The Hebrew day school teacher from Toronto who posted pictures of her students meeting with former White House aide Sebastian Gorka in Washington, D.C., said the school was fully aware of the students’ itinerary, including the session with Gorka, who has ties to far-right and anti-Semitic political movements in Hungary.
Many alumni and parents of students at the school responded negatively to the meeting, voicing their displeasure on social media and directly to school administrators.
Aviva Polonsky, a teacher at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (TanenbaumCHAT) and the president of the Federation of Teachers in Hebrew Schools in Toronto, led a group of 14 students to participate in an Israel advocacy contest at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., where they placed second, despite being the only high school team.
She said the administration did not raise any concerns about the students attending Gorka’s talk, which was at a non-AIPAC event organized by the southern region of NCSY.
Jonathan Levy, TanenbaumCHAT’s head of school, declined to comment on whether the administration knew that the students would be attending Gorka’s talk, although he had previously told The CJN 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.”
The NCSY program included “politically progressive and politically more conservative speakers, all of whom had a pro-Israel message,” said Rabbi Micah Greenland, the international director of NCSY. “We are currently discussing how decisions get made for speakers at programs.”
Polonsky said that a TanenbaumCHAT vice-principal was also at the talk and not only witnessed them taking photos with Gorka, but even complimented him on his speech.
Polonsky noted that she has attended the AIPAC conference with students a number of times and has always posted pictures from the trips online. Yet when she posted the photos this time, many TanenbaumCHAT alumni and parents objected to the picture of the students with Gorka, because of his controversial past.
Polonsky said she was surprised by the reaction, as the school had known the students would be seeing Gorka speak and because Gorka’s talk was about fighting anti-Semitism in all its forms.
“There is nothing that upsets me more than the suggestion that I would have exposed my students to anti-Semitic or hateful speech of any form, or discriminatory or racist ideas. I have devoted my career to Jewish education and have tried to advance the Jewish values of acceptance and support for Israel,” Polonsky said a statement posted on Facebook.
“To be very clear, I renounce anti-Semitism and racist and discriminatory words and behaviour in all its forms. Having heard Mr. Gorka speak out against anti-Semitism and in support of Israel on prior occasions, I understood him to be an ally of Jews and a supporter of our cause.”
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 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, Gorka started a political party with former members of the right-wing 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, Gorka wrote articles for the newspaper Magyar Demokrata, which is known for publishing anti-Semitic articles and pieces written by Holocaust deniers.
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.
He left his position in the Trump administration in August of that year.
“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,” Levy told The CJN.
Levy wrote in a later email that the school is “taking this matter very seriously. Our immediate focus is to listen to students, parents, our faculty and the community to understand what happened, and its impact on our students. Not to prejudge our findings, but we may ultimately present our board with some recommended policy changes.”
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 are concerned, disappointed and frankly ashamed that the TanenbaumCHAT name has now been associated with Sebastian 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,” reads the letter.
By March 28, the letter had been signed by over 105 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.
A group of alumni also signed an open letter in support of Polonsky.
“As alumni, we commend Mrs. Aviva Polonsky for her commitment to exposing her students to a wide range of Zionist views. Many of Mrs. Polonsky’s past and current students have spoken up about her commendable teaching skills, and her ability to expose her pupils to a wide range of perspectives with minimal bias,” reads the letter, which has over 35 signees as of March 29.