Harassed, isolated and abandoned: Jewish teachers 'scared for life' at Ontario school board

Teachers say the Israel-Hamas war has amplified antisemitism at Peel District School Board — and the union and some principals are a big part of the problem

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In a closed Facebook discussion group open only to educators with southern Ontario’s Peel District School Board, teachers were discussing how best to talk to students after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

“Jews are the problem,” one teacher wrote.

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That same day, on a WhatsApp chat for teachers and assistants at a Peel school in Brampton, an educator wrote: “I feel bad, but then I don’t feel bad because they killed so much Palestinians now it’s their turn.”

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Eight teachers – five Jewish, three non-Jewish – told the National Post that working at the Peel board was distressing even before the terror attacks on Israel. But where the Jewish teachers say they once feared for their livelihood, they say they now fear for their lives. Four out of five of them said they want to transfer out of the Peel board. One Jewish teacher retracted her interview for this story believing it was too dangerous for her to be exposed in any way.

The Jewish teachers said the Israel-Hamas war puts them in harm’s way, but instead of protecting them, some Peel principals are stoking animosity against Israel and Judaism in classrooms and on social media.

Some principals are using social media tools like X and Facebook to broadcast hateful content towards Israel and Jews on feeds that are displayed in school foyers and over the internal public address system, according to teachers both Jewish and not. Principals and superintendents ignored their complaints or dismissed them as Islamophobic, they say.

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Furthermore, the teachers say their union is no help, with officials themselves publicly expressing anti-Israel views.

“I have met many educators in the Jewish Teachers Association of Peel who have experienced antisemitic harassment and bullying from students, as well as a lack of understanding and support from colleagues and administrators when issues of antisemitism are not handled with the same care and concern as other forms of racism and discrimination,” said Karen Mock, a human rights consultant and former executive director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith.

“Since the terrorist attack of Oct. 7 and the escalation of the Hamas-Israel war, many Jewish staff who were already feeling unsafe with the rise of antisemitic hate, are now actually working in what we call a ‘poisoned environment.’ Some of their colleagues and even some principals have taken to social media, taking sides in the conflict with language that repeats propaganda and slogans that are frightening to Jews,” said Mock, who has worked with Peel and other school boards to address antisemitism and fear among Jewish teachers and students.

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Peel Region is part of the Greater Toronto Area and includes the cities of Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon. The board has 259 schools, approximately 7,500 teachers, 10,000 auxiliary staff, and more than 150,000 students. According to a recent survey at Peel, 551 out of 11,180 educators identified as Muslim, and 137 educators identified as Jewish.

The board made headlines on Nov. 29 when a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators broke up a school board meeting. They drowned out elected trustees with chanting, and later stormed past security into a locked room where trustees had retreated to reconvene the meeting.

Teachers interviewed for this story said they would only speak if their names were not published, because they fear retribution from their employer. They have been given pseudonyms.

“My own personal fear is that someone from the community could come into my school and kill me,” said Samantha, a Jewish teacher in Mississauga who is considering moving out of Peel.

Samantha had hidden her Jewish identity for more than 15 years at Peel, revealing it only recently when her two teenage children started high school, she said.

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Her daughter’s Peel-based principal is making the family increasingly uncomfortable at school by encouraging students to protest and making space for them to create signs against Israel on school grounds, she said.

My own personal fear is that someone from the community could come into my school and kill me

Instead of finding a way to make her daughter feel safe, Jewish kids are “hiding out with the guidance counsellors,” said Samantha. The principal called Samantha on pro-Palestinian protest days suggesting Samantha’s daughter stay home, even though the protests happen out of school hours and beyond the parking lot.

Her daughter has videos of protests where students have been recorded saying “we call for Jewish genocide,” said Samantha. “Where once my kids were free about their identity, today they try to hide it.”

Talking to the board or her union has not helped, she said.

Samantha said a Jewish teacher in Peel had a swastika painted outside her classroom two weeks before Oct. 7, and the words “Free Palestine” appeared on her blackboard after the Hamas terror attack. “There was also an anonymous threat that kids were going to bring weapons to school. She had two incidents before all of this. She is scared for her life.”

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On Nov. 12 Rich Ward, a principal of Tribune Drive Public School in Brampton, was called out on X for saying that “Anti-Zionism has skyrocketed in the wake of the Israel-led genocide in Palestine.” He was sent home on leave.

Jewish teachers at Peel say they know of three other principals who communicate on X in a similar way and argue that this kind of messaging indoctrinates students and staff.

Another Jewish teacher, Emma, who has worked at Peel for 20 years, said she was taken out of the classroom after a lesson around freedom of expression and censorship in the media.

She had collected materials about terror attacks in Europe. Her principal and the parents of the students in class saw and signed off on the materials in advance. The students were also given the option of opting out of the class and they all chose to participate.

