US school administrators defend record on antisemitism despite government investigation

The schools are all facing federal investigations from the department of education


WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Vehicles are parked outside the U.S. Capitol building as House Republicans continue the process of electing a new U.S. Speaker of the House on October 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. House Republicans are working to elect a new speaker after the House passed a Motion to Vacate that removed former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from his post. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Leaders of three US public school systems responsible for the wellbeing of thousands of Jewish students have admitted to a congressional hearing that antisemitism has increased in their schools

School administrators from New York, Maryland and California testified on Capitol Hill this week that they are taking allegations of antisemitism very seriously, but, their responses to House Representatives left some with more questions and concerns.

Among those who testified were David Banks, chancellor of the New York City Public Schools; Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in California and Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.

All three of the school districts are facing civil rights investigations by the Department of Education for claims under Title VI that they have not done enough to stop Jew-hate in their schools.

“Antisemitism is not pervasive in the Berkeley Unified School District,” declared Ford Morthel, at one point saying that all complaints of antisemitism in her district are investigated.

Yet, according to the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League, the district provides a “hostile environment for Jewish students” and is “taking a frightening turn for the worse.”

The organizations made the claim in an amended civil rights complaint to the Department of Education. They had initially filed a complaint against the school in February, but expanded their complaint this week in light of additional violations, including the words “Kill Jews” being scrawled on a bathroom at Berkeley High School and a report of a first-grader who heard older kids on playground saying that Jews are stupid and told his mother he wishes he wasn’t Jewish.

Banks admitted that there have been “unacceptable incidents” of antisemitism in New York City schools, saying that when Jewish students and teachers feel “unwelcome and unsafe” that should “sound alarms” to everyone. He said that some 30 students have been suspended for their actions and that a dozen staff and school leaders have been disciplined.

The hearing was sponsored by the Committee on Education and the Workplace, which has previously held hearings on antisemitism on college campuses.

Congressman Aaron Bean (R-Fla.), who chaired the meeting, said at the outset, “the topic of today's hearing is particularly troubling. It’s hard to grasp how antisemitism has become such a dominant force in our K-12 schools. Some kids as young as second grade are spewing Nazi propaganda, which begs the question, who has positioned these young minds to attack the Jewish people?”

The congressman asked each educator if the phrase “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” is antisemitic. Banks from New York said the phrase is banned from New York schools.

Silvestre and Ford Morthel, however, both qualified their responses saying it was only problematic in some cases when it specifically refers to destroying Jews, because as Ford Morthel went on to clarify later, not everyone interprets the phrase that way. If it is “presented as perspective,” she said, it is allowed to be used at school.

While insisting they are investigating and responding to every report of antisemitism, the educators could not share any details about disciplinary actions, claiming their need to protect people’s privacy.

Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, Marci Miller, senior educational counsel at the Brandeis Center, said that while schools need to keep specific information confidential, they can provide “general information” about the disciplinary actions taken.

“In the case of discrimination or harassment complaints, it’s often necessary to disclose to the victim what specific measures have been taken for their protection,” she said. “In the Berkeley Unified School District matter, parents who complained about anti-Semitic bullying and harassment of their children were not informed that any protective measures were taken.”

In addition to questions about discipline, Ford Morthel was asked about the district’s contract with “Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium,” LESMCC, for lessons on ethnic studies. Ford Morthel told the congressional members that the LESMCC was brought on as“thought partners,” but that the curriculum was written by local educators.

Mandated by law in California schools, ethnic-studies curriculums have been called into question by Jewish groups and pro-Israel advocates because many of the educators involved in the original curriculum’s design hold strongly anti-Israel views. Some of those same educators are involved in LESMCC, and Jewish groups say it is promoting antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments.

“The Berkeley superintendent did not respond to a very specific question about why the district would choose to contract with an organization whose ethnic studies curriculum was found to be riddled with so much anti-Semitic material that [California] Governor Gavin Newsom said this curriculum should never see the light of day,” said Miller from the Brandeis Center. “And the memo of understanding between Berkeley Unified and LESMCC says that LESMCC will develop an ethnic studies program for the district.”

David Smokler, director of K-12 educator outreach at StandWithUs, attended the hearing and said “many people don’t realize how hard it’s been for Jewish students, parents and educators in K-12 schools since Oct. 7.”

Calling the hearing a “good start,” he urged the investigation to go further.

“We would strongly encourage further hearings that delve deeper into how and why antisemitism is finding its way into our nation’s classrooms,” said Smokler.

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