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Calling on School Board Trustees to Pro-Actively Address Antisemitism

Dear (name was inserted),

We are writing to enlist your support in petitioning the Ontario College of Teachers (“College”) to publish a Professional Advisory on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial/Distortion.

I. Why is this Professional Advisory Needed and Why Now?

  1. Holocaust Denial and Antisemitism have become serious problems in Ontario’s teaching profession.

(a). On December 8, 2021, the College revoked the teaching license of Joseph DiMarco, a secondary school teacher in Timmins.

According to the College’s discipline panel, DiMarco “taught the students about the Holocaust, he encouraged his class to question the accuracy and use made of established Holocaust information, in particular, whether the figure of six million Jewish deaths was an exaggeration or fabrication.” DiMarco “provided students with learning material about the Holocaust from disreputable and unapproved sources which contradicted the facts contained in the Board-approved course textbook. These sources included showing his students videos of talk shows … suggesting that the Holocaust was factually untrue.” The discipline panel also stated that “when students tried to challenge or question the Member’s assertions about the figure of 6 million deaths not being accurate, the Member was dismissive, reminding the students how much research he had done and warning them not to believe everything they read. Students were disturbed by the information being provided to them and at least one student reported to her mother that the Member was teaching them Holocaust denial.”

(b). On May 16, 2021, Javier Davila, a Student Equity Program Advisor with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), sent a package of materials to over 1,000 teachers at the TDSB containing numerous links to websites promoting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is designated as a terrorist group by Public Safety Canada. Here’s an excerpt from one of the articles that Javier Davila promoted:

“If the Israeli Zionists believe their present occupation of Arab Palestine is the fulfillment of predictions made by their Jewish prophets, then they also religiously believe that Israel must fulfill its “divine” mission to rule all other nations with a rod of iron, which only means a different form of iron-like rule, more firmly entrenched even, than that of the former European Colonial Powers.

These Israeli Zionists religiously believe their Jewish God has chosen them to replace the outdated European colonialism with a new form of colonialism, so well disguised that it will enable them to deceive the African masses into submitting willingly to their “divine” authority and guidance, without the African masses being aware that they are still colonized.”

As antisemitism expert Bernie Farber advised the College in the DiMarco case, antisemites frequently use the term “Zionists” as a “convenient effigy when it is inexpedient to talk about Jews.”

TDSB Integrity Commissioner Susan Craig wrote, ironically in a December 1, 2021 report concerning a complaint into the conduct of a TDSB trustee who denounced these mailouts for containing antisemitic elements, that they "could be reasonably considered to contain antisemitic materials and seen to be contributing to antisemitism. In particular, some of these materials note that “martyrdom operations (called “suicide bombing”) are a legitimate means of resistance." Commissioner Craig continued: "There are some links to resources that support the use of violence and terrorism against Israeli Jews; specifically, a link to the website of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a group that is currently on Canada’s Listed Terrorist Entities), documentary and resources about Leila Khaled who was involved in plane hijackings, and an interview with Ghassan Kanafani, who was involved in violent actions against civilians."

(c). On June 4, 2021, Debbie Kasman, a former school superintendent and Ontario Ministry of Education Student Achievement Officer, publicly accused TDSB Acting Director of Education Karen Falconer (as she then was) of having placed Javier Davila on home assignment because she “likely caved from pressure from one or several Jewish [Board] trustees and perhaps because she self-identifies as Jewish”. On June 25, 2021, Ms. Kasman repeated this accusation in an open letter to College Registrar Derek Haime, in which she wrote “This, while Javier Davila continues to be on home assignment under a Jewish Acting Director of Education [Board Interim Director of Education, Karen Falconer] who may have a bias against Palestinians.”

The College’s Investigation Committee found, in a decision dated December 17, 2021, that

“The Member’s behaviour as described in the allegations could be perceived as unprofessional and inconsistent with the Professional Standard and the Ethical Standards of Care, Trust, Respect and Integrity of the Ontario College of Teachers. The Panel is of the opinion that the Member’s statements on her blog are concerning as they challenged another member’s professionalism and integrity, without any evidentiary basis, and/or were solely based on the religion of the member who was the subject of the comments. The Member’s submissions pointed to Ontario school boards where issues of systemic discrimination had led to the dissolution of their leadership. However, in relation to the comments made on her blog about the Interim Director, the information provided by the Member disclosed no evidentiary basis for her to have made the comments that she did aside from the member’s religious affiliation.

