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Toronto school flip-flops on flag flap

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A banner celebrating Jewish Heritage Month hangs in the foyer of Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto.

Students and parents at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto might be suffering whiplash this week from watching school administrators reverse course on their decision to first allow a banner proclaiming Jewish Heritage Month, then remove it and finally reinstate it, all over the course of a few days.

When students went home of Friday, May 18, a student-created banner resembling an Israeli flag that proclaimed Jewish Heritage Month was on display in the school’s foyer. When they came back on Tuesday after the long weekend, it was gone, having been removed after “some members of the school community had expressed concerns about the banner and the impact that it had on them,” according to a letter sent to parents from principal Reiko Fuentes. A day later, it was back again, first in the library, where a Holocaust memorial event was held, and then back to its place of prominence in the foyer.

At the same time, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) issued an apology “for any misunderstandings or hurt feelings that may have been caused by the initial decision.

“Going forward, staff will be having conversations with students to ensure all of them feel safe and welcome at their school. As part of that, the school will be holding assemblies today to continue that discussion.”

Fuentes’ letter to parents echoed that apology almost verbatim.

The initial removal of the banner sparked howls of indignation from parents, students, Jewish organizations and even some politicians.

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An after-school protest was held outside the midtown Toronto high school that was attended by students and parents. Students wore blue and white, the colours of the Israeli flag, as a form of protest.

For Cara-Lynn Nisenbaum, mother of 17-year-old Avalon, the decision to remove the banner was puzzling, especially because Fuentes had initially green-lighted it.

“There are a lot of Jewish students in the school who feel they should also be able to celebrate their Jewish heritage,” she said.

“We thought the flag represented our religion and heritage, not Israel only,” said Grade 11 student Sammi Cloth.

Adam Gasch, another 17-year-old in Grade 11, said students mobilized through Facebook to determine the best way to get the banner placed back in the foyer “and not have a lack of support for the Jewish community in our school.”

B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and Hasbara Fellowships all voiced concerns about the way the issue was handled.

The Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto. (SimonP/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

“The decision to remove the banner in the first place, and the TDSB’s initial reaction to it, leave much to be desired,” said Aidan Fishman, national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.

“When contacted by B’nai Brith, TDSB officials originally suggested that the banner be displayed internally at Jewish Heritage Month events organized by students, but stood by the principal’s decision to remove the banner from the main foyer.”

Noah Shack, CIJA’s vice-president for the Greater Toronto Area, issued a statement saying: “We were outraged by reports from students that a Jewish Heritage Month poster resembling the Israeli flag was taken down by school’s administration. It is entirely inappropriate for school administrators to censor the connection to Israel that is central to Jewish identity.

“Discrimination has absolutely no place in our schools. We urge the TDSB to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves and to resolve the situation immediately.”

CIJA later met with the TDSB’s executive superintendent for equity and engagement and issued a subsequent statement saying it was pleased the banner had been returned to the foyer.

Fuentes did not respond to The CJN’s requests for a comment prior to deadline.

It is entirely inappropriate for school administrators to censor the connection to Israel that is central to Jewish identity.
– Noah Shack

Speaking before the announcement that the poster had been reinstated, Robert Walker, national director of Hasbara Fellowships, said, “We call on principal Fuentes to immediately reverse this ill-informed decision and to take immediate steps to ensure Jewish students are given the same rights to express their identity as anyone else.”

The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that it “had constructive conversations today with TDSB officials, the school principal and parents and students. Our objective is to ensure that TDSB adheres to its own values of equity and inclusivity for all students, particularly when it comes to celebrating their proud identity. In this case, the opportunity to celebrate Jewish Heritage Month should be enhanced by the school, as it is by many TDSB schools.”

Cloth said she and other students were inspired to produce a Holocaust memorial program after participating in March of the Living.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Cloth said. About 20 students who returned from the trip asked the principal if they could organize a Holocaust memorial, after the school’s own event was reduced in scale.

Students were told they could hold it during Jewish Heritage Month. A banner with a Holocaust theme was presented to the principal, but she turned it down and asked for something “less Holocaust-based and more celebratory of the Jewish people and heritage,” Cloth said.

Three students came up with the Israeli flag design, which the principal approved. The banner hung in the foyer for about a week before it was taken down, according to Cloth.

“We meant it as representing something Jewish that goes back historically,” Avalon Nisenbaum said.

As for the final outcome, Cloth said, “I think their putting the banner up is a victory for us.”