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‘Chilling effect’: People expressing pro-Palestinian views censured, suspended from work and school

Restaurant staff losing their jobs for cheering on a pro-Palestinian protest. A Palestinian Canadian journalist fired for her social media posts calling for a #freepalestine. Medical residents flagged to potential hiring committees for their support of Palestinians.

These are just some of the many instances across Canada in which employees and students have faced firings, suspensions or calls for them to not be hired based on their publicly stated political stance on the Israel-Hamas war. It’s a trend that has been reported not just in Canada but also in the U.S. and Europe, and across various industries, including media, law, health care and the service sector. 

According to three Ontario-based lawyers who spoke to CBC News, some employers and institutions have been quick to take action against employees or students, creating an environment in which many are afraid they will lose their jobs or face consequences to their education if they express a political stance in favour of one side — Palestinians — during this war.

“I can tell you personally, in the last month and a half, I’ve probably spoken with someone at least once a day [about this],” said Jackie Esmonde, a labour lawyer at Toronto-based firm Cavalluzzo Law. “They’re not always cases that we take on, but we do have in the range of eight to 10 cases that we’re actively working on at the moment.

“I’m not seeing people making what I would consider hate speech or discriminatory speech.”

LISTEN | Job loss, cancelled exhibits over Gaza opinions in the art world: 

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As the Israel-Hamas war continues, there has been an unmistakable upheaval in the art world. Writers Maris Kreizman, Josh Gondelman and Jen Sookfong Lee are grappling with the consequences of speaking up. They join host Elamin Abdelmahmoud and arts reporter Josh O’Kane to share their thoughts on the cancelled exhibits, protests, and the people who’ve lost jobs and opportunities for sharing their points of view — and what’s at stake within our cultural institutions.

None of the lawyers who spoke with CBC News had been notified of similar cases relating to expressions of support for Israel. 

When it comes to pro-Israel views, Toronto-based immigration lawyer Debbie Rachlis said she is “not aware personally of anyone who has lost their job or has been threatened by losing their job for expressing an opinion.”

“I’ve certainly seen stories of people who have chosen to leave jobs where they … don’t feel supported as an Israeli or as a Jewish person [or] don’t feel comfortable with statements that the organization [they] work for has made,” Rachlis said.

Pro-Israel protestors chant during a pro-Israel protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.
Pro-Israel protestors on Parliament Hill earlier this month. Toronto lawyer Debbie Rachlis says some Jewish Canadians have left jobs because they were uncomfortable with statements their employers have made about the war. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

UN group expresses alarm

Esmonde noted a Nov. 23 United Nations statement in which a group of UN special rapporteurs expressed alarm at what they say is a global stifling of critique of Israeli government policies or calls for a ceasefire, which they said “have in too many contexts been misleadingly equated with support for terrorism or antisemitism.” 

The statement noted that artists, journalists, academics, athletes and protesters have all been censored, suspended, blacklisted or otherwise threatened with workplace consequences for expressing their views. 

Toronto lawyer Nora Fathalipour said she has received up to 300 calls for help from people in Canada and the U.S. after posting on LinkedIn with an offer to represent people “facing academic or professional discipline for speaking out about Palestine.” 

“A lot of the time, what’s happening to them is a result of anonymous sources reaching out to their employers or to their institutions, raising concerns with either their behaviour or something they have said or [are] alleged to have said,” Fathalipour said.

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Words under scrutiny

It’s not always apparent which comments or actions are the source of contention for employers and universities. But in some cases, documentation seen by CBC News makes it clear which words are seen as problematic.

Last month, the University of Ottawa suspended medical resident Dr. Yipeng Ge after he posted pro-Palestinian comments on his personal social media that resulted in internal complaints against him, according to an email sent by the university’s legal counsel to Ge’s lawyer seen by CBC News.

The email references Ge’s posts of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as one of the reasons for his suspension. The phrase, reads the email, is seen by the university as a call for the “ethnic cleansing of Jewish people from Israel.” 

Some experts familiar with the origin and history of the phrase have told CBC its meaning and use is more complicated. 

People show their support for Palestine as they hold a protest in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.
A demonstrator shows support for Palestinians in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa last month. Use of hash tags or statements with slogans such as ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘From the river to the sea’ have attracted scrutiny from some employers and institutions. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In October, a nephrologist at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital in Richmond Hill, Ont., was suspended after posting pro-Palestinian views on social media and later reinstated after the hospital said it determined it was safe for him to return to work.