The Panel is of the belief that such speculative comments based on another member’s religious affiliation publicly displayed on the internet could negatively impact the perception of the Member who posted the comments, the member who was the subject of the comments and the teaching profession in the eyes of the public and undermine their confidence and trust in the profession as a whole.”

2. Antisemitic hate crimes are serious problems in Ontario.

(a). According to the Toronto Police Service (TPS) 2020 Annual Hate Crime Statistical Report published by “TPS Intelligence Services Hate Crime Unit”,

  • “In 2020, there was an increase in the total number of hate crime occurrences reported to the Toronto Police Service. In comparison to 2019, the number of reported occurrences increased from 139 to 210 representing an increase of approximately 51%.”

  • The victim group most targeted in 2020 was the Jewish community with 63 occurrences. The Black, LGBTQ, and Chinese communities were the next most targeted victim groups reporting 43, 21, and 12 occurrences respectively.”

  • The highest percentage of the 210 reported hate criminal occurrences in 2020 were motivated by religion (39%; 82 occurrences), followed by race (24%; 51 occurrences), ethnic origin (13%; 28 occurrences), and sexual orientation and sex/gender (10%; 22 occurrences). Notably, this is the first year that ethnic origin was one of the top three motivating factors for hate crime. The religious groups most victimized in 2020 were the Jewish and the Muslim communities. In 63 of the 82 hate occurrences involving religion, the victims were members of the Jewish community. In 9 of the 210 hate crime occurrences, the victims were members of the Muslim community.

(b). The College itself, has recognized the prevalence of antisemitic hate crimes in Ontario, stating in its Professional Advisory on Anti-Black Racism dated December 13, 2021, stating that: “According to a recent Statistics Canada report, hateful incidents are on the rise. Given the diverse population of Canada, this is cause for concern. The report identifies Black and Jewish populations as the most targeted, which further highlights the levels of stress and marginalization that Black people often face, despite their efforts to contribute meaningfully to their communities.”

3. The United Nations General Assembly unequivocally identified and condemned Holocaust denial and distortion in its resolution A/76/L.30 dated January 13, 2022 (“Resolution”).

The Resolution defined “Holocaust denial and distortion” as:

  • Intentional efforts to excuse or minimize the impact of the Holocaust or its principal elements, including collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany,

  • Gross minimization of the number of the victims of the Holocaust in contradiction to reliable sources,

  • Attempts to blame the Jews for causing their own genocide,

  • Statements that cast the Holocaust as a positive historical event, and

  • Attempts to blur the responsibility for the establishment of concentration and death camps devised and operated by Nazi Germany by putting blame on other nations or ethnic groups.

The Resolution noted that: “school classes and schoolbooks which are inclusive, representative, unbiased, aimed at reflecting with objectivity and accuracy the history of people belonging to minorities and the relations with neighbouring countries, well-trained teachers and human rights courses are essential to instil tolerance and respect.”

The Resolution “urges all Member States to reject without any reservation any denial or distortion of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end” and “urges Member States to develop educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide, and in this context commends the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.”

4. The College’s Professional Advisory on Anti-Black Racism is an excellent springboard for an additional Professional Advisory on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial

In December 2021, the College issued a Professional Advisory on Anti-Black Racism. In our view, this Professional Advisory is an excellent step toward bringing about a more equitable environment for Black students in Ontario’s school system. Many of the principles and recommendations in this Professional Advisory apply with equal force to Jewish students, and as the Professional Advisory noted, Black and Jewish students are the most highly targeted groups when it comes to hateful incidents and hate crimes. There is also significant overlap between Anti-Black Racism and Antisemitism.

For example, the Professional Advisory on Anti-Black Racism states that Anti-Black Racism may include:

“Educators selecting texts that portray Black people through a deficit lens and reinforce negative stereotypes without offering options that could counter the dominant negative narrative”, and

“lack of opportunities to study or discuss Black contributions and achievements to Canadian history except for the month of February (Black History Month), where efforts may seem performative.”

