Editorial: Facebook, Holocaust Denial and a School Principal

Oct. 15, 2020

Well, Facebook has finally done the right thing.

According to a notice published over Simchat Torah, the social media behemoth is “updating our hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”

For an entity that prides itself on speed and freshness, this took a depressingly long time.

Jewish organizations from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have been imploring Facebook for years to take action against Holocaust denial and distortion. It took an immense push from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), which produced dramatic daily videos of Holocaust survivors, including from Canada, imploring Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to rid his platform of this toxic content for him to finally take action.

And for those who still believe that Holocaust deniers are simply ignorant white supremacists, consider the story of William Latson, the principal of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla.

During an email exchange in April 2018 with a parent, Latson insisted that Spanish River students could choose not to take Holocaust studies because “not everyone believed the Holocaust happened.”

He insisted that as an educator, he had to be “politically neutral.”

The parent was naturally astounded, maintaining that everyone knows the Holocaust is a historical fact. Apparently, not Latson, who responded in another email: “I can’t say that the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

The drama continued for months, with Latson finally being fired for continuing to make these claims. Just last week, he was reinstated with back pay, but will no longer serve in a teaching capacity (the school board voted to reinstate Latson 4-3, with the board’s only Jewish member strongly urging against it. Another member blamed the media.)

Holocaust denial has clearly not abated. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the world-renowned anti-hate institution, has described it quite properly as “an essential manifestation of antisemitism.”

That educated men like William Latson can take such public positions tells us that it’s not necessarily confined to the racist margins.

So there is no doubt that Facebook did the right thing. And perhaps by doing so, fewer more vulnerable minds than Latson’s will go unpolluted by hatred.

We’ll see. It’s still one thing for Facebook to enact the policy, but quite another to enforce it. If it does, Latson’s young charges will benefit, even if he doesn’t.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Free Speech?

Oct. 9, 2020

By ZACK BABINS

Picture a large Canadian university with a law school. The school is set to offer a directorship to an academic with a long history of pro-Israel scholarship and activism in Zionist causes.

At the last moment, a Canadian Muslim – a federal judge who, along with his family, have been massive donors to this school, likely in the millions – calls the school’s fundraising team. From that point on, negotiations with the Zionist academic are cancelled and the position is somehow “no longer available.”

What would we as a community do? 

Certainly, this school would be labeled antisemitic. It would make the Top 10 list of every “antisemitic school where Jewish students aren’t safe.” We would lament the decline of academia and people would warn their children to stay away from that “Jew-hating school.”

The influencers and organizations that make a living defending Israel would see a spike in donations.

Eventually, the right-wing pundits, Jewish and Gentile, would cry that free speech is about listening to arguments and ideas that you don’t like, and would wonder whether today’s students are so soft (and antisemitic) that they could not tolerate a Zionist Jewish teacher.

This isn’t a hypothetical. We just changed some parts of speech.

Explosive recent media reports alleged that Justice David Spiro, a Tax Court of Canada judge, megadonor to the University of Toronto, and former board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, had improperly interfered in the hiring of Prof. Valentina Azarova.

Azarova, who is not Palestinian but sympathetic to Palestinians, and more than occasionally focuses her academic work on the Palestinian cause, was reportedly quite close to landing a position as director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program. According to the school, the program isn’t hiring a director at all.

Law professor Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, resigned from the board in protest.

The Canadian Judicial Council is now considering multiple complaints about Spiro’s conduct. And over 1,000 lawyers, academics, and activists have signed a petition asking U of T’s law school to apologize and reinstate the job.

And in an open letter to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, a slew of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said they are “deeply concerned” that U of T’s law school dean responded to “external pressure, following the objection of a law school donor to Dr. Azarova’s work on international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine context.”

One would think that the champions of free speech would be all over this one. But the brave “marketplace of ideas” folks, who have no qualms defending transphobes, homophobes, racists and white nationalists under the banner of free speech, are nowhere to be found. Similarly, those who argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” just can’t be bothered to defend an academic who, by their standards, has had her right to free speech violated.

One op-ed submitted by a Jewish organization claimed that “a long history of one-sided critiques of Israel” justified these events. What if the shoe was on the other foot? If a long history of “one-sided activism” surrounding Israel can disqualify you from a job, well, I’ve got some bad news for a lot of my friends who went to Jewish day school, summer camp or synagogue. 

I haven’t even mentioned yet how damaging this move – which any PR consultant could tell you would not remain private for longer than a week – may be to Jewish students who are actually on campus, who will now face slurs and tropes about Jewish power and influence.

Frankly, I’ve never been a free speech evangelist. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but it must be restrained by reasonable limits to protect marginalized communities from hatred and violence. History bears out that hate speech almost never remains “just words.” 

We either care about free speech or we don’t. We either care about academic freedom or we don’t. We either care about outside political interference in our universities – including the “outside agitators” that Hasbara organizations love to remind you are sent to campuses to scuttle BDS motions and anti-Israel campaigns – or we don’t.

