The Toronto District School Board has vowed to do better after an activist invited to speak to teachers about racism implored the audience to take up the “Free Palestine” cause and resist “settler colonialism.”

Desmond Cole, a self-proclaimed “anti-racism” activist who promotes far-left race-based identity politics, made derogatory comments about Israel to an audience of 600 teachers at a learning session hosted last week by the Toronto District School Board. 

Cole went off topic by linking the Free Palestine movement to the discovery of graves at residential school sites in Canada. 

“The reason it relates to our country and conversations about racism is because the fact that Palestinians do not have sovereignty on their own land is an issue of settler colonialism,” he said. “And if we’re going to challenge settler colonialism and residential schools and graves near those schools in Canada, we are going to also acknowledge that other people in other parts of the world are not free on their own territories and want to be free.” 

Cole encouraged attendees to start campaigns with Palestinian students, teachers, and families where they are asked what Free Palestine means to them. These campaigns should involve blasting out these messages, making videos about it, and putting billboards up, he said.

Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesperson, said in a statement the school board should have “challenged” problematic and inappropriate assertions by the speaker. 

“It is clear that we should have done a better job in challenging any assertions that were hurtful or discriminatory,” said Bird. “The TDSB does not support hate of any kind and we apologize for the harm that may have been caused.” 

Bird said the school board will be creating a new process to guide how people organize and structure professional learning and engage speakers, while ensuring these changes allow for different perspectives and increased understanding of how issues, such as Islamophobia and antisemitism, affect students. He said staff have begun working to redevelop the “Teaching Controversial and Sensitive Issues” resource, which will enable more thoughtful discussion. 

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), a Jewish human rights organization, said in a press release on Friday that the Free Palestine movement is rooted in a long history of antisemitism, violence against Jews, and the promotion of the elimination of Israel. 

“Cole used his platform to spread misinformation about Israel, completely erase the Jewish perspective on recent contentious issues and deny the Jewish experience of antisemitism,” said FSWC policy director Jaime Kirzner-Roberts. “There has been an alarming rise in antisemitic incidents in the TDSB and its schools, and the remarks by Cole feed into the normalization of antisemitism in the education system.” 

Cole mocked FSWC’s press release in a Friday tweet.

“Perhaps you need to learn more about Afro-Palestinians, and about the longstanding connection between Black liberation and Palestinian liberation,” he said. 

Cole did not respond to a request for comment.

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