If one were to substitute “Jewish” for “Black” in the bullet points above, and substitute “May” for February and “Jewish Heritage Month" for “Black History Month” the parallels become obvious.

Despite the similarity of Black and Jewish Ontarians in experiencing discrimination in the broader community, there are aspects of Antisemitism that qualitatively differentiate it from Anti-Black Racism and other forms of bigotry, making it imperative that the OCT issue and make it the proper subject of separate Professional Advisory on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial/Distortion. These aspects of Antisemitism include stereotypes of Jews being “white” and/or “privileged”, and therefore undeserving of pro-active measures to guarantee their equitable treatment in Ontario’s public school system. They also include false and hurtful innuendoes of “dual loyalty” to the State of Israel, or “bias” of Jews against other religious or ethnic groups.

II. Holocaust education is already in the Grade 10 History Ontario Curriculum. What are the Jewish community’s specific concerns?

  1. According to a comprehensive 2021 study authored by Dr. Alexis Lerner of the University of Western Ontario and funded by the Government of Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate, “32.90% of respondents reported feeling that the Holocaust was an exaggerated or fabricated event, or that they were not sure if it actually happened.”[1] The study also reported that “80% of Pre-Program respondents reported that they had heard of the Holocaust, whether in the classroom or in non-traditional settings, such as through books, television shows, and on social media”, meaning that 20% did not. Clearly, rogue teachers such as Joseph Dimarco, and others like him so far unreported, continue to have a large and receptive audience for their poison.

  2. There have been several highly disturbing incidents in the United States of bizarre and damaging approaches to Holocaust education by certain teachers. For example, in December 2021, students at Washington D.C.’s Watkins Elementary School performed a Holocaust “re-enactment”, in which a Jewish child was instructed to pretend to be Adolf Hitler committing suicide, and other students were instructed to pretend to dig graves for and shoot their classmates. In October 2021, a Texas school administrator advised teachers in his district to include books in school libraries with “opposing views” on the Holocaust. It is critical that scandals such as these not be replicated in Ontario. Incidents that have found their way into disciplinary record of the College, reported above, do not augur well in this regard.

  3. While Jewish students must always be welcomed to discuss their religious and cultural heritage as they desire, they should not be singled out to explain, teach, or ‘defend’ Jewish religious beliefs or rituals. For anyone to be pressured to engage in a ‘debate’ about the validity of their religion or the sensibility of their observances is abhorrent. Similarly, it is contrary to the profession’s ethic of respect to challenge a student or professional colleague’s request for religious accommodation (e.g., leave of absence on a religious holiday) on the basis that other members of that person’s religion do not desire a similar accommodation.

  4. The Middle East conflict frequently elicits strong emotions in the community, which is reflected in the public school system. The profession’s ethics of care and respect place particular responsibility on teachers to present material relating to this conflict that is factually accurate, relevant to the Ontario curriculum, and respectful of the backgrounds of all students. Teachers must not exploit their position of authority in the classroom to advance their own views on these or other sensitive political issues.

  5. The College’s disciplinary process is designed to be complaint-driven and reactive. The time interval between when an act of professional misconduct takes place and when a sanction is imposed is frequently measured in years. Reliance solely on a legalistic and reactive approach is inadequate to deal with these issues.

  6. On a positive note, we congratulate and applaud the Waterloo Region District School Board for its leadership and initiative in Holocaust education and recognizing the lived experience of that community’s Jewish community.[2]The program that the WRDSB presented for International Holocaust Remembrance Day is exemplary, and we recommend this material for all school boards throughout Ontario.

III. What do you want a Professional Advisory on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial/Distortion to say?

We request that a Professional Advisory on Antisemitism include the following elements:

  1. The College adopts the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance at its plenary meeting on May 26, 2016, and the definition of Holocaust denial/distortion adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on January 13, 2022 as providing persuasive guidance to the College in its understanding of Antisemitism and Holocaust denial/distortion respectively. The College acknowledges that the Government of Ontario, through Order-in-Council 1450-2020, has adopted and recognized the IHRA Working Definition. The College understands that the IHRA does not intend either the Working Definition or the General Assembly resolution to be legally binding, and does not posit that an action by a Member that is inconsistent with the Working Definition or the General Assembly resolution be, by itself, evidence of professional misconduct. Instead, the College strongly recommends that the Working Definition and General Assembly resolution be considered by Members when exercising professional judgment in interacting with students and colleagues. To assist members in this complex area, the College undertakes to provide additional educational resources about antisemitism and Holocaust denial/distortion, including the development of various Additional Qualification courses.