A few days later, Emma was sent home by her principal with no explanation, but staff and students were told that she wouldn’t be returning to school for the remainder of the school year. “I was being branded as Islamophobic,” Emma said a colleague told her. She said she was never asked to tell her side of the story.

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Jennifer, a Jewish teacher in Brampton who has worked at Peel for 20 years, said she transferred last year out of a Peel school because she and other Jewish teachers felt unfairly targeted for discipline by the principal.

She said the principal promotes a specific worldview over the school’s classroom intercom and on her social media, which is followed by children, parents and teachers.

Peel District School Board buildings.
The Peel District School Board made headlines on Nov. 29 when a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators broke up a meeting at the board’s headquarters in Mississauga. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

The principal’s X feed appear as a news ticker in the foyer of the schools. Some posts were from Al Jazeera arguing that Hamas did not behead Jewish babies. According to Jennifer, the PA system was also used to announce Islamic religious practices, passages from the Quran, news and worldviews, “offering a one-sided narrative, never mentioning Israel’s right to exist or defend itself.” This was going on at least a year before the Oct. 7 attacks, she said.

The principal used the terms genocide and apartheid in her posts when referring to Israel. After the National Post asked the Peel board about social media policies of principals, her posts from Oct. 13 to 20 were deleted.

In a now-deleted Oct. 14 post – the Post has screenshots – she said: “We must grieve the tragic loss of Israeli lives, but also stand collectively against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” She then defines what is genocide. She also liked an X post from Al Jazeera saying Hamas did not behead babies in the terror attacks. She reposted on X, “This genocide will forever change the world … and not for the better.”

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In 2019, Jennifer and at least three colleagues – complaints were anonymous so the number is unclear –– had approached the board requesting help, and in 2020 she wrote a letter to the board calling her principal’s behaviour antisemitic. “They said thank you for the letter. You won’t know the outcome.”

In a statement attributed to Peel spokespeople Tiffany Gooch and Malon Edwards, the Peel board described the principal in question as “an exemplary leader who demonstrates inclusivity, compassion and care on a daily basis. Last year, her school underwent a climate review and the assessment showed that an overwhelming majority of school staff support her.”

They added: “We have reminded staff of their responsibility to ensure that we remain mindful that as we express our own pain, we do not bring further harm to others. We each carry a responsibility to be intentional and thoughtful in ensuring that our interactions contribute to safe and caring learning and working environments for all of the students we serve, their families, and each of our colleagues.”

Gooch added that there is “no room for influence of personal opinions or personal world views” in classrooms.

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“Peel staff have also been reminded of expectations to adhere to our Social Media Policy, and combined with the Ontario College of Teachers Advisory, these two documents provide essential guidance and establish expectations to support the professional and responsible use of social media by all PDSB staff.”

The Ontario College of Teachers said it would look into potentially problematic social media posts by Peel principals.  Carla Pereira of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said it was up to the local Peel union to address any issue at Peel, but the local did not respond to requests for comment.

Jennifer said ETFO vice-president Vickita Bhatt, one of the union reps assigned to help Jewish teachers at Peel, has used a Facebook profile image calling Israel an apartheid state. On Nov. 9 she posted on X, “no genocide can be justified. no apartheid can be normalized. ceasefire now.” On Oct. 13, Bhatt wrote: “How can we synthesize the lives of people destroyed by a struggle for freedom born from colonization into a headline?” and liked a video calling Israelis colonizers. Oct. 14 she likes a post calling Israel’s military actions in Gaza “genocide.” Bhatt did not respond to requests for comment.

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“Jewish teachers cannot be represented by their union,” said Jennifer.

In a statement, ETFO said “views expressed on personal social media accounts are personal views, and don’t, in any way, reflect the views of the union.”

Allen, a Christian male teacher at the Peel board who said he has seen increasing antisemitism in his 20 years, teaches English literature at Peel. When the board sets an agenda to decolonize the “curriculum and conflates Western democracies as colonial in need of deconstruction, Israel gets lumped in with Western colonization. It’s not fair because the Jews have been in the land of Judea for 3,000 years. It’s more accurately interpreted as a land to which they are indigenous to –– as original inhabitants.”

Allen said, “PDSB is an intersectional nightmare. It will get worse for some time, and I don’t think it can be fixed.”

Another teacher of Christian background, Taylor, said she sees Peel’s Jewish teachers being targeted and harassed, including a deceased Jewish teacher whose face was defiled in a hallway photograph. Taylor said she tries to advocate for them but her complaints are ignored and she is afraid of being labeled an Islamophobe.

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John, a Peel teacher with Afro Caribbean roots who is a practising Christian, tells a similar story: “The staff and students are parroting a narrative they are seeing on TV, where they see and hear the slogans, ‘Glory to the Martyrs, Glory to the Murders.’ They get emboldened and then it comes to the classroom.”

