Toronto District School Board
(Draft) Human Rights Policy and Procedures Document
A Critique: Arab Canadian Perspective
Presented January 25, 2000
Prepared by James Kafieh
Past President Canadian Arab Federation
Toronto District School Board
Human Rights Policy and Procedures Document
A review of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) equity foundation and associated implementation documents indicates that much thought has gone into their preparation. The calibre of almost all of the work is excellent. However, in view of recent budget cut decisions made by the TDSB one wonders whether or not there will be enough staff and other resources to support the implementation and administration of these new policies.
The text below highlights the Arab Canadian community's main areas of concern regarding the TDSB's draft Human Rights Policy and Procedures Document which is still to be finalized and adopted.
Glossary - Errors and Omissions
a) Error in the use of the word "anti-Semitism"
Included in the document's glossary (see Appendix A) is the word "Anti-Semitism". Unfortunately the definition of the word is seriously flawed. Specifically, the term, as presently defined excludes Arabs who comprise over 90% of the world's Semitic population.
If the intention of the Board is to refer only to anti-Jewish activity, then the obvious correct word to use would be "anti-Jewish". Of course this term would be so simple and readily understandable that it would not need to be included in a glossary of terms.
The Jewish community is a group that is identified in terms of religion (creed, race, or ethnic grouping. Any combination of these identifying possibilities is already covered under the generic "grounds of discrimination" (see Part B, Section V, Item #1).
The English language is constantly evolving. The word "gay", for example, has a different popular meaning in Canada today then it did 40 years ago. The same is true about the word "Semite". The Board's apparent understanding of the word Semite stems from a Eurocentric mindset from the second half of the 19th century. In that context the words Jewish and Semitic were erroneously considered to be synonymous.
Today, we live in a global village in which the overwhelming majority of the world's Semites are Arabs. Even in Canada today the majority of Semites are Arabs. This issue is not merely a case of semantics. It is a fundamental issue of the recognition of the ethno-cultural identities of Canadians. This basic recognition and respect should be at the heart of any TDSB human rights document.
In view of this clarification regarding the word "anti-Semitism", its inclusion with a definition that excluded Arabs would beg the question, "Why would the TDSB insist on including a term that is at best an anachronistic misnomer and at worst a Eurocentric racist construct? Clearly the Board needs to revise its glossary by either defining the word "anti-Semitic" properly to equally include actions against Arabs or by excluding the term altogether.
Submission by James Kafieh Page 1 of 5
b) Omission of the word "Islamophobia"
The word "Islamophobia" (the irrational fear and negative attitude, feeling and/or belief about Islam or Muslims) has been omitted entirely from the Human Rights Policy and Procedures Document. This word is related to a serious problem in our modern society that has roots in European Christian tradition since long before the crusades. The deep-seated fear of Islam that pervades western society has been exploited and exacerbated by the United States in its pursuit of its foreign policy objectives. Specifically, Islam has replaced the now defunct communism, as the main threat to the "American way of life". As American popular culture floods into Canada so does its politics and racism.
The absence of the word "Islamophobia" in both the Glossary and in Appendix B's "Examples of "Human Rights Discrimination and Harassment" is a glaring omission that needs to be corrected.
2. Banning Fair Comment and Legitimate Dissent?
The TDSB's Human Rights Policy and Procedures document has clauses that go beyond a legitimate concern to protect the academic environment. Instead, due to these clauses, it may interfere with the legitimate academic process and restrict freedom of speech.
These concerns are amplified by the fact that Part B, Section III of the document, if adopted in its present form, would apply to activities "…which occur anywhere outside the study/workplace, but which prove to have repercussions that adversely affect the learning/working environment". This nebulous clause will serve to facilitate censorship in the private lives of individual students and staff by the threat of TDSB sanctions against one's professional or academic career.
Specifically, Appendix B of the document lists "Examples of Human Rights Discrimination and Harassment" as including:
- Stereotyping, bias and historical and factual misrepresentations in curriculum or pedagogy.
