Schools open again next Tuesday in Mississauga after the summer break.
But Nadia Shoufani does not know if she will be back in class with her students in the Southern Ontario city, just outside Toronto.
The elementary school teacher has been suspended for almost a month, as the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board investigates her over a speech supporting Palestinian rights that she gave at a rally in Toronto.
The rally on 2 July marked al-Quds Day, normally the last Friday of Ramadan, which many people observe as a day of solidarity with Palestinians.
Since then, Shoufani has been the target of a campaign by pro-Israel groups in Canada which seek to have her dismissed for allegedly supporting “terrorism.”
During her address, which can be seen on video, Shoufani defends the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and colonization.
She says she speaks on behalf of Palestine solidarity groups frustrated at the “silence towards what’s happening in occupied Palestine.”
Shoufani recalls the words of Ghassan Kanafani, the revered Palestinian writer who spoke about Palestine as a cause for all revolutionaries.
Kanafani, who was assassinated by an Israeli death squad in 1972, is a “martyr,” she states.
Kanafani was also a prominent member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which Canada listed as a “terrorist” organization in 2003, more than 30 years after a car bomb planted by Israel’s Mossad spy agency blew him apart in Beirut, along with his teenage niece Lamis.
Canada, like Israel’s other close allies, follows Israel’s lead in designating virtually every Palestinian political party and resistance movement as “terrorist.”
“When they steal your land and demolish your house, put all sorts of discriminatory, racist laws to push you out, build an apartheid wall to separate you from your land and family, when they arrest you, kill your family, your friends, well what do you do?” Shoufani asks. “You have to have the right to resist. We have the right to fight back.”
In the video, Shoufani speaks about the right to resist as a principle, but does not specify what form it should take in Palestine. She urges people in Canada to raise awareness, to pressure governments to act against Israeli abuses, and to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
She calls for solidarity with Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, including Bilal Kayed, who recently ended a 71-day hunger strike against his detention without charge or trial.
“This is the least we could do here in Canada,” she states.
Israel lobby attacks
In another context, recognizing the right of a people under military occupation to resist would be uncontroversial, as would be honoring one of its writers whose books are now taught as classics in universities around the world.
But with predictable swiftness, Canada’s Israel lobby launched a full-scale assault on Shoufani.
“We are greatly concerned that an individual who espouses open support for terror and praises terrorist groups is teaching Canadian youth,” Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said.
“Anyone publicly supporting violence and terrorism is not fit to be an educator for our vulnerable youth,” Mostyn added.
A week or so following the rally, the school board launched an investigation into Shoufani after receiving complaints from sources including the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai Brith Canada.
The Toronto police also confirmed it was investigating “comments made at the rally and there is more than one person involved.”
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash told The Electronic Intifada last week that the investigation was ongoing, but would not comment on whether or not Shoufani was a target.
In early August, the school board suspended Shoufani. The board told the CBC that the complaints about her conduct had been referred for review to the Ontario College of Teachers, the province’s regulatory body for the profession.
In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board spokesperson Bruce Campbell said that Shoufani “remains suspended with pay, pending investigation by the school board.”
Campbell added that “the board cannot speculate on a timeline for resolution of the matter or its details given that this is a personnel matter.”
The school board has refused to say if Shoufani was suspended for her actions.
Right to free speech
But the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), the trade union that is representing Shoufani in the investigation, is emphatic that she was not suspended for her speech.
“I want to clarify that Ms. Shoufani has not been suspended due to her personal or professional conduct, but as a result of a perceived lack of compliance with the board’s investigation,” OECTA president Ann Hawkins said in an email to The Electronic Intifada. “Our Association has been working with Ms. Shoufani throughout the investigation, and I can assure you that she has complied with the board’s requests and provided all information within the prescribed timeframes.”
Hawkins also affirmed that teachers have the same free speech rights as anyone else: “So long as we are acting within the law, all teachers are entitled to our personal political views. We are very disappointed that Ms. Shoufani’s professional integrity has been publicly called into question without due process having occurred.”
Activists, academics and free speech advocates are also rallying around Shoufani.
More than 1,200 people have signed an open letter condemning the “smears and libelous accusations” against Shoufani by pro-Israel groups, and calling for her reinstatement.
And earlier this month, several academics supporting Shoufani’s right to speak out held a press conference at Queen’s Park, the seat of the Ontario provincial legislature in Toronto.
One of those who spoke was Atif Kubursi, emeritus professor of economics at McMaster University.
He told The Electronic Intifada that the press conference aimed to send a message that Nadia Shoufani is “not standing alone,” and that her case is not only about her, but “about free speech in Canada.”
“The Zionist groups have been extremely vindictive in trying to take every word, every position that any Canadian Arab or that supporters of Palestinian rights say as anti-Semitic or a promotion of terror,” Kubursi said.
“What Nadia Shoufani said on al-Quds Day was very simple, which is that Palestinians have a legitimate right, given by the UN and international law, to resist the occupiers.”
“The bigger picture,” Kubursi added, is that Canada’s pro-Israel groups “don’t want anyone to stand for Palestine or celebrate Jerusalem or stand against the brutal occupation.”
No change under Liberals
“Nadia Shoufani has the right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to voice her political opinions, and she exercised that right during a protest in Toronto this summer,” Tyler Levitan, campaigns coordinator for Independent Jewish Voices, told The Electronic Intifada. “Resisting against an illegal and seemingly permanent military occupation is a right enshrined under international law.”
Levitan added that “Shoufani is being targeted in an attempt to silence her political views, and to set an example in order to intimidate others into silence.”
“There has been a lengthy war on free speech in Canada for those who advocate for the human rights of Palestinians,” Levitan said, citing an effort to legislate against BDS in Ontario that was resoundingly defeated in the province’s legislature in May.
He also pointed to the repressive record of the government of former federal Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Levitan said human rights advocates had hoped such attacks would end after the Conservatives lost power last year, “but it has sadly continued under the Liberal government, with the government voting for a motion with the Conservatives earlier this year to condemn individual Canadians and organizations that promote BDS.”
Levitan, whose group has chapters across Canada, also challenged the claim of the organizations attacking Shoufani to speak for the country’s Jewish community.
“These organizations have never been granted any democratic mandate to speak on behalf of such a politically and religiously diverse community,” Levitan said. “We are strongly opposed to Israel lobby groups who have conflated being Jewish with unconditionally supporting Israel’s actions.”
Shoufani’s situation is yet another test case in what has been called the Palestine exception to free speech.
But what is at stake as well is an individual’s life and livelihood, turned upside down simply for daring to speak openly about the Palestinian struggle.
“Silence is not an option,” Shoufani said in her rally speech, “and it should never be an option.”
Note: Since initial publication, this article has been updated with comments from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.