When I was deeply involved in the fight for Palestinian justice at my university, I found myself on a Zionist website called Canary Mission. This website features the profiles of hundreds of pro-Palestine activists, who are slandered as radicals and anti-Semites for their criticisms of the Israeli state and support for the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, with the aim of hurting their future employment opportunities. As they state on their website, the goal of the Canary Mission is to “ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” As alarming as this website was, I could not imagine that future employers would discriminate against workers for supporting Palestinian human rights and self-determination.
That was until less than a month ago, when my mother, Nadia Shoufani, was suspended with pay by the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (DPCDSB) as they investigate her for speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally in support of Palestinian human rights.
Her participation in the Al-Quds Day rally was reported to the school board by the right wing Zionist organizations, B’nai Brith and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Media outlets like CIJ News, CBC, and Sun News quickly jumped on the story, engaging in defamatory rhetoric and painting her as a teacher who was teaching hatred to her students and supporting violence.
The Toronto Star headline about this story was “Mississauga teacher suspended after concerns raised about conduct,” while B’nai Brith CEO stated, “Anyone publicly supporting violence and terrorism is not fit to be an educator for vulnerable youth.” My mother, an ESL and special education teacher at an elementary school, has never taught politics in class, nor does she discuss her political opinions with students.
Pro-Israel lobby and media outlets went further by suggesting, falsely, that she is under police investigation and accusing her of inciting hatred. She has never been contacted by the police. A glance at videos from the rally shows that police were present to secure safety of the rally, and yet no charges of inciting hatred, violence, or terrorism were made.
The accusations of inciting hatred or violence are particularly egregious when she was, in reality, speaking in support of a non-violent movement aiming to achieve human rights. In fact my mother, as a result of this smearing campaign, has herself become a target for hate and harassment. This is greatly impacting her livelihood, reputation as well as her mental and physical health. Suspension with pay is not a paid holiday. It tarnishes workers’ reputations in the community, and impacts their mental and physical health.
So if she was not inciting violence or hate speech, nor was she breaching conduct, why is she being disciplined by the school board? And more broadly, what does this case mean for the ways in which employers have the power to stifle and neutralize the politics of their workers, even outside of the workplace?
Placing this case in a broader Canadian context, one can see repeated attempts by the Conservative and Liberal governments to silence pro-Palestine and BDS activism, most notably through Bill 202, which attempted to criminalize criticisms of Israel and support of BDS.
Canada’s unwavering support of the Apartheid state of Israel, and the power of the right wing Zionist lobby in Canada, continue to place limits on freedom of speech when the topic is Israel-Palestine. My mother’s case is not an isolated one – it is part of a broader trend in which freedom of speech in Canada is increasingly a right reserved for those whose political opinions are in line with the government’s foreign and domestic policy.
Does this case now leave workers in an even more precarious place, where they can be dismissed for holding political opinions that their employer disagrees with? And what does it suggest to students about the merits and consequences of being politically engaged?
It is important that defenders of free speech, those who support human rights and labour rights stand together against such attacks. Workers, teachers, academics and activists have voiced their support for Nadia and freedom of speech through various ways such as writing letters to the the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and by signing a petition that calls on her employer to reinstate her.
My mother’s case sets a terrifying precedent for the rights of workers to engage in social justice activism and hold dissenting opinions. With the existing pressure by governments, pro-Israel lobby groups, the media, and now employers targeting those who speak against the illegal Israeli occupation (illegal as per international law), how can pro-Palestinian activists be expected to fight for justice for Palestine without fear of losing their jobs?
Disagreeing with the political orientation of workers should never be a legitimate or adequate reason to suspend them, nor is buckling to the pressures of Pro-Israel lobby groups. We can and we must challenge this, not just for my mother and my family, but for the rights of all workers.