- Hate Group Behaviours: - denying the holocaust, arguing for an end to immigration and Canada's role as a haven for refugees.
a) Historical Misrepresentations
The danger in these words is that the opinions that are allowed into the classrooms will inevitably be limited to those that reinforce entrenched stereotypes, biases, and prejudices of dominant elements in our society.
After a century of conflict between Palestinians and Zionists/Israelis it is not surprising that different opinions and interpretations regarding historical aspects of the conflict exist in the mind of Arabs and Israelis. However, the Arab Canadian community believes that this is a matter to be resolved through academic research and public debate. TDSB censorship of "historical misrepresentations" will only serve established interests.
Submission by James Kafieh Page 2 of 5
Our schools should be a place of education and not indoctrination. Censorship fundamentally erodes the academic environment. One legitimate role of the public school system is to prepare young Canadians for life in Canadian society. One aspect of living in a free Canadian society includes being regularly confronted with dissident opinions. Young Canadians should be taught to convince one another through the merits of a reasoned argument and not simply seek to suppress unpopular opinions by censorship.
b) Hate Group Behaviours
Hate groups are a serious concern in Canadian society. However, it is critical that only illegitimate activity of hate group members be censured. The academic process of research and debate as well of the right to free speech must be safeguarded.
i) Denying the Holocaust
While Arab Canadians have no issue with the official history of the Jewish experience with genocide during W.W.II, it notes that the official guardians of that official history have themselves recently made profound revisions to key aspects of that same official history. Specifically, after 45 years of maintaining as a sacrosanct fact that 4 million Jews had died in the concentration camp complexes of Auschwitz, in 1990, the figure was officially reduced to about 1.5 million people of all ethnic origins.
Had a student alluded to the "new facts" before they had been officially pontificated, under the terms of the draft TDSB's policy document, that student would have been subjected to discipline for engaging in a "hate group behaviour".
The concern relating to this point is not one limited to Jewish history. All history including Arab history should be fully subject to critical research and debate. Human history is full of examples of research that had been limited by censorship. The Catholic Church's banning of the opinion that the earth revolves around the sun is only one example.
ii) Immigration Policy
Regarding the subject of immigration, the Arab Canadian community, has been a part of the Canadian mosaic since the early 1880's. However, due to immigration patterns, today perhaps as much as two-thirds of all Arab Canadians are under 15 years of age or have not been in Canada 15 years. The Federal Government projects that the Arab world will for the foreseeable future continue to be a major source of immigrants and refugees claimants to Canada.
In spite of the obvious importance of Canada's immigration policy to the Arab Canadian community, immigration policy is a legitimate subject for public debate. Also legitimate, albeit in the opinion of Arab Canadians very misguided, is the opinion that "immigration and Canada's role as a haven for refugees" be ended. In a democratic society public policy must ultimately be decided on the merits of the options available to a free people and not through the muzzling of dissenting political opinions.
Submission by James Kafieh Page 3 of 5
3. Backgrounder on Anti-Arab Racism
A major source of concern for the Arab Canadian community stems directly from its experiences in cases where the rights of Arab Canadians are regarded in conflict with Jewish interests. The usual initial response of Canadian institutions is to subjugate the rights of Arab Canadians to the perceived interests of the Jewish community. Islamophobia and the legacy of a Eurocentric "Judeo-Christian tradition" mythology are major contributing factors that facilitate these attacks on the rights of Arab Canadians. Ironically, average Canadians generally have no idea that some Arab Canadians (about 50%) are Christians.
Case studies of attacks on the rights of Arab Canadians include:
Intifada License Plate: An attempt by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to recall a "Vanity License Plate" inscribed with the letters "NTFADA", (pronounced "Intifada", the Arabic term for the Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation), in response to a complaint from a Jewish Canadian. Canadian Arab Federation intervened - plate still in use.
University of Western Ontario: Both the University and its Student Council were found by the Ontario Human Rights Commission to have discriminated against the Arab Canadian campus community. This discrimination was a response to requests from some members of the campus Jewish community, who were attempting to interfere with legitimate Arab Canadian student activity. Canadian Arab Federation intervened - University issued apology and paid financial compensation.
