Canadian teacher sues Israel lobby group

Javier Davila is fighting smear campaigns over his advocacy for Palestinian rights (TEI)

Nora Barrows-Friedman

The Electronic Intifada  /  February 21, 2022

A Canadian teacher is suing a major Israel lobby group for defamation.

Javier Davila is a social justice educator and equity program advisor with the Toronto District School Board. His job is to provide educators with resources on combating racism and oppression.

Amid Israel’s attacks on Gaza last year, Davila emailed teachers information on Palestinian rights, including a resource guide that explains the difference between criticism of Israel and its state ideology, Zionism on the one hand, and anti-Jewish bigotry on the other.

Davila was then smeared in three separate columns in the right-wing Toronto Sun tabloid and by B’nai Brith Canada, a leading anti-Palestinian lobby group.

Pressured by Israel supporters, including B’nai Brith, the Toronto school board suspended Davila and launched an investigation against him.

B’nai Brith claimed that Davila had “attempted to abuse” his position within the school board to “spread hateful propaganda” and applauded his suspension.

The attacks on Davila resemble those recently waged against Palestinian teacher Shahd Abusalama at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

Abusalama was smeared over her advocacy for Palestinian rights by Israel supporters who sought to end her academic career, but was ultimately vindicated and offered a better teaching contract.

It also echoes the tactics the same Israel lobby group waged against another Canadian teacher, Nadia Shoufani.

In 2017, Shoufani won a year-long struggle against a defamation campaign that intended to destroy her career.

On 10 January, Davila and his attorneys Dimitri Lascaris and Stephen Ellis announced that they had filed a lawsuit against B’nai Brith and its chief executive, Michael Mostyn, under the country’s Libel and Slander Act.

GoFundMe has been set up to help cover Davila’s legal fees.

“Designed to maximize harm”

Following Davila’s suspension, teaching unions and nearly 5,000 students, educators and community members signed a petition demanding his reinstatement and protection against the Israel lobby’s attacks.

In addition, 30 administrators within the school board itself authored a letter expressing concern over staff members being admonished for speaking up in support of Palestinian rights.

A similar letter was sent to the school board by Jewish parents, who warned of a chilling effect on speech related to Palestinian rights issues.

“We’re concerned that the TDSB would give credence to an opinion writer at The Sun, when the newspaper is generally not accepted as a credible source by the board’s own teachers for school assignments,” the parents added.

Davila was ultimately reinstated in July and did not face any formal discipline.

And in November, hundreds of high school students staged a walk-out in Toronto, in defense of Davila and demanding the Toronto District School Board assure its educators that they can speak freely about Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

But despite the overwhelming support and his reinstatement, “the attacks from B’nai Brith have been relentless, coordinated and malicious,” Davila told The Electronic Intifada.

In October, the lobby group announced it would not give up in “its campaign of consequences” for Davila, and that it would push forward with a complaint to the Ontario College of Teachers alleging “professional misconduct.”

“For months, they have publicly vilified me in interviews, in statements on social media, on their website, and in letters and complaints to persons and bodies in positions of power using some of the most hateful terms designed to maximize harm,” Davila said.

The lobby group has attempted “to ruin my professional reputation as an anti-racist educator, have attacked my livelihood and any chances for future job prospects, and have demanded the revocation of my teaching license,” Davila explained.

B’nai Brith’s public and repeated false accusations have also made him “the target of ongoing harassment and hate,” he said.

“I’ve learned they even filed a criminal complaint against me with Toronto Police Services, months after their initial false accusations, months after I was cleared by an extensive investigation, and months after their formal complaint to the Ontario College of Teachers.”

Repeated attacks

Lascaris told The Electronic Intifada that it is not the first time that legal action has been taken against B’nai Brith over the group’s serial attacks on advocates for Palestinian rights.

“But I think what really stands out in this case is that the pro-Israel lobby in Canada devotes a very considerable amount of its resources to suppressing criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights in the educational system, at all levels, from elementary schools to universities,” Lascaris said.

“And why are they doing this? Because these people who are being taught in these institutions are the leaders of tomorrow – the pro-Israel lobby has understood that it’s a very important and effective strategy,” he said.

Israel lobby groups in Canada have funded numerous efforts to “control the narrative,” especially in schools, he added.

They include pressuring lawmakers to adopt and enforce the IHRA “definition” of anti-Semitism, which is regularly used by Israel lobby groups to smear and censor supporters of Palestinian rights by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

“Javier is somebody who has been unbelievably outspoken, relative to the standards of Canadian education, about Palestinian rights at the secondary [school] level,” Lascaris explained.

“So they feel that he is a major threat and they’re doing everything they can do destroy him and set an example to anybody else in the educational institution who might be inspired by Javier’s work to defend Palestinian rights.”

Setting a precedent

If Davila wins his lawsuit, Lascaris told The Electronic Intifada, it could set a significant precedent to protect other educators and activists.

And it could pose a meaningful challenge to the IHRA definition.

“It’s not just about this case,” he said. “Educators and administrators in the educational system will know that if they themselves are attacked, they will have a real possibility of legal recourse and vindicating their reputation, and even perhaps getting significant damages.”

A successful lawsuit could also encourage educational administrations to resist capitulating to Israel lobby groups’ demands.

Davila said that he would like to see “our employers, school boards and unions stand up to this bullying, take responsibility and protect educators” who are simply doing their jobs.

“We have a collective responsibility to push back and to hold B’nai Brith accountable,” he added. “Anti-oppression educators must be able to do their jobs without fear of surveillance, misuse of complaint processes and investigations, public vilification tactics, malicious defamation, or even the threat of arrest for centering the voices of Palestinians.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014)