Classroom monitor

Board orders civics teacher at centre of Mideast dust-up out of the class


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The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has recently launched a grievance at the Toronto District School Board on behalf of teacher and Middle East activist Jason Kunin, NOW has learned.

A civics and English teacher at Vaughan Road Academy, Kunin was asked to leave the classroom for 17 days in January while the board investigated an undisclosed complaint.

Kunin was sent home the very Thursday, January 18, that he and other teachers at a District 12 council meeting sought support for a resolution urging a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian land. The motion failed.

Kunin, who is Jewish, declined to be interviewed for this story, and most of the key players refused to offer details because of confidentiality obligations.

However, Doug Jolliffe, president of OSSTF District 12, says board officials determined that Kunin had done nothing improper. “I certainly do not think he was treated fairly,” says Jolliffe, who also says it’s troubling that a teacher, for no reason other than his lawful activities in his union, would find himself under investigation. “We’re very concerned.”

Certainly, tempers prior to the January 18 vote were running very high. A report of the looming debate in the National Post mentioned Kunin’s name, and B’nai Brith began a frenetic lobbying effort.

Jolliffe, who did not support the motion, issued a strong rebuke to B’nai Brith, accusing the organization of meddling in union affairs and trying to strangle free speech by urging OSSTF members not to participate in the resolution discussion.

The seconder of the resolution, Hayssam Hulays, a teacher of math and computer science and chair of the District 12 political action committee, says Kunin’s experience will have a chilling effect on teachers interested in international questions. “This is one human rights issue that you are not allowed to talk about,” he says.

Grant Bowers, a lawyer for the Toronto District School Board, would not speak specifically about Kunin’s case but said that before the board investigates a teacher, it first has to consider whether the complaint is bona fide and not just a parent’s reaction to something a teacher has said in the community.

Area trustee Howard Goodman said he received a number of calls about Kunin, but only one or two were from parents asking for an investigation of classroom activities.”Free speech,’ he says, “has limits for teachers because of their special responsibility. We took action, so clearly there must have been something,’ he says.

Hulays says he heard that the board had taken exception to Kunin’s use of the word “genocide’ in relation to the treatment of North American native people and worried about whether he had offered an opposing perspective.

Many teacher activists are also concerned about the political invasiveness of B’nai Brith. Just a few weeks ago, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association’s Toronto secondary unit got the call. The local was preparing for the union’s AGM March 9 to 12 at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel and had before it a boycott-Israel resolution.

A senior OECTA official confirms that B’nai Brith contacted the union. The calls, the official says, were of an inquiring nature, and overt pressure was not necessary because there was widespread unease about how such a resolution would be perceived. The motion failed.

Anita Bromberg of the B’nai Brith legal department sees nothing wrong with seeking support from teachers who share their point of view. “By alerting the community, we were facilitating the exercise of democracy,” she says.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the resolutions saga is the anti-Semitic epithets thrown at sanctions proponents. Bromberg says her org doesn’t use that label, but there is nevertheless a thin line. “Ask Jewish students what they feel walking through people screaming “apartheid,'” she says.

“And what if some of the chanting students are Jewish?” I ask.

Doesn’t matter, she says. “You can hold views as a Jew that are anti-Semitic.”

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