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Why is a Montréal school pushing students to join the Israeli military?

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastEducation

IDF soldiers from the Nahal Brigade operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, July 30, 2014. Photo courtesy the Israel Defense Forces/Flickr.

Why are Québec taxpayers funding a school enthusiastically promoting a foreign military engaged in a brutal 50-year occupation? More important still, are these efforts even legal?

The Foreign Enlistment Act is designed to prohibit Canadians from recruiting for a foreign army. It notes, “any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.”

Hebrew Academy, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Côte Saint-Luc, a suburb located along the western edge of downtown Montréal, actively promotes those who join the Israeli military.

An April 2020 article from the school website notes, “following a nod to HA alumni serving in the IDF and a prayer for Chayalei Tzahal [IDF] by School Rabbi Eddie Shostak, Head of School Dr. Laura Segall relayed that her parents both served in the IDF.” That month, Hebrew Academy also posted a video to its Facebook page of alumni currently serving in the IDF. Under the caption “A meaningful video featuring our HA alumni who are serving in the Israel Defense Forces,” a half-dozen alumni spend 12 minutes telling students about the importance of serving in the armed forces of the Israeli state.

The school considers joining the IDF a special accomplishment. Last March, Hebrew Academy posted a picture of three young men to its Facebook page with the caption: “Mazel tov to class of 2018 alumni Michael Kuperstok, Nathan Bebuzru and Yehuda Besner who are enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces this week. We are beyond proud of you!”

A number of initiatives may more directly seek to entice students to join the IDF. Former Israeli soldiers visit Hebrew Academy students who are preparing to graduate (Grade 11 in Québec). In 2016 their website reported, “only one week into the new school year, Grade 10 and 11 students were privileged to meet three former members of the IDF who are in Montréal on a two-week visit as representatives of Beit Halochem,” an organization that assists Israel’s wounded veterans.

Hebrew Academy is recognized by the federal government as a community learning centre and is registered with the Québec education ministry. Private schools in Québec receive 60 percent of the per-pupil operational funding of public schools and 40 percent of their total funds generally come from the provincial government. But this sum doesn’t include the cost to the public purse of tax receipts given to charities. A sizeable share of tuition at Hebrew Academy can also be deducted from an individual’s federal income tax and the school receives significant support from Federation Combined Jewish Appeal of Montréal and other registered charities.

Similar activity takes place at Toronto-area schools Heschel, Bialik Hebrew, Netivot HaTorah, Bnei Akiva and Leo Baeck, which also promote the IDF in different ways. These institutions are effectively ‘feeder’ schools for the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Canada’s largest private high school located in North York, which organizes fundraisers for Israeli military initiatives and holds regular “IDF days.”

A recent parliamentary petition is putting a spotlight on recruitment and inducement for the Israeli military. Submitted by Rabbi David Mivasair and sponsored by NDP MP Matthew Green, the petition calls “upon the Minister of Justice to undertake a thorough investigation of those who have recruited or facilitated recruiting for the Israel Defense Forces, and if warranted lay charges against those involved in recruiting and encouraging recruiting for the IDF.” It is part of a multi-faceted campaign that began in the fall with an open letter signed by Noam Chomsky, Roger Waters, filmmaker Ken Loach, author Yann Martel, former MP Jim Manly, poet El Jones and more than 150 others asking the federal government to apply charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act against those recruiting Canadians for the Israeli military.

Canadian law makes it illegal to recruit soldiers within the country for a foreign state, but the line between enticing impressionable young people to consider joining the IDF and formal recruitment is blurred.

Legal questions aside, should a Montréal school funnel youngsters into a foreign military engaged in a brutal 50-year occupation? And should taxpayers foot the bill?

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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