Palestinian Community in Halifax scores victory over anti-Palestinian ignorance and prejudice

Inside the origins and evolution of traditional Palestinian costume

The black and white scarf known as the keffieh is a traditional piece of Palestinian clothing. But when students wore kuffiehs to a Halifax school on “culture day”, they were told to remove it. Mobilisation by the Palestinian community in Halifax, with support from allies including local members of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, obliged the principal to reverse the decision. (Photo credit: CJPME) Read more…

On Wednesday March 1, 2023 students at Park West School in Halifax were invited to wear clothing representing their cultures.

But when students of Palestinian descent came wearing the keffiyeh – a traditional scarf-like garment worn by peasants or shepherds as protection from the fierce mideast climate of sun and sand, they were told it was unacceptable.

Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat popularized the Keffieh as a symbol of the Palestinian people

Keffieh – a “sign of war”?

Apparently another parent had complained to the principal that the keffieh is a ‘sign of war”.

Unfortunately, neither the principal nor the unnamed parent are the only Canadians who, out of ignorance or prejudice, associate the Palestinian people with violence. Palestinians who resist being expelled from their lands or having their houses demolished by Israeli soldiers or settlers are routinely described by Israel and its Canadian supporters as “terrorists”.

One of the students was apparently sent home.

“We got phone calls from parents that during a multicultural day event at Park West School, the kids were asked to remove the kufiya,” said Lana Khammash, president of the Atlantic Canada Palestinian Society.

Palestinian reaction

The Palestinian community and their allies in Halifax were quick to respond.

“How dare they have a multicultural day and disallow a large ethnic group, from wearing a symbolic scarf,” said Judy Haiven, a retired Saint Mary’s University professor and a local member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Demonstration in front of office of Minister of Education

The local Palestinian community immediately launched an email campaign. Some 14,000 emails were sent to the school authorities explaining that the Keffieh is a traditional Palestinian garment and demanding an explanation.

When the school board was slow to respond, a demonstration of more than 50 people was organized in front of the office of the Minister of Education.

“We are demanding an independent investigation into this incident,” said Rana Zaman, as she addressed those in attendance Monday. “We demand that the principal of Park West School and HRCE [Halifax Regional Centre for Education] issue a formal apology to the Palestinian students and their families, as well as to the broader community who felt attacked and discriminated against.”

The group called on the school authorities to incorporate zero-tolerance policies for any form of anti-Palestinian racism. Zaman says training programs need to be developed for school communities to understand and address anti-Palestinian racism

Five days later the Principal sent out a “clarification” to all families

The Principal and school board back down

Within a few days, Principal Benedette Anyanwu appeared to back down. She circulated a letter to all students apologizing for the distress she caused and assuring them that there is NO BAN on wearing the keffieh.

That message was followed up by a further letter from Steve Gallagher, Acting director of Education, reinforcing the message that “there are no bans on what students choose to wear to school”.

“On behalf of HRCE, I am deeply sorry for any harm this situation has caused the Palestinian community and others who have been impacted., he wrote.

Gallagher also noted that the incident “shows there is more work to be done within the system to build trust and acceptance.”

Overcoming “Anti-Palestinian racism”

Most immigrant groups face some degree of racism and stereotyping, but several factors make this is a special problem for Palestinians in Canada.

First of all, most Palestinian Canadians are Muslim and face a generalised discomfort which often manifests itself as Islamophobia.

Second, mainstream media tends to react to report on the Middle East from the Israeli point of view. It is rare that media reports on the demolition of Palestinian houses, incarceration of Palestinian children or settlers attacking Palestinian farmers with the support of the Israeli military. But when Palestinians respond, our media are more inclined to pick up the story. Unaware Canadians draw the incorrect conclusion that the violence was initiated by the Palestinians.

Thirdly, the Canadian government itself has supported the Zionist idea of a Jewish State from its inception in 1947. While pretending to offer balanced support to both sides in search of a 2 state solution, in fact Canada supports Israel in dozens of ways. (In fact, a CTIP post 4 years ago listed 26 ways that Canada supports Israel out of the public eye.)

Taken together, all of this contributes to a phenomenon known as “anti-Palestinian” racism.

Lessons going forward

The first groups of Palestinian immigrants who came to Canada tended to be grateful to be accepted in Canada and little inclined to make waves. However, the next generation, born in Canada, feel more comfortable in defending their rights as Canadians including the right of free speech, and the right to celebrate their cultural identity. Last year in Ottawa Palestinian high school students staged a walkout over attempts to suppress Palestinian cultural expression in their schools. It sees that Palestinian Canadians are increasingly making their voices heard in schools, universities and in political parties.

The Halifax experience shows that education and community mobilisation can overcome ignorance and prejudice. Bring it on.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine


  1. A small victory , but victory nevertheless .The narrative has now been broken and the Palestinian cause must be disclosed in the historical context of a people long suffering under the yoke if lies and political overreach ,the world over .Many thanks to “Canada Talks Israel and Palestine” for your continued support of truth and justice for the Palestinian people .

  2. It seems universal; people who are invaded and fight back are branded “terrorists” . Their clothing is then identified as “a sign of war”. We have to teach people to question that sort of logic.

    1. Yes, the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” have become catch all pejoratives to dismiss one’s opponents.

      Outrageously, legislation passed by Canada’s previous federal government define any actions that can be construed as harming Canada’s economic or strategic interests as “terrorist.” These laws are still in place and have been used against peaceful indigenous protesters and their supporters. Also against environmental activists.

      Recent, newer examples include both Russian government and Ukrainian government calling each other terrorist. Within Canada proponents of various worthwhile causes (e.g. MMIWG, women’s safety in face of male violence) have labelled opponents terrorists.

  3. In the end, an important chapter in the educational life of many in the Halifax highschool system including teachers and parents. The dust-up makes the lesson learned more memorable.

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