Last month, according to an official email seen by CBC News, George Brown College in Toronto put Bashir Munye, a culinary instructor, on paid leave while it investigated complaints related to one of his Instagram posts. 

Munye, who has worked at the college for seven years, told CBC the school did not specify to him which post needed removing. The last post on his account related to the war, made before he was put on paid leave, uses the phrase “From the river to the sea” and the words “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe Israeli government actions against Palestinians.

Munye said he was hurt, shocked and frightened by seeing “how [an] institution can punish you based on allegations prior [to] providing you the opportunity to either rectify yourself or having the opportunity to explain or express your own sentiments.”

WATCH | Is it possible to constructively talk about Israel-Hamas war online?

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In a statement to CBC, a representative of George Brown College said: “In line with our standard process upon receiving complaints, it has been concluded that there was no violation of college policies.” 

Munye, Ge and others affected in the same way have hired legal representation to determine their next steps. 

Co-ordinated efforts

Nearly 650 lawyers, law students and professors across Canada have signed an open letter to Canada’s legal community published on Nov. 6 that notes a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in the legal community since the outbreak of the war. 

The letter alleges that some in the profession are “contacting the employers of lawyers and encouraging they be fired for their pro-Palestinian advocacy” and that those engaged in pro-Palestinian advocacy — many of whom are younger and people of colour — are being bullied for it. 

In a similar statement on Oct. 25, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association likened the current climate around discussions of the Israel-Hamas war to the period of escalated Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the post 9/11 era. The statement also expressed concern about a “chilling effect” on free expression in support of Palestinians. 

Surveillance of people’s public stance on Palestinians exists in private social media groups and secondary school classrooms as well.

Screenshots sent to CBC News by a member of a closed Facebook group called Canadian Jewish Physicians show a handful of members saying they have compiled a list of 271 medical students who signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire and an end to targeting health-care facilities and workers in Gaza. 

The stated intention is to share this list with program directors ahead of residency interviews.

Screenshots from a group called Canadian Jewish Physicians
Screenshots from a private Facebook group sent to CBC News by a member, in which a handful of members say they’ve compiled a list of 271 medical students who signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire and an end to targeting health-care facilities and workers in Gaza. (Canadian Jewish Physicians/Facebook)

Two employees at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies — a Toronto-based non-profit human rights organization dedicated to Holocaust and antisemitism education — told CBC News that the centre’s educators who teach workshops and courses in schools have been instructed to report students who make comments critical of Israel to the organization. 

CBC has agreed to keep the employees’ names confidential because of a potential risk to their employment. 

Comments or questions referencing genocide or occupation of Palestinian people and  “anything seen as critical of Israel at all” are to be reported to the organization, said one of the employees. 

“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,” they said.

Both employees said these directives were communicated by centre leadership verbally during meetings with the organization’s director of education and sometimes the CEO but were not written down. 

“They push for us to understand the stance of the organization, which is being pro Israel,” said the second employee. “If you’re not pro Israel, then you’re antisemitic.”

Both said they do not and will not report these types of comments to the organization despite instructions to do so. 

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center has not responded to CBC’s repeated requests for comment about these allegations.

WATCH | MPs call for more action against antisemitism in universities: 

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Five Liberal MPs call on universities to better protect Jewish students

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Anthony Housefather is one of five Liberal MPs who wrote to 25 university presidents across Canada asking them if they have plans to protect Jewish students from incidents of antisemitism. ‘Every day, I get contacted by Jewish students … at universities across the country telling me that they feel unsafe on campus,’ says Housefather.

A range of repercussions

Repercussions for people who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians have been varied, but in a few of the most extreme cases, they have resulted in those people losing their jobs.

In October, Zahraa Al-Akhrass, a Palestinian Canadian journalist at Global News, was fired from her job for failing to comply with the organization’s demands to remove social media posts that it said “advocate for violence” and gave a “perception of serious, journalistic bias.” At the time, she was on maternity leave.

Correspondence seen by CBC shows a manager asked Al-Akhrass to remove any post directed at a government official and posts with the hashtags #freepalestine, #gazaunderattack and #gazagenocide.

Al-Akhrass’s social media activity ranges from thanking climate activist Greta Thunberg for expressing support for Palestinians on X to quoting Israeli Defence Minister Yaov Gallant’s reference to Palestinians as “human animals” on her Instagram story — a post that disappears in 24 hours — and criticizing Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s comment stating there are “no innocents” in the Gaza Strip. 

