, women’s and queer rights, but when these actions are taken to stand up for Palestinian life, dignity, and freedom, these same students are told to “stay neutral” and warned not to “take sides.”

Further, when we erase and silence Palestinian culture and people from the curriculum and classroom conversations, we commit curricular violence and contravene our professional responsibilities (such as British Columbia’s Positive Personal and Cultural Identity Core Competency). If we fail to mention entire portions of history on the principle that these stories are “difficult” or “too complicated,” we disconnect students from reality—as well as from how they see history and themselves.

Anti-Palestinian racism can also mean only mentioning Palestinians in the context of violence and terrorism. Lessons begin with the intifada but fail to mention the Nakba. Teachers cite resources that claim that Israel was a “land without people for a people without a land” while telling students who question this narrative to stay quiet. When teachers silence Palestinian students and their lived experiences, they abdicate their professional responsibilities and cause emotional and intellectual harm in the process.

Ending curricular violence means coming to terms with the harm that the education system has caused Palestinian students and communities for decades. It means stopping the cycle, working towards repair, and actively preventing ongoing harm. It means recommitting ourselves to humanizing, contextualizing, and nuanced dialogue about Palestine and Israel. While some media create the delusion of two equal sides in conversations about Palestine and Israel, the reality is much more nuanced. How can we encourage students to listen to learn when so much of the world is reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality that leaves little room for dialogue?

When we humanize oppressed groups and center those most marginalized by racism and injustice, we improve safety for everyone. Taking a principled anti-racist approach to current events leads to more safety, not less. And to more hope. Take, for example, the portrait of Palestinian journalist Bisan Owda, painted by grade 10 student, Asha R, at an art school in Vancouver.

"Photo via Nassim Elbardouh, painting by Asha R. With permission."

The accompanying artist statement reads:

“The central portrait in my piece is of Palestinian and Gazan journalist Bisan Owda. As a Jew, secular or agnostic as I may be, it is extremely painful to see what is happening in Israel and Palestine in the name of freedom for my people. The Internet's constant overexposure to information and news on this issue, and others, has a tendency to lead people to believe the future is inevitable and bleak; to believe that there is no hope, that there is no point in trying to better the world. I don't think a person in a media-induced despair can ever truly see the beauty in someone like Bisan. The fact that she keeps living and keeps documenting her home as it is destroyed is not a sign of her delusion, or inability to have global awareness. If a woman living through an ethnic cleansing of her people can find something worth fighting for, what's leaving you hopeless?”

It's clear that despite what many adults say about the inevitability of violence, many young people see the world, and their future possibilities, differently. They’re working hard, and against the odds, to imagine a better world. To do this, they need to be able to tap into their empathy, engage in dialogue, and see each other as human beings.

Like Asha, I too have hope. I believe young people want liberation and justice for all and are capable of the difficult conversations required to get there.

What educators can do

Students need to be able to trust their teachers and administrators. They rely on us to uphold the values and commitments that we’ve made to them, even when it’s uncomfortable, unpopular, complex, or we don’t have all the answers. Students don’t feel safe because we shield them from injustice; they feel safe when we prove that they can count on us to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing at this moment means modeling how to engage in complex dialogues about inequities and violence by offering students facts from multiple sources and critical thinking skills to connect what they’ve learned to the real world. This isn’t easy work, but it’s central to our professional and ethical obligations as educators tasked with caring for the intellectual and emotional wellbeing of the learners in our care.

Doing the right thing in this moment also means countering the racist curricular violence of the past several decades by actively centering Palestinian history, stories, joy, and survival. Follow the work of Palestinian educator Dr. Sawsan Jaber. Read poetry by Mahmoud Darwish. Learn about tatreez embroidery. Learn how to dance the Dabke. Study the artwork of Malak Mattar and read her book Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story. Learn about the cultural and economic significance of olive trees for Palestinian people (through, for example, the picture book These Olive Trees, by Aya Ghanameh). Read We Are Palestinian by award-winning writer Reem Kassis and buy a few copies for your classroom library.

Learn about the life of Refaat Alareer and incorporate his work in your next poetry unit. Share how Alareer was a professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza–a teacher, like you. Read the poem he shared on November 1, 2023-titled: “If I Must Die” and study the lines:

If I must die
let it bring hope,
let it be a tale.

On December 7, 2023, just over a month after he published his poem, the Israeli army killed Refaat, alongside his brother, sister, and four of his nephews and nieces in an airstrike on his sister’s home. At the time of this writing, the Israeli military kills one Palestinian child every 15 minutes in Gaza, and over 28,000 people have been killed since October 7.

Children are answering the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “if.Nothing can justify this, and I will no longer accept the premise that to teach about these realities is to somehow cause harm.

James Baldwin once said: “The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality. Or, I am saying, in other words, that we, the elders, are the only models children have. What we see in the children is what they have seen in us–or, more accurately perhaps, what they see in us.”

The students are watching us. Every day, they learn from both the conversations we have and the ones we avoid. While they may not be able to fully articulate it right now, they’re assessing how our actions today align with the values we espouse—both as a school community and an international one. How will we respond when they ask us questions later such as: does international human rights law matter? What’s the point of defining a war crime if war crimes can be justified?

I, like many teachers reading this, want the learners in my care to know and understand that we have a collective responsibility to each other and to the land. Even if we can’t see the connections in real time, our oppression and our liberation have always been inextricably connected.

Here’s to difficult conversations and a shared commitment to a liberated and just world. Our children’s lives depend on it.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to Heather Evans, Özlem Sensoy, Samia Shoman, and Jody Sokowler for their invaluable feedback on this piece.

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