Canadian organizations representing Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian communities, along with anti-racism activists, have joined forces to condemn the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) for allegedly instructing its employees to surveil and report Ontario school students for criticizing Israel.

A CBC News report published last month quoted two FSWC employees who said that the centre’s educators were instructed to report students who made comments critical of Israel, or references to the genocide and occupation of Palestinians, to the organization.

The whistleblowers, who were kept anonymous, told CBC: “The idea is to contact the school, inform the school they have an antisemitism problem and pressure the school to shut down the Palestinian support [by] accusing them of antisemitism, encouraging more pro-Zionist workshops or lessons.”

A coalition of community groups published an open letter calling for an investigation by the Ontario government into FSWC. The signatory groups include the Palestinian Canadian Congress, multiple chapters of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Jewish Faculty Network Canada, York Region Muslims, Showing Up for Racial Justice Toronto, If Not Now, and two chapters of the Coalition for Palestinian Students and Families, among others.

The signatories are also demanding an audit of Ontario school boards “…of the contents of FSWC training materials so as to ascertain whether they are promoting a profoundly unbalanced curriculum on antisemitism which focuses almost exclusively and mistakenly on criticism of Israel, a focus which demonizes and imperils those students who believe, as do many Canadians, that Israel consistently and egregiously violates Palestinian human rights.”

FSWC did not respond to a request for comment.

Sheryl Nestel, a retired sociologist who sits on the steering committee of IJV, told The Maple that the story highlights two important issues.

The first, she explained, is that an organization that is supposed to be educating students is allegedly instructing its employees to conduct surveillance in the classroom. “No matter what the topic, this is intolerable and against the policies of most school boards,” said Nestel.

The second issue, Nestel continued, is that FSWC has broad access to schools in Canada despite holding a staunchly pro-Israel bias.

“They have also been very central in attacks on critics of Israel, many of whom are racialized people,” said Nestel.

“FSWC sees strong criticism of Israel, including anti-Zionism, as inherently antisemitic, a view that is highly contested by many activists and Jewish studies scholars, and one that we know is being weaponized to suppress pro-Palestine activism.”

According to the open letter circulated by the community organizations demanding an investigation, FSWC has exceptional reach when it comes to Canadian students.

The signatories say FSWC taught more than 153 student workshops in 22 school boards to nearly 5,000 students in November 2023 alone.

The Canadian Press reported that FSWC and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), another pro-Israel organization, were among the groups that received $650,000 from the Ontario government in 2023 to provide resources on Holocaust education and antisemitism.

While few would dispute the need for training and resources to educate the public about the Holocaust and antisemitism, Nestel views FSWC and CIJA’s involvement as highly problematic.

“Even a cursory look at FSWC’s social media and stated goals will tell you they function as a lobby group for Israel,” said Nestel. She referenced an IJV study that she co-authored in October 2022 that assessed the suppression of speech in Canada related to Palestine.

Writing for The Breach, Jeremy Appel noted how presenters at a CIJA conference held in Ottawa last October pushed “racist stereotypes about Palestinians.” CIJA also called for policy changes that would officially recognize anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism.

“Linking antisemitism to criticism of Israel is intellectually dishonest,” said Nestel. “Students need to hear the extensive arguments that counter this claim in order to make their own judgements.”

“Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students who may have connections to Palestine or who identify with Palestinians may see the pro-Israel message as an erasure of their concerns and of their identities in a country that has a serious problem with Islamophobia,” she added.

The open letter calling for an investigation alleges that “…The prevalence of Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism in our schools will only be compounded by FSWC’s surveillance scheme.”

Nestel also stressed that Jewish people hold a broad range of opinions about Israel.

“Jewish students who hear Israel defended in the classroom may be made to feel uncomfortable and may resent not seeing their views reflected,” she explained.

James Kafieh, vice president of the Palestinian Canadian Congress, told The Maple that FSWC’s alleged instruction that its employees surveil and report students was “outrageous.”

“It’s scandalous this is being facilitated by the government of Ontario,” he added.

“The surveillance of students is not conducive to the free exchange of ideas. When students are not allowed to disagree, this is indoctrination. A class on Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians would be no less relevant.”

The signatories of the open letter also cite the Toronto District School Board’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Policy P094, which states that it is forbidden to disclose personal information, including “the personal opinions or views of the individual except if they relate to another individual.”

“Students have a right to express opinions in the classroom without fear of reprisal,” said Nestel. “Their views should never be reported to an outside agency by someone not approved to do so.”

Any probe into FSWC should be done by independent investigators, she added, noting that there has been a history of acrimonious debates inside school boards on matters relating to Israel-Palestine.

“Some trustees and board members have been very public in their support of Israel. Any investigation should be undertaken by a neutral party.”

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montreal.