Mideast Politics, Holocaust Denial Rile Local School Board in Canada

One of Ontario’s largest school boards has voted unanimously to condemn an “anti-Semitic-like” article circulated by a member of the board’s own race relations advisory committee.

Officials of the York Region School Board, which runs hundreds of schools in municipalities north of Toronto, are seeking a meeting with Bader Abu Zahra, a volunteer on the race relations advisory committee who distributed copies of a book review that characterized the Holocaust as an “industry” concocted by Jews to extort money from the international community.

Abu Zahra circulated a review of “The Holocaust Industry” by Norman Finkelstein at a teacher’s conference in April. The review treats the book’s thesis as historical fact.

Abu Zahra has refused to meet a delegation from the board that includes its chairman, Alan Shefman, who had requested Abu Zahra’s resignation. After Abu Zahra refused to resign, the board voted narrowly to allow him to stay on the committee.

About 100 Islamic protesters demonstrated at a board meeting in late July in support of Abu Zahra, who is of Palestinian origin.

“They were ranting and raving and being so disruptive with their catcalls and rising anger that we were obliged to recess,” Shefman said.

A spokesperson for the protesters complained that the board’s Holocaust curriculum unfairly focuses on Jewish suffering to the exclusion of other groups, including what they consider the “Palestinian genocide” caused by Israel’s founding.

York’s superintendent of curriculum, Sharon Craigen, called the accusations patently false and vigorously defended the board’s Holocaust curriculum.

“The Holocaust is taught because it was historically so monstrous and because it is by far the most thoroughly documented genocide in modern history,” she said. “Of course, the whole effort is to be inclusive, to include other genocides, to affirm the worth of all peoples. That’s precisely the point.”

The controversy has generated a flood of letters, articles and Internet comments.

Writing in the Toronto Star, columnist Michele Landsberg expressed revulsion that “the bitter hatreds of the Middle East war have seeped into local school politics” and that the “strident attack” by the militant Muslims “might well unravel a decade of patient bridge-building between local Jewish and Islamic organizations.”

Crescent International, an Islamic news service, has claimed that the school board “buckled under Jewish pressure” when it denounced the book review as anti-Semitic.

Abu Zahra remains equally unrepentant.

“In trying to silence me,” he wrote, “you have only confirmed Prof. Finkelstein’s point that politically powerful interests have exploited the suffering of Jews during the Second World War and that” they use “the specter of anti-Semitism to silence opinions with which they disagree.”

Canadian Jewish Congress officials have written several letters of protest, including one from Ed Morgan, chair of CJC’s Ontario region, expressing incredulity that “the board would be content to allow racism to flourish on its race relations advisory committee because ‘there was a vote.’ “

The Congress is not demanding Abu Zahra’s resignation, Morgan said, but would like some sign from him that he “acknowledges the inappropriateness of distributing that type of literature, and never does so again.”

Meanwhile, Shefman, an expert in Holocaust denial who assisted prosecutors during the trials of Ernst Zundel and other deniers, said board members are tired of dealing with objections about the Holocaust curriculum.

“The reason the Holocaust is taught in so many schools all over the world is because there is incredible documentation available” and because so much has been written on it, he said.

“The Holocaust opens a door to understanding of other genocidal acts in history,” Shefman said.

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