A screenshot of an X post.
An example of a social media post by former Global News employee Zahraa Al-Akhrass, who was fired on Oct. 17 for her posts about the Israel-Hamas war. (ZahraaAkhrass/X )

Al-Akhrass, 28, said Global had never flagged her social media posts before, even, for example, when she expressed support for Ukraine during the Ukraine-Russia war.  

“I have always been sharing my public opinions and views on political events happening around the world, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Al-Akhrass said.

“No one ever reached out to me from Global and asked me to delete these comments because they’re unbalanced.”

In emails, Al-Akhrass repeatedly asked for a full list of the posts the company wanted her to remove. The request was denied. 

Global News did not answer questions about Al-Akhrass’s dismissal, citing staff confidentiality. 

But in an emailed statement, a Global News spokesperson said: “Commentary by our employees expressing or amplifying violence or discrimination against any group is not condoned and is a violation of our company policies.” 

WATCH | Why a watermelon emoji is being used to show support for Palestinians: 

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How the watermelon emoji became a prominent symbol on social media to signal solidarity with the Palestinian people, according to two Middle East experts.

Limits on social media use

CBC and other media have similar limits on employees’ use of social media. Social media guidance for CBC reporters is outlined under the company’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. It reads: “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.”

Jacob Nelson, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Utah, interviewed 37 journalists in the U.S. and Canada about newsroom social media policies for a study published earlier this year. 

According to him, social media policies for journalists are meant to protect companies from being labelled as biased based on what employees are posting but are not applied consistently.

“Oftentimes, the thing that’s being evaluated in terms of ‘Did you or did you not abide by the social media policy?’ is not the post itself,” Nelson said. “It’s often about the reception — how did people react to that post?”

WATCH | Hateful tropes are circulating in social media posts about the war:

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Explosion of hate across social media platforms

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Reaction is also what drove the employer’s response to an incident outside Moxies restaurant in Toronto in October, says lawyer Caryma Sa’d.

Sa’d was documenting a pro-Palestinian protest in downtown Toronto on Oct. 21 and uploaded a video to X that showed several uniformed Moxies employees and customers who came out to cheer on the protesters. 

Sa’d said the employees were cheering, waving and echoing the crowd’s chants of “Free Palestine.” 

Within 24 hours, and after dozens of social media comments calling for a boycott of the company and for the employees to be fired, Moxies posted a statement on its corporate X account. 

“We sincerely apologize to anyone impacted negatively by these actions,” it said, noting that “disciplinary actions will be taken for all involved.”

People standing at the door of Moxies restaurant in black uniforms, with arms raised. In the foreground, a protester carries a sign.
A screengrab from a video posted on X by lawyer Caryma Sa’d shows several Moxies employees in downtown Toronto cheering as a pro-Palestinian protest marches by. The restaurant says they are no longer employed by Moxies, after the video garnered dozens of negative comments on social media. (CarymaRules/X)

Employees no longer working at restaurant

When asked about the incident by CBC News, the company said the employees seen in the video are no longer working at Moxies but did not specify the reason due to “the confidentiality and safety” of staff and guests.

“Moxies is a hospitality company, not a political organization,” the company said via email. “Any actions that we have taken with our team members are solely related to employee behaviour while at work and in uniform.”

But Sa’d suspects “social media pile-ons” and pressure from “lobbying groups” played a role in the company’s response. 

She pointed to a post by B’nai B’rith Canada, a Jewish community and advocacy organization that describes itself as a “staunch defender of the state of Israel” whose mandate includes combating racism and antisemitism, that went up about a week after the protest.

“Following further discussions with the restaurant, we are happy to report that the employees in question are no longer working at Moxies,” it said.

WATCH | A rabbi and an activist on how the war has tested their friendship:

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A rabbi and Palestinian activist’s friendship tested by war

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For two Montreal women, the Israel-Hamas war is only strengthening their friendship — despite one being a rabbi and the other a Palestinian peace activist. They spoke with Radio-Canada’s Sophie Langlois about why such a divisive war has united them.

In an email to CBC News, B’nai B’rith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said the organization had reached out to Northland Properties, the parent company of Moxies, after Moxies had publicly said it intended to investigate the employees and “requested that we be updated as to the results of their investigation.”

According to Esmonde, the labour lawyer with Cavalluzzo Law, assuming the employees are not part of a union, they would need to either sue Moxies for wrongful dismissal or make a complaint to a provincial employment standards officer if they wanted to challenge their termination. 

“In practice, as likely low-paid and precarious employees, they have little practical recourse if they are unjustly terminated,” Esmonde said. 

“It sounds like social media played a significant role in their termination. But I do not have information about whether there were concerns raised prior to the social media posts.”

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