Just weeks after a pair of students performed a Nazi salute in front of classmates at a Toronto school, parents at yet another school are being told of a similar incident — this time in front of a Jewish teacher.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center is now calling for “emergency action” from the Toronto District School Board after what it says is an escalation in antisemitic incidents.
“This wave of antisemitism at TDSB schools that we are seeing is unprecedented in terms of both number of incidents and their escalating gravity… It is unfathomable and shocking that, in 2022, a Jewish teacher is faced with Nazi salutes and a ‘Heil Hitler’ chant in her classroom,” the organization’s president Michael Levitt said in a statement.
“Clearly, something is broken in Toronto’s public school system and requires immediate attention.”
On Thursday, Valley Park Middle School in North York sent a letter home to parents saying antisemitic graffiti had been found and that three students had performed a “Hitler salute” in front of classmates.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center says it has spoken to the teacher of the Grade 8 class, and that two students stood on a filing cabinet performing the Nazi salute, and a third student shouted “Heil Hitler” from his desk.
Shari Schwartz-Maltz, spokesperson for the board and chair of its Jewish heritage committee, said the teacher is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and was “very hurt, very upset, very traumatized” by the incident.
The incident comes only weeks after the Charles H. Best Middle School said students there performed a Nazi salute and “depicted” swastikas.
Also this month, a teacher at yet another Toronto middle school was removed from the classroom after comparing COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the yellow star of David used to identify Jews during the Holocaust for deportation to concentration camps where they were systematically murdered.
Anti-Black graffiti was also found at the Etobicoke School of the Arts earlier this month by Black students rehearsing for a Black History Month assembly.
In his letter to parents, Valley Park Middle School principal George Bartzis called the students’ actions “upsetting and unacceptable.”
“We take great pride in our school as a welcoming, safe, and inclusive place and this has always been our message to students. It is also not reflective of who we are and what we stand for as a school and as a community.”
Bartzis also said students will be learning further about the Holocaust during the first week of March by listening to first-hand testimonies from survivors. The school is also offering access to social workers for students who might need support.
The FSWC says is calling on the board to intervene to “proactively address the hateful stereotypes and misinformation that exist and send a strong message that Jew-hatred will simply not be tolerated within our schools.”
Schwartz-Maltz said the students involved in last Thursday’s incident will face “consequences” but declined to elaborate.
She also said the board is focusing on ramping up its education efforts regarding antisemitism and the Holocaust and will be taking a more proactive approach on the issue.
The TDSB has been doing programming on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is Jan. 27, and providing additional programming when there are incidents, she said.
The board has previously brought in a community partner to tell the story of her late father, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp as a boy, though his relatives did not, she said. That same partner will now be working with a group of others who will share similar stories, she said.
“We’ve been working with them on a reactive basis, like every time there’s an incident, which there’s a lot,” Schwartz-Maltz said. “But going forward we’re going to be working with them on a more proactive (basis).
“When you drill down, you really talk to the kids, when we do investigations, we bring them in and we say, ‘why did you draw that swastika?’ Or ‘why did you say those words?’ Most of the time they have no idea, (they) just don’t know,” she said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory denounced the incident.
“The incident at Valley Park Middle School is as sad as it is hurtful and obviously unacceptable. It is extremely troubling to see antisemitic acts, especially among young people, happening in our community,” he said in a statement.