*** This story has been updated here.
The Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (TanenbaumCHAT) is facing a backlash from parents and alumni, after students of the school met with Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump. Gorka left that position in August 2017, after the discovery of his ties to anti-Semitic nationalist political movements in Hungary.
In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, called on Gorka to denounce the anti-Semitism of his former political partners, but he has yet to do so.
The students met Gorka after listening to him speak at an NCSY youth event, where he spoke about standing up to anti-Semitism. The event took place around the time of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C., from March 24 to 26. (Gorka, however, was not an official AIPAC speaker.) Fourteen TanenbaumCHAT students went to the conference, to participate in a contest to design innovative approaches to Israel advocacy.
Aviva Polonsky, a teacher at TanenbaumCHAT and the president of the Federation of Teachers in Hebrew Schools in Toronto, accompanied the students to the AIPAC conference. On March 23, she posted photos of herself and some TanenbaumCHAT students posing with Gorka on her social media accounts, writing, “Honoured to finally meet the great Dr. Sebastian Gorka.”
The photos quickly became a source of controversy, with many TanenbaumCHAT alumni and parents expressing their disappointment at seeing photos of students from the school mingling with Gorka.
On March 25, Polonsky wrote a post on Facebook defending Gorka, although she took it down shortly afterwards, along with her photos of Gorka.
“The students attended an NCSY event just like they attended many others. AIPAC is a political event with many views. Sebastian Gorka was extremely pro-Israel and gave a speech empowering the students to fight anti-Semitism. He had dinner with Bibi’s son yesterday here in a Washington – I guess that makes him an anti-Semite too,” read her post. “The left likes to bully conservatives into silence by calling everyone under the sun an anti-Semite. I will not be bullied. Sorry.”
The program for students was arranged by NCSY’s southern region and included “politically progressive and politically more conservative speakers, all of whom had a pro-Israel message,” said Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY. “We are currently discussing how decisions get made for speakers at programs.”
When reached for comment, Polonsky directed The CJN to Jonathan Levy, TanenbaumCHAT’s head of school.
“Gorka holds highly controversial views and we are extremely concerned about some of the things that have been attributed to him. We dissociate our school from these views and they do not represent our values. Any personal social media posts were not official TanenbaumCHAT communications and don’t represent the position of the school,” he said.
Levy said that he’s unsure if staff at the school were aware that Gorka was on the students’ itinerary. However, he noted that, “If we knew ahead of time of the very serious concerns, we would certainly have questioned whether it would be appropriate for our kids to go.”
On March 26, a group of alumni published an open letter addressed to Levy, expressing their concern and disappointment at the school allowing its students to meet with Gorka and calling for the school to launch an investigation.
“We expect better from TanenbaumCHAT. While Ms. Polonsky is most certainly entitled to her personal opinions, she is not entitled to use her position as a teacher to impose those views on students under her supervision,” reads the letter. It calls Gorka “a man who we believe is deeply problematic and the very antithesis of the most important lesson we learned at CHAT – to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.”
Gorka holds highly controversial views and we are extremely concerned about some of the things that have been attributed to him.
– Jonathan Levy
By the end of March 26, the letter had been signed by over 80 alumni.
Daniel Minden, a TanenbaumCHAT graduate from the class of 2017, helped organize the letter. He said it was important for he and his friends to make their feelings clear to the school.
“We loved our experiences in high school, we loved getting a world-class education at TanenbaumCHAT and our love for the state of Israel was deeply developed at TanenbaumCHAT. We are raising this concern because we are worried about the school’s reputation now,” he said.
“We are quite frankly disappointed and we would like some sort of investigation from the school to determine how this has happened, and to ensure that this will not happen again.”
There were also a number of people who expressed their displeasure on social media.
“As a proud mom of two CHAT Tannenbaum alums, I too am disappointed and embarrassed. The line has def. been crossed. Racism and bigotry are never justified,” tweeted one woman.
The left likes to bully conservatives into silence by calling everyone under the sun an anti-Semite. I will not be bullied.
– Aviva Polonsky
Late in the afternoon on March 26, TanenbaumCHAT sent out an emailed statement to families and alumni about the incident, signed by Levy and Joanthan Zepp, the president of the school’s board of directors. In the statement, they said Polonsky’s social media posts did not represent the school, that they take the matter seriously and that they are working to ensure that something similar does not happen in the future.
Gorka, who was born in the United Kingdom to Hungarian parents who fled their country’s communist regime, worked for the British government and was involved in Hungarian politics before moving to the United States and becoming a citizen.
Prior to his departure from the White House, the Forward and other media outlets investigated Gorka’s political career in Hungary and uncovered his ties to political movements with nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic elements.
Gorka has not said or published anything expressly anti-Semitic himself, but has been closely associated with many anti-Semitic people involved in Hungarian politics.
In 2006, Gorka worked for the Hungarian National Committee, an anti-government coalition whose co-leader called for the expulsion of Jews from Hungary.
In 2007, he started a political party with former members of the right-wing Hungarian political party Jobbik, which published anti-Semitic articles on its blog. Jobbik also created a paramilitary wing called Magya Garda that was later banned by Hungary for its involvement in a string murders of Roma people.
Around the same time, he wrote articles for the newspaper Magyar Demokrata, which is known for publishing anti-Semitic articles and pieces written by Holocaust deniers.