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House GOP Turns to K-12 Schools in Antisemitism Probe

Wednesday, 08 May 2024 01:02 PM EDT

Leaders of three large public school systems told a congressional panel Wednesday that they're fighting antisemitism with education and, when necessary, discipline, rejecting accusations that they have allowed hate to go unchecked.

As part of a series of hearings on antisemitism, a House Education and Workforce subcommittee sought testimony from leaders of New York City Public Schools, the Berkeley Unified School District in California and the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

“Let me be clear — we do not shy away from imposing consequences for hateful behavior, including antisemitism,” Karla Silvestre, the board president of Montgomery County Public Schools, told the panel.

It's the first of the antisemitism hearings to focus on K-12 education, and it comes amid a wave of pro-Palestinian student protests that have washed across dozens of U.S. universities and a growing number of high schools.

The committee's hearings have been heated — the first in December precipitated the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, the testimony of Columbia University’s president, Minouche Shafik, escalated into weeks of protests that spread beyond her campus to colleges across the country.

In an opening statement, Republican Rep. Aaron Bean of Florida said antisemitism has become a “dominant force” in America's schools, with students as young as second-graders “spewing Nazi propaganda.”

“I’ll tell you what my question is going to be to our witnesses: What are you doing to keep students safe? And how can we stop this?” He said. “You’ve been accused of doing nothing and turning a blind eye.”

The school leaders rebuffed that claim and detailed a range of actions they have taken to fight rising antisemitism.

David Banks, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, cited actions including student suspensions and employee terminations. But he also emphasized the role of education, saying the district is building a new curriculum on the contributions of the Jewish community, along with separate lessons teaching students about hate crimes and bias.

“We cannot simply discipline our way out of this problem,” Banks said. “The true antidote to ignorance and bias is to teach.”

Silvestre described a similar approach in Montgomery County. Classrooms have expanded lessons on the Jewish experience, and starting this summer the district will require “hate-based training” for all staff, she said. Teachers who don't provide a safe learning environment “will not remain in Montgomery County public schools,” she said.

Each of the leaders acknowledged a rise in antisemitism, but Berkeley Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel denied that it has become “pervasive." Since Oct. 7, her district has received complaints of antisemitism arising from nine incidents within the district's jurisdiction, she said.

“We take action to teach correct and redirect our students,” she said. “We do not publish our actions because student information is private and legally protected under federal and state law. As a result, some believe we do nothing. This is not true.”

Echoing a tactic from the previous hearings, Republican lawmakers peppered the school leaders with questions about what they consider antisemitic. Asked if the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is antisemitic, all three generally said yes, though with some equivocation.

“It is if it is calling for the elimination of the Jewish people in Israel," Ford Morthel said. “And I will also say that I recognize that it does have different meanings.”

Pressed on firings and suspensions, Silvestre said Montgomery County has taken “disciplinary action” against some teachers, but none have been fired. Bean suggested that wasn't good enough: “So you allow them to continue to teach hate,” he said.

Speaking to reporters last week, Banks acknowledged that the school system had not been perfect in handling issues in schools that have emerged since the start of the Israel-Hamas war but that he was proud of how leadership had responded.

Banks seemed critical of how previous hearings had quickly been reduced to viral moments and video clips.

“I fundamentally believe that if we truly care about solving for antisemitism, you don’t do it through cheap political theater and cheap soundbites," he said. "Putting a spotlight on any particular individual and sometimes trying to create gotcha moments and viral moments is not how you ultimately solve problems you deeply care about.”

Both New York City and Montgomery Public Schools are subjects of Education Department civil rights investigations into allegations of antisemitism. Both cases center on whether the districts responded to harassment of students in a manner consistent with Title VI, which prevents harassment based on shared ancestry.

In February, the Brandeis Center, a Jewish legal advocacy organization, filed a complaint with the department's Office of Civil Rights, citing incidents of bullying and harassment of Jewish students in the Berkeley district, including one instance where the phrase “Kill Jews” was found written in a high school bathroom.

In a statement, Ford Morthel “did not seek this invitation" but would testify.

“Berkeley Unified celebrates our diversity and stands against all forms of hate and othering, including antisemitism and Islamophobia," the statement said. "We strive every day to ensure that our classrooms are respectful, humanizing, and joyful places for all our students, where they are welcomed, seen, valued, and heard.”

All three districts, in predominantly liberal areas, have diverse student populations and a sizeable Jewish American community.

In a lawsuit filed against Montgomery County Public Schools by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, three teachers alleged the district placed them on leave and investigated them because they expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments, some of which were on their personal social media pages.

Student-led protests have taken place in high schools across the country, including in the three districts that will appear before Congress. The demonstrations include walkouts during school hours, and like their college counterparts, include the question of whether certain phrases — including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” which can mean widely different things to different groups — cross the line into antisemitism.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Leaders of three large public school systems told a congressional panel Wednesday that they're fighting antisemitism with education and, when necessary, discipline, rejecting accusations that they have allowed hate to go unchecked.
antisemitism, congress, public, schools, israel, war, hamas, house, gop, hearing
Wednesday, 08 May 2024 01:02 PM
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