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Gone viral: Moral panic over Palestinian content in Ontario schools

The viral speed of digital communication can spawn a social crisis in the classroom

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman RightsEducation

Protesters carry a Palestinian flag in Montréal, July 30, 2014. Photo from Flickr.

Digital technology has been a fixture in the Ontario classroom setting for some years now, but with COVID it has become a particularly dominant instrument of secondary school pedagogy. Online teaching and e-learning have increased exponentially with the pandemic. And while such educative options have been a necessary shield against aerosol contamination, they have not been without significant shortcomings.

The electronic medium has brought with it the plague of misinformation, the perils of unchecked public scrutiny, and the troubling consequences of unofficial surveillance—not least when matters of political controversy surface in academic curricula. Here the viral speed of digital communication can spawn a social crisis in the classroom, a crisis wrenched from the teacher’s control, and inflated by exposure to the world at large.

When such happenings flare up, institutions of learning and their governing bureaucracies resort to disciplinary measures. Draconian rules are introduced to clamp down on liberty of thought and salutary debate is sacrificed at the altar of authoritarianism. Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s recent suppression of a student video covering the subject of occupied Palestine is a case in point.

Earlier this year, the video in question featured in the Ontario Ministry of Education’s e-learning Civics and Careers course for students in grade 10. Produced by a student named Naj, it had been selected as one of four videos to feature in Ontario’s e-Learning curriculum. A close viewing of the video reveals nothing sensational or tendentious. It is simply a critical portrait of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and points out some key facts:

  • “The current occupation of the Palestinian land by the Zionists has violated the human rights of the Palestinians.”
  • “The Zionists have deprived the Palestinians of natural resources, such as water, and taken the majority of it for themselves.”
  • “The Zionists that are granted these privileges are backed by the military.”
  • “This conflict continues to rage on because the Israelis continue to live as occupiers while the Palestinians live under occupation.”

Exhaustive reports on the subject of occupied Palestine, compiled by United Nations Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk, would corroborate the student’s claims in their entirety (some may quibble with the label “Zionist,” but Zionism is the nationalist ideology to which devotees of the state of Israel subscribe. So the designation is apt).

Moral panic

In July, the video caused great consternation when it caught the eye of a pro-Israel parent of a student in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). Her complaint that the video was biased and misinformed led to its quick removal from the course’s online portal.

News of the incident spread swiftly. A host of online publications sounded the alarm, labelling the video anti-Semitic. The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) added to the outcry. Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, the FSWC’s director of the Campaign against Antisemitism, wrote a letter to Lecce, querying the matter and seeking confirmation that the video had, indeed, been removed. Spawning fears of “contamination,” the FSWC raised questions about “how many students were exposed to the video.”

Joining the chorus of indignation, Lecce called the video “offensive material” and immediately ordered that it be investigated and permanently deleted. In effect, with this order, he had promulgated a law of biblical tenor, the subtext of which was unequivocally clear: “Thou shalt not criticize Israel—not one little bit.” Articulated (deceptively) as a condemnation of anti-Jewish hatred, the minister’s decree was nothing short of a riot act to superintendents and school boards across the province, prohibiting any and every discussion of Israel’s human rights violations.

Repressing the irrepressible

But the stentorian proclamation was not altogether successful. Three months after it had been censored, the video re-appeared, this time in Ottawa. Reaction from the ministry grew even more intense. Pressed by the Conservative MPP for Thornhill, Gila Martow, Lecce demanded that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board explain why his orders had not been followed.

Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, he tweeted: “This anti-Israel and anti-Semitic video should never have been shown to Ontario’s students … The revised version was provided to school boards with clear instructions on how to immediately implement the changes in the course. A memo was also sent to all school boards, asking them to confirm they had implemented the changes” and “to answer for why this video [was] still being used, given the explicit direction to delete it.”

Pro-Israel groups have since launched a legal investigation to determine how the “offensive” film entered the classroom in the first place.

A tempest in a teapot

While a vocal minority has blasted the video, most Canadians are likely to find such outrage overblown. An EKOS poll has concluded that 80 percent of Canadians categorically reject the claim that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. This large demographic believes that accusing Israel of committing human rights abuses against the Palestinians and stating that Israel is unlawfully pushing Palestinians off their land are legitimate assertions. In short, most Canadians would deem the video’s claims irrefutable, readily supported by an arsenal of facts.

If the evidence to this effect is too overwhelming to cite here, the recent incident of ethnic cleansing in the Jordan Valley hamlet of Khirbet Humsa speaks to the key points asserted in the video presentation. In early November 2020, Israel Defence Forces soldiers demolished 76 structures, leaving 74 Palestinian Bedouins—including 41 children—homeless. This callous act of expulsion illustrates concretely the student video’s core claims.

Yet, Minister Lecce seems impervious to facts. Swayed by ideological falsehoods and the bidding of one specific community, he has displayed a wanton disregard for the views of a majority of Canadians who reject the equation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. And by suppressing a factually grounded video presentation, he has not only allowed the spectre of McCarthyism to stalk Ontario’s halls of learning, he has also helped fuel a smear campaign against an unsuspecting youth.

This is just one more example of the chilling effect produced by Bill 168 that the Ontario Legislature recently adopted in support of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of antisemitism (IHRA-WDA). As shown elsewhere, this legislation is aimed at silencing all criticism of Israel’s human rights violations.

Weaponizing shame

When faced with criticism, pro-Israel apologists resort to false accusations of antisemitism. These vilifications are rhetorical manoeuvres intended to intimidate the general public and silence pro-Palestinian voices. But they are also signs of desperation and insecurity. Unable to confront inconvenient truths—including Israel’s shameful record of human rights abuses, among which the regular detention and torture of young children between 12 and 17 is a salient example—these devotees of Zionism resort to shaming their critics.

Indeed, shame is the most powerful weapon in their propagandist arsenal. But shaming can work both ways. When several online publications such as the The Algemeiner Journal and posted the “offensive” student video on the web, subjecting young Naj to trolling and international public scrutiny, they were targeting a minor. Some might call this a shameless cybernetic abuse of a child.

Gone viral

The expression “gone viral” took effect when digital technology became a household commodity early in the 21st century. Because of its global reach, velocity, and ethereal spread, digital matter has been associated with the best and the worst of that biological entity we call “the virus.” Now an “embedded” tool of our everyday conduct, the digital is also the terrain on which modern ideological wars are waged, and its viral-like character can spawn another kind of virus: mob behaviour.

By posting the student video in a host of online venues, pro-Israel apologists ensured that their outrage would go viral, that it would criminalize an innocent young student, and stoke anti-Arab sentiments among their adherents. But the irony in this propaganda effort is this: as with COVID, the viral spread of digital matter does not discriminate politically. It can both serve and destroy its users.

While the shaming of the young Naj has indeed gone viral, his pro-Palestinian ideas will not have been suppressed. His presentation may have been excoriated by instrumental political actors, but contrary to Lecce’s wishes, the video’s content will never be permanently deleted; it is now burned in the memory of all those who saw it. The genie, we might say, is out of the bottle.

Michelle Weinroth is a writer, teacher, and member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.


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