Open Letter in Support of Nadia Shoufani
As teachers and educators committed to the values of free speech, civic engagement, social justice, and respectful dialogue across difference, we are deeply alarmed by the smears and libelous accusations against ESL teacher Nadia Shoufani by conservative pro-Israel lobby groups – accusations that have been uncritically repeated by irresponsible journalists at the CBC and The Toronto Star and have resulted in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board’s cowardly decision to suspend Ms. Shoufani from her job.
On July 2, 2016, Ms. Shoufani spoke at the Al Quds rally at Queen’s Park. In regards to content of the speech Ms. Shoufani made, one would expect officials of a school board to be able to do some basic research. B’nai Brith in a press release has accused Ms. Shoufani of having “praised terrorists,” an accusation dutifully repeated by the CBC. One of the men Shoufani referred to was Ghassan Kanafani, a writer and important Palestinian cultural leader who was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in 1972. The other was Georges Abdallah, a prisoner in France since 1984 and a "cause celebre" with a UN Human Rights organization (The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention) now trying to free him.
The claim that both men were “terrorists” because they were once members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is specious, not only because of the arbitrariness of terms such as “terrorist,” but because the U.S. did not put the PFLP on its “terror list” until 1997, 25 years after Kanafani was murdered and 18 years after Abdallah had left the organization.
Ms. Shoufani has also been attacked for saying that Palestinians have the right to resist occupation and oppression and to fight for their freedom. Under international law, this is true. Israel's crimes have been documented in detail by many human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, crimes that include the use of torture, the jailing of children, the legally-defined crime of apartheid, and violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and many other UN resolutions governing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The illegal siege of Gaza, which started in Sept. 2006, continues despite many Israeli promises to lift it. Palestinians under occupation, with no army, navy or air force, are trying to survive the treatment doled out by one of the world's most advanced military powers. Those who are facing such crimes do, in fact, have the legal right to fight for their freedom under the international conventions of the very same United Nations that voted Israel into existence.
As for B’nai Brith’s claims made about the Al Quds rally, Al Quds has evolved over the years to become an inclusive event whose main intent is to bring public attention to the ongoing Israeli occupation and persecution of Palestinians. These days, it regularly draws in a diverse crowd of Muslims, Christians (Ms. Shoufani is herself Catholic), the unaffiliated, and Jews, including members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Neturei Karta, who regularly lend their voices to the Palestinian cause and can be seen clearly in the video of Ms. Shoufani’s speech that has been circulating on YouTube. Apart from the Neturei Karta, many Jewish people were in attendance that day, including Ken Stone, a member of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) who also spoke at the rally. The Al Quds event has for several years been actively consulting with Jewish community members in planning their event. Accusations that it is some sort of anti-Semitic “hatefest” – a term used by B’nai Brith in its press release celebrating the suspension of Ms. Shoufani – is baseless and slanderous. The Jewish community is very diverse, after all, and not all Jews share the same views on Israel as B’nai Brith.
Though B’nai Brith was once a genuine human rights organization, in recent decades it has aligned itself with the anti-gay Christian right (its former head, Frank Dimant, regularly praised anti-gay pastors Charles McVety and John Hagee) and become increasingly a single-issue organization devoted mainly to attacking critics of Israel. Though it has largely alienated the Jewish community it still purports to serve and has seen its membership drop precipitously (to less than 4000 members in 2007), it still, mysteriously, commands attention among journalists and public officials, including school boards, despite the fact that its anti-gay links would seem to contravene Ontario’s Safe and Accepting Schools Act.
Similarly, The Friends of Simon Weisenthal has made allegations against Ms. Shoufani. This is an organization that has developed close ties with many school boards, delivering Holocaust education programs of some merit that unfortunately often crassly use Holocaust education to push its own pro-Israel political agenda – even providing all-expense-paid trips for school board staff to pro-Israel conferences – despite the fact that many Holocaust survivors, such as the late Dr. Ursula Franklin, spoke passionately in defense of the right to speak publically against Israeli crimes.
While school boards need to be aware of the political agendas of these organizations and sever links with them, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board has unfortunately given into their bullying, suspended Ms. Shoufani from her job, and brought her to the College of Teachers, despite the fact that she has not been accused of professional misconduct; that the board’s own internal investigation has yet to reveal any wrongdoing; and that the rally she attended – as a private citizen when school was no longer in session– as well as the content of the speech she gave were both lawful and legitimate. Indeed, the board has not been able to cite any wrongdoing by Ms. Shoufani. Her suspension, the board alleges, is for not providing documentation they requested on time – despite the fact that the deadline they imposed was both sudden and unexpected and that Ms. Shoufani did, in fact, submit all the documentation they requested, through her union and on time, which begs the question of why she is still suspended, other than to pacify her political critics.
We call on the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to immediately reinstate Ms. Shoufani, who was simply expressing as a private citizen lawful calls for justice, and to not allow itself to be bullied by organizations that purport to represent the Jewish community but who push a narrow political agenda that is not shared by all Jews and who use their platform to silence and intimidate views they disagree with. This is behaviour we discourage in our students. It should not be tolerated by school boards.
Finally, we applaud Ms. Shoufani for her courage to speak truth to power, and we hope that many others will step forward to do the same until justice and human rights for Palestinians are achieved.
Teachers for Palestine
Educators for Peace and Justice