  2. It is conduct contrary to the ethic of care for a Member to single out one or more Jewish students or colleagues for unwelcome or undue questioning on their views about aspects of Jewish religious belief or practice (e.g., male circumcision, kosher slaughter etc.), their personal connection with the Holocaust, or concerning the policies and practices of the State of Israel.

  3. It is conduct unbecoming a Member to allege bias on the part of a fellow Member, based wholly or partially on that Member’s status as falling within a protected category of persons under the Ontario Human Rights Code. We also request that the College's Professional Advisory on Professional Boundaries be updated to include the following element:

  4. While Members enjoy full entitlement to their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to express their views on domestic government policies and the actions of foreign governments, Members must respect professional boundaries between themselves and their students, and must always respect the public trust placed in them as educators. It is conduct unbecoming for Members to exploit the authority and prestige conferred on them by the College to impose their political views on students, or to create a learning environment where students who may not agree with the Member’s views feel isolated, shamed, or silenced. Since teaching is a public profession, and a Member’s off-duty conduct is relevant to a Member’s continuing fitness to teach, even off-duty public comments by a Member through social media or otherwise may have a bearing on the educational environment in which the member works, and may have an adverse effect on the students they serve.

  5. It is a matter of professional judgment and reflective practice for each Member, based on the professional ethics of care, respect, trust, and integrity, to determine the appropriate time, place and manner for them to publicly express their personal political or religious opinions and/or reveal their personal political or religious affiliations. Members are reminded that their authority as teachers may place them in a position to unduly influence the opinions of their students through favour or the fear of reprisal, and are cautioned to exercise particular care in publicly expressing their political opinions in ways that associate these opinions with their status as teachers. It is an act of professional misconduct for a Member to knowingly or recklessly misrepresent their private views as being endorsed by the College, their employer, or an educational authority.

IV. Why are you writing to us? Why not just write to the College? What do you want us to do?

We did write to College Registrar Dr. Derek Haime on January 3, 2022. We received this response, dated January 10, 2022:

“Thank you for writing to the Ontario College of Teachers and for speaking up on behalf of those who have experienced the harmful effects of antisemitism.

The College has a zero-tolerance policy for acts of hatred or discrimination of any kind, including antisemitism. If an investigation finds that an Ontario Certified Teacher has engaged in such behaviour, either inside or outside the classroom, it is considered professional misconduct and grounds for discipline.

I also thank you for your kind words about the College’s recent professional advisory on anti-Black racism. It is a document that we are enormously proud of, and it is the result of more than a year of wide-ranging consultation and collaboration with community leaders, advocacy groups, stakeholders, and critical readers.

Each year, as part of our routine resource development processes, we gather information to determine gaps in supports available to teachers in their ongoing efforts to create safer and more inclusive learning spaces, and how we can best develop new tools, including professional advisories, that address those gaps.

Your offer of contributing to a professional advisory on antisemitism is appreciated and will be carefully considered alongside similar offers we have received from other advocacy groups as we initiate that process again in the new year.

Thank you again for writing to the College.”

With all due respect to the College, this is not good enough. As we have explained at length in this letter, antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion are serious and urgent issues in Ontario’s schools. These are not back-burner matters to be “carefully considered alongside similar offers we have received from other advocacy groups.” The College needs to wake up and pay attention.

What we are asking from you, as Ontario’s elected school trustees, is to add your voices to our own. Please pass resolutions in support of our initiative. Please write to the College, either as individuals or as a school board, in support of our initiative.[3] Ontario’s students and teachers, and Ontario’s Jewish community, deserve no less.

Yours truly,

Andria Spindel Executive Director

[1] Lerner, Alexis M. (2021). “2021 Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism.” Liberation75.

[3] Please feel free to tailor the sample letter we have provided for your convenience.

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