To paraphrase the great “Rabbi” Jon Stewart, if you don’t stick to your values when they’re used by your opponents, you don’t have values. You have hobbies.

We have to make a decision – a microcosm of the same decision Israel has to make when it attempts to administer a democratic state that prioritizes one religion that’s necessary to the idea of a Jewish democracy.

Does Zionism – specifically, right-wing, tribal, expansionist, Revisionist Zionism that leaves no room for the humanity of Palestinians – supersede liberal democratic values like free speech? Are you prepared to defend Israel, no matter the cost? 

In other words, we must decide whether we are prepared to sacrifice our souls. I’m not prepared to do that, and I’m not alone.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.

Prioritize Victims of Hate When Confronting Extremism in the Military

July 29, 2020 – By ELIZABETH MOORE

On July 19, the Canadian Armed Forces announced they are taking an important and, as critics have noted, a long overdue step to more effectively deal with hateful conduct in their ranks. The new orders finally define “hateful conduct,” make reporting incidents mandatory, and will include ongoing training, entrance screenings, and incident tracking.

As Maj.-Gen. Marc Gagne of the Forces’ chief of military personnel’s office put it, “the idea is basically as soon as you join, it’s crystal clear, and we’re going to keep reinforcing through education and training as you move through the ranks and as you assume more responsibility.”

While there is reason to be optimistic about the potential for positive change in the future, the military is clearly still struggling when it comes to handling cases of hate group members in their midst.

The U.S.-based media collective Unicorn Riot reported that Leading Seaman Boris Mihajlovic returned to active duty aboard HMCS Tecumseh on July 15, 2020, following an investigation into his ties to racist extremist groups. Mihajlovic claims he is reformed and has not been involved with hate groups since 2017.

In a video by Mihajlovic’s Commanding Officer, Joseph Banke, sailors were called upon “to find a way ahead together.” Banke emphasized his belief that rehabilitation should be chosen over retribution, concluding that “we need to build forward together, we need to rehabilitate together, we are going to support this member together.”

This approach would perhaps be warranted if the person in question was passively consuming hateful content online but otherwise not deeply entrenched. But that is not the case with Mihajlovic. He was a moderator on the now-defunct racist forum Iron March, claimed to be connected with Blood and Honour, a hate group that was classified as a terrorist organization by the Canadian government last year, and he tried to carry out illegal arms deals.

While it is wholly possible to leave racist extremist groups and change one’s worldview, doing so within the Armed Forces carries additional responsibilities, particularly when internet posts discussing the sale of “handguns, assault rifles, grenades and grenade launchers,” come to the public’s attention. At this time, it appears neither Mihajlovic nor the leadership at HMCS Tecumseh have issued an apology. No explanation of the ways Mihajlovic has grown or changed has been released, despite Banke’s acknowledgment that some sailors have “felt very victimized by this.”

It is unfortunate that at a time the Armed Forces are attempting to address both extremism and systemic racism, Banke seems to be asking those who felt victimized to do the emotional heavy lifting of supporting a former extremist without a proper explanation or support in return.

This is likely not an isolated incident. A 2018 military intelligence report identified 30 service members who belonged to hate groups or otherwise engaged in hateful conduct. In November, it was reported that 16 of those identified were allowed to remain within the Forces after being warned or disciplined.

Gagne noted that part of the problem was that the military took “a reaction kind of approach” instead of being proactive in addressing such matters. However, in order to ensure that sensitive and challenging situations like Mihajlovic’s are dealt with fairly and effectively, the Forces needs to move beyond the reactive/proactive dichotomy to embrace a holistic approach that remains ever mindful of past and current incidents of extremism in their ranks.

To illustrate the range of events affecting the current situation, former Master Corporal Patrik Mathews is facing U.S. charges related to possessing and transporting a firearm and ammunition while plotting to trigger a race war with members of the violent white supremacist group, The Base. Meanwhile, military police are investigating a racist meme targeting Black people that was circulated in Quebec last month.

If a person who engaged in hateful conduct is allowed to stay in uniform after a case has been investigated, the wellbeing of those who felt victimized must be prioritized over that person’s desire to resume their duties. No one should feel that they must literally soldier on without understanding how certain decisions were reached or why, especially since hateful conduct continues to occur.

It is unfortunate that those who need to issue apologies or explanations have more power and latitude about whether to provide them than those who feel such words are necessary. And it is these imbalances that must be addressed for the military to truly be able to “rehabilitate together.”


Elizabeth Moore
Elizabeth Moore

Twenty-five years ago, Elizabeth Moore left The Heritage Front, Canada’s largest hate group. Since then, she has become an anti-hate educator, writer, and social justice advocate. She is currently a member of the Enhancing Social Justice Education Coordinating Committee and Parents for Peace’s Community Network.