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Hamilton school board investigating anti-Semitism

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Anissa Hersh reviews some of the correspondence she has shared with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board regarding alleged anti-Semitic acts by staff. (Steve Arnold photo)

Hamilton’s public school board has hired a special investigator to probe allegations of anti-Semitism among its staff.

The inquiry was triggered by complaints made by Anissa Hersh, a speech pathologist who works for the school board and said that she has endured years of anti-Semitic comments from her colleagues.

Hersh’s allegations include an incident where a teacher allegedly leaned over during a meeting and drew a swastika on the notepad she was using. In another incident, a different staff member allegedly declared that, “The only things you Jews are good for is making money.” Hersh also said that she’s been accused of using her religion to get extra time off work for Jewish holidays.

“If this was about any other marginalized group, these people would have been fired,” Hersh said. “If someone said all natives are alcoholics or all Muslims are terrorists, they’d be fired the next day.

“I’m not asking for anyone to be fired here, I just want equal treatment. To me, it’s all about education – we have education around Islamophobia, but why aren’t they doing anything about the anti-Semitism that’s actually happening?”

Hersh has been employed by the Hamilton school board for 16 years. She said she has complained about Jew-baiting incidents several times to the board’s labour relations department, the director of education and even the board chair, but was never told that action had been taken.

“There’s a culture of secrecy around these things, especially when it’s a union situation. They never tell you what has been done,” she said.

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), confirmed the investigation in an email exchange with The CJN. He did not answer questions about the scope of the probe, who was conducting it or if the results would be made public.

“HWDSB is currently conducting an investigation related to an employee matter,” wrote Figueiredo. “Allegations of discrimination, prejudice and intolerance are taken seriously. We must respect the process, as well as the confidentiality and privacy of all parties involved. Details of the investigation are confidential and we are unable to share information related to this matter.”

Figueiredo added that the board “condemns all acts of hate towards staff, students and community members. We are committed to the principles of equity through inclusive programming, services and operations. We are also guided by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Education Act.”

The board, he said, “is very active in working collaboratively with members of the Hamilton Jewish community to provide education and support for our staff and students. Our goal through education is to address biased perceptions and prejudice, while promoting mutual respect and peace. Resources and training opportunities to promote inclusivity, countering acts of hostility, prejudice or discrimination against the Jewish community are available.

For Hersh, that’s a typical response – dictate a process and then let the matter slide.

“That’s the way they do things, they kill you with paperwork and bury you with process,” she said. “These are the same kinds of things that happened to me when I was a kid. It tells me nothing has changed and no one wants to do anything about this.”

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Hersh’s children, who attend schools in Burlington, Ont., that are operated by the Halton District School Board and a French immersion board, have also been the victims of anti-Semitic incidents involving other students.

In one incident, another student allegedly shouted, “All Jews are the new Nazis” at her 10-year-old daughter. There have also been incidents of “a lot of kids telling Holocaust jokes and jokes about burning in the camps,” she said.

Her 15-year-old son faced a troubling experience last year when his high school staged a production of the Monty Python musical Spamalot, which features a song about how no Broadway show can succeed without enough Jews in the cast.

Hersh said another parent complained about the song, but alleges that the young cast was told the song was being replaced at the last minute “because some Jewish kid was being bullied” because of it.

Her son, she said, “came home like he was having a panic attack or something, because everyone was acting like it was his fault.”

Marnie Denton, a spokesperson for the Halton District School Board, said that school administrators ordered the song changed to a version that says that a show can’t succeed without “stars.”

“Replacing this song is in keeping with other recent theatrical productions of Spamalot performed around the world,” Denton wrote in an email to The CJN. “The decision to use the alternate lyrics was made in order to ensure stereotypes about specific cultural/religious groups were not being reinforced – in this instance, people of Jewish heritage.”

Denton said that in the Halton board, “a great deal of equity training occurs for both staff and students.” This includes sending staff to conferences put on by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, hosting the Tour for Humanity mobile classroom and providing teachers with professional development resources about Jewish Heritage Month.

Hersh said the handling of the Spamalot incident left her with a better feeling about the Halton board than she has for the Hamilton board.

“The Halton board really seemed to want to work with me and make things better,” she said.

The Hamilton Jewish Federation has also been drawn into the complaints.

“The Hamilton Jewish Federation has been in close contact with both Anissa Hersh and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board,” Federation chief executive officer Gustavo Rymberg stated. “We have taken Anissa’s complaints with the utmost seriousness. At the same time, we have respect for the complexity of the investigative process that the school board and Anissa’s union have initiated. We are confident that a resolution to this difficult situation will be found in a timely manner.”

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