Scarborough T-shirt: Scarborough Board of Education expelled Arab Canadian student from class for wearing a T-shirt with a message of Palestinian determination in the struggle for their rights. This was done in response to a complaint from a Jewish teacher. Canadian Arab Federation intervened - School Board issued apology and student was allowed to wear t-shirt.
Palestine Photo Exhibit: The City of Toronto cast aspersions on the Arab Canadian community, both Christian and Muslim, when it apologized to the Jewish community for allowing a Palestinian photo exhibit to be shown in the lobby of the City Hall. The exhibit was censored even though no City policies had ever been violated and other communities convened similar events afterwards with no issue being raised. Interestingly, according to press reports a City official issued the apology because the City had been "insensitive" to the Jewish community's holiday schedule. Why Arab Christians and Muslims should be forced to organize their lives around the Jewish calendar was never explained. The Canadian Arab Federation has intervened. However the issue is recent and remains unresolved.
It should be stressed that the Jewish community is not responsible for these violations of the rights of Arab Canadians. Although the initial complainants in these four cases happen to be Jewish, the violation of the rights of Arab Canadians was committed by the administrations of these leading Canadian institutions. In their haste to demonstrate sensitivity to perceived Jewish community concerns, they trampled on the rights of Arab Canadian Christians and Muslims.
Submission by James Kafieh Page 4 of 5
This has been a familiar pattern for Arab Canadians, many of whom have been told that in criticising Israel's human rights record they were promoting "anti-Semitism" (Please refer to item #1 a) above regarding the misuse of the word "anti-Semitism").
Examples of how Islamophobia and Anti-Arab racism are manifested in the American popular culture that pervades Canadian society are shown below:
Toys: Rambo series of action figures, produced by Coleco Corporation, features a generic Arab terrorist doll named "Nomad" in an attempt to profit from a racist stereotype.
Games: Fortress America by Milton Bradley, a game of futuristic warfare between a besieged United States and a coalition of Euro-communists, Asian hordes and Hispanics. This xenophobic game's packaging depicted the image of Saddam Hussein as the leader of the sinister coalition.
Movies: United States entertainment industry produces films with demeaning and racist stereo types of Arabs - i.e. Ishtar, Death Before Dishonour, Wanted Dead or Alive, True Lies, Under Siege…
Music: Warner Electra Atlanic Records issues a song called "Killing an Arab" by the musical group "The Cure". Many Disc Jockeys in their introductions carelessly, or deliberately, used the song to foment anti-Arab racism and hostility. A disclaimer label was added to packaging.
Cartoons: Political cartoons often go beyond the "fair comment" standard used by journalists to criticize individuals or institutions. It is common for otherwise respected artists and the popular press to exploit racist stereotypes that malign all Arab people.
Linguistics: The words Muslim, Arab, and terrorist are used as if the three were synonyms. News headlines regularly speak of "Muslims" or "Arabs" engaging in violent acts. Extremists are found in every society. Yet editors avoid similarly maligning other whole peoples, who have among their number extremists, by specifying for example, "Jewish Defence League" instead of "Jews" or "Irish Republican Army" instead of "Catholics".
News Media: Newspapers regularly juxtapose stories relevant to the Arab Canadian community with stories about Nazi war criminals. This is done because in the mind of those that define what is news the layout is governed by an overarching paradigm of what is relevant to the Jewish community. The negative impact on Arabs who, as a result of this decades long practice, are routinely associated with Nazism is not considered.
4. Special Note
Unlike other communities that suffer from racism, Arab Canadians are not attacked only by isolated marginal hate mongers. The evidence of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia can be found in virtually every aspect of our popular culture. They have been attacked by leading American/trans-national corporations, as well as by major Canadian institutions. It should be understood that corporations are only exploiting an atmosphere of derision that can only be created by our society's leading opinion makers. Prominent among these are our political leaders, academics and the media. -end-