It's an issue that seemingly won't go away.
Discord over the way Newton's high schools teach the Arab-Israeli conflict and Islam began six years ago, when a Newton South parent, Tony Pagliuso, was made aware of a statement in an article his daughter had been assigned in a social studies class. The article, from the "Arab World Studies Notebook," claimed that Israeli soldiers had raped and murdered hundreds of Palestinian women.
There have been other curriculum-related issues brought to the public's attention since that time: a redacted Hamas charter, inaccurate maps of the conflict, and a superficial treatment of jihad among them. Critics of NPS' history curriculum say there is a gross imbalance in the way the conflict is presented. Moreover, they claim to have been brushed off and stonewalled by school officials in their attempts to find out more information about exactly what materials are being used in the classroom.
Some materials, including the "Arab World Studies Notebook," were discontinued. But the organization Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), led by resident Charles Jacobs, and others have continued to put pressure on the school district over the past several years to release more information and make additional changes in the curriculum that would balance presentation of the conflict.
Eventually, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch funded an ambitious public records request and received more curriculum information from NPS. That information was made available to the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media-monitoring group founded in 1982 that opened a Boston branch (based in Newton) 30 years ago.
The result is a monograph, published earlier this year, "Indoctrinating Our Youth: How a U.S. Public School Curriculum Skews the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Islam." The publication expands upon the previous work done by APT and analyzes the curriculum controversy in a detailed narrative.
The CAMERA book traces what it describes as "an agenda-driven history curriculum" to an incident in which Noam Chomsky, a virulently anti-Israel MIT professor, was invited to speak at Newton South in 2007. A year later (as had been reported by APT) Paul Beran, then the director of the Outreach Center at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, was invited by a Newton teacher to take part in a discussion about the Oslo Peace Process. At the time, Beran was a leader of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the Boston area.
In 2010, CAMERA notes, Beran led a seminar for about 80 Newton teachers, advising them on how to teach the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Andrea Levin, president and executive director for CAMERA in Newton, spoke with the TAB about "Indoctrinating Our Youth" and the ongoing controversy with the high school curriculum.
CAMERA is known as a media watchdog. Why did it become involved in a curriculum dispute?
We've been involved in curriculum matters in the past, so it was something of a natural addition. And we were approached by citizens in the city who were frustrated that they were at a standstill getting some resolution and satisfaction in terms of knowing what was [being taught] in the schools... They just wanted a complete picture and for us to do this deeper look and analysis. That's why we took it on. It was a big, yearlong project.′
Tell us about the source material for the monograph?
We relied on materials provided to us individually and close to 500 pages of documentation from the [public records request]. We gathered all that and it took a long time for us to decide how to present the story. We wanted to provide something sober, serious and that people could trust was giving them the full story. We put so much into this because this is not just a Newton issue. We care about Newton, live in Newton, and want Newton to have the very best schools in the country, but we know this is a national issue.
What was your general take-away from the study?
Going forward, we think there should be a very stringent process of vetting the material because a key finding of the study was the huge impact of the internet. The story of what's happening in Newton, and across the country, is very much connected to the 'Wild West' of the internet and the lack of standards. These are not textbooks; most of our concerns did not relate to textbooks. Most related to teachers pulling off the internet materials that have not passed a committee of scholars and have not been shown to be educationally valuable. The administration will say teachers know what they are doing, they can judge, but it's our observation that many of these materials were not academically sound. They were op-eds from Time magazine, things from PBS, from the New York Times, the BBC. One might think these are all reliable and even prestigious media outlets, but these were written by people who are not necessarily historians and they might very often have a political slant.
CAMERA has three recommendations for NPS to improve the Middle East curriculum. What's the first?
How do you vet this? This is a question for the educational future of our country, and it probably applies to every other subject area, but in this contentious area who is deciding? Ideally there would be department heads that are very serious and there would be rules set down asking how is this going to be done? I was a teacher for five years and I understand teachers need materials; it's very challenging.
Your second recommendation is to make clear what is being taught in the classroom.
This was a very thorny issue in Newton and a terrible frustration to the ad hoc citizens group that eventually developed here. They had a very powerful, serious example of an educational problem in the case of Tony Pagliuso's daughter at Newton South. It warranted attention, it should never have been in the classroom and they wanted to know what else there was. They were literally stopped; they could not get access to everything. They were told they'd have to pay thousands of dollars to get material and it would take a very long time. In effect they were brushed aside. The public should not be treated that way and is legally entitled to know what's being taught to their children.
School officials say the curriculum is available online.
It's not all up on the internet, I've looked at that. It has been my observation there are more general things — a synopsis of a class, any textbooks used, but not all the details I'm talking about. We are going to have to figure out the process by which teachers are given the latitude to bring in anything.
Your third recommendation is a list of materials that do not belong in the classroom.
They fail the test of academic utility and merit and we don't think they should be taught. They are factually erroneous; they're biased, distorted... so we've provided a list. One example is the [PBS] "Point of View: Timeline," which draws a false moral equivalence in terms of narrative, what each side believes and what each side is doing. It leaves out the most egregious terrorism against Israel. It leaves out Israel's multiple offers of statehood and peace and the Arab rejection of them. It leaves that out. There's nothing about the indoctrination of Palestinians and incitement to violence and hatred that is rampant and is in the estimation of many people the biggest obstacle to reconciliation. That's completely absent and the bulk of responsibility is implicitly and explicitly on Israel.
Are you getting any cooperation since the study was published, specifically from area Jewish "establishment" groups?
We hope there will be progress... The study is compelling. I think that we are seeing that people are more persuaded on the basis of this; at least that is the impression I have from my own communications [with local Jewish organizations]. I'm guessing that seeing the detail, seeing the chapter and verse... it's compelling to see what's happening. What we are asking for is so obvious and reasonable in order to reset the framework and make it better.
School officials say very few residents think there is a problem.
That's not our experience. People do care, a lot. We have received a lot of support and there is tremendous interest in knowing more about it... and knowing what to do. It's not a few people; that's just not the case. There are a few people who have been outspoken, but there are many people who care.
Why is this such an important issue?
The truth matters. That's first of all... [The students] deserve to be given the facts; this is a really contentious issue. And it's an issue of importance. Gross omissions and distorting Israel's actions all contribute to misrepresentation.