Gooch and Edwards said the Peel board is aware students have organized walkouts responding to the war.

“We recognize that these types of demonstrations may be unsettling, particularly for Jewish identifying students and staff, and supports are being provided as needed,” they said.

“Some of the guiding mandates of our school board is to foster values of acceptance, respect, understanding and inclusion in all students—for themselves and for their classmates. While participating in demonstrations and when on social media, students are expected to adhere to the existing Peel District School Board Code of Conduct. This information has been shared widely with students, staff and families.”

Peel had been placed under supervision by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce in June 2020 over racial concerns by members of the Black community. The report on the provincial investigation was released in June and included a chapter on staff complaints about the conduct of principals.

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“Principals who hate their staff call other principals and warn them about staff destroying staff in new schools,” was one account. Other accounts said: “Peel principals have so much power in this board. They are the culprits who are shaping racist and discriminatory schools. You have to strip their power”; “If the principal is okay with you, then fine, if not you are screwed”; “It is common knowledge that principals in Peel hire friends”; “I am disgusted by how racist they have become. In trying to become less racist, they have become overtly racist towards all minorities that are not visible minorities.”

In a memo to school boards last month, Lecce noted “the unfortunate rise of intolerance and antisemitic acts” and asked them to make sure schools are “safe spaces” for students and staff.

The ministry supplied guidelines about how teachers at Peel should report racism, Lee said. “I believe Minister Stephen Lecce was actually the only education minister in Canada to directly set clear expectations to schools outlined in the memo to stand up against antisemitism.”

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Jennifer said one board official has attempted to address the issues, but was fired. Poleen Grewal, the board’s former associate director of equity, spoke up about the working environment at Peel but was let go this year, accused of contributing to the equity barriers she was working to tear down, Jennifer said.

Grewal’s lawyer, Paul Champ, says she is preparing to sue, calling her firing a “form of reprisal for calling out the board’s failure to meaningfully advance equity action plans.”

PDSB is an intersectional nightmare

Mock, who chaired the Jewish caucus at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, in Durban, South Africa, said the Gaza war in 2021 was the tipping point for antisemitism in Canada’s universities and schools.

“Peel’s Association of Jewish Educators was formed when Jewish teachers started joining forces following several incidents: a student said that Jews deserve to be in the oven, bullied Jewish students were afraid to wear their stars of David, and some Jewish teachers felt singled out and harassed by students. Peel’s Jewish teachers woke up and realized that they too needed what the Peel board calls an Employee Support Group, the way other identity groups had,” Mock said.

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Following an Israeli flag burning, labeled antisemitic at first by the board but later re-classified as permissible political expression, and compounded by incidents of swastikas found etched on the doors of Jewish-led classrooms, Mock was invited to deliver sessions to teachers on dismantling antisemitism. In 2021 these were voluntary webinars during COVID, and not widely attended.

Mock said anti-Black racism seminars can last five days, but equity staff were given only an hour-long virtual session on antisemitism, contrary to the wishes of the Jewish Teachers Association.

“Non-Jewish staff argue with Jewish staff about what is and isn’t antisemitism, in a way that would never be tolerated if a white person argued with a Black person or an Asian person or an Indigenous person about what or wasn’t racism against their people,” said Mock.

Darryl Singer, a lawyer at Diamond and Diamond, is suing three Canadian universities in a class action suit alleging antisemitism. Singer works in Toronto but his children went to school in Peel and has taken on dozens of cases connected to alleged racism at Peel on behalf of students.

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“The biggest problem is that the union that is supposed to stand up for the Jewish teachers is antisemitic. So, there is not going to be any help,” Singer said. “And the worst is that you have union reps who are out there trumpeting their antisemitism views publicly.”

His children were set to attend high school in Peel 10 years ago at Stephen Lewis Secondary School, but Singer said he needed to find another school after it hosted Israel flag burnings and an Israel apartheid week.

“We were able to get them into a different school … one which was diverse,” he said.

“The real crux of the problem here, and we are talking specifically about the Jewish teachers, (is) that the place where these teachers should be getting refuge and help, is in the union, and there is antisemitism in the board, the union that is supposed to be supporting the teachers is where the antisemitism really stems from. They can’t go to their union.”

Jennifer said she has spoken to about 25 Jewish teachers who are ready to transfer out of Peel. She grew up in Ontario with a Holocaust survivor grandmother who feared for her life even after moving to Canada. She told Jennifer to hide the family’s Jewish identity, but Jennifer “came out” as having Jewish heritage when she turned 30.

“I was never bred that way growing up in Ontario and so when I started teaching in the GTA I felt it was safe to say that I was Jewish. My grandmother never felt she had that privilege.

“Now I understand what my grandmother taught me.”

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