In several posts we have described how biased teaching materials about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history and practice of Islam were used for years in the curriculum of two public high schools in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts:
The nearly 7-year controversy isn't over, even though some of the worst teaching materials have now been removed. Some teachers are still presenting students with a biased anti-Israel curriculum, as revealed through recent FOIA requests. And an all-day event this spring at one of the high schools included the screening of a set of films allegedly connected to the virulently anti-Israel activist Ali Abunimah.
Below we highlight these recent developments in Newton since we last wrote on the anti-Israel bias in its two public high schools and the astonishing degree of obstruction by school officials to the legitimate concerns raised by the parents and advocacy groups, including Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT). A statement exclusive for Legal Insurrection from the Charles Jacobs, president of APT is also included below.
As we discussed in our prior posts, for years Newton high schoolers learned from a factually-flawed, unvetted, superficial and non-scholarly curriculum, and from horribly slanted, "inaccurate and partisan" materials—many of them written by virulently anti-Israel activists an radical Islamist apologists.
This anti-Israel bias in the Newton schools went under the radar until 2011 when a small group of determined parents and residents, eventually joined by the 501c3 non-profit organization Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), began demanding that school officials pull the highly skewed materials. As we described, what followed was a multi-year battle against the school district to remove the "biased materials promoting a politically-charged agenda."
By last year, it appeared that the parents and advocacy groups had pretty much prevailed.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller had promised greater transparency in what was being taught in the schools. Some of the most offensive teaching materials had also already been removed from the curriculum used in the Middle East unit of the World History classes taught in the high schools when the District promised not to teach the subject until a new curriculum could be developed and properly vetted.
But now it looks like the Newton Public School Committee and its Superintendent David Fleishman are going back on their word.
According to APT, students continue to be given biased and anti-Israel material in their classrooms.
In addition, during a day-long event on May 2nd, the entire student body of Newton North high school was reportedly exposed to anti-Israel propaganda after the school decided to partner with the Boston Palestine Film Festival.
Now in its 11th year, the festival is promoted by the vehemently anti-Israel and pro-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) activist Ali Abunimah who runs Electronic Intifada (EI), a clearing-house for anti-Israel invective and propagandizing. In the festival's publicity, EI has in the past been featured prominently as a "bronze sponsor" (along with the ADL-flagged hate group CODEPINK).
Not much information is publicly available regarding the content that was provided during the school-wide "Middle East Day" event last month, including whether students were provided with different perspectives.
In its disturbing opening scene, the film demonizes IDF soldiers as they are depicted beating up innocent-appearing Arab families on what is presented as a forced march. Basically, the film traffics in Holocaust inversion. That is, viewers are encouraged to believe that "Israelis are today's Nazis" because the opening scene depicts Zionist armed forces behaving "just like Nazis" did during the Holocaust.
The development of a program, allegedly with some sort of partnership with Abunimah and the screening of Ismail, has now prompted a joint request to Superintendent Fleishman from the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston for clarification.
Several heated confrontations between concerned Newton parents and residents and the Newton Public School Committee also occurred this past month.
Background: The Controversy Over the Middle East Curriculum at Newton Schools
In our prior posts we covered how a shockingly large amount of biased and inaccurate materials made their way into the Newtown Public School curricula and the ways in which these Massachusetts high schoolers were "propagandized" about both Israel and Islam.
We drew on a comprehensive study of the curriculum produced by the Boston branch of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), which meticulously analyzes hundreds of highly skewed materials used by teachers for classes primarily geared for 9th and 10th graders.
As we discussed, the curriculum was seriously compromised by inaccurate accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and simplistic expositions of Islamic culture.
Basically, students were encouraged to blame only Israel for the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to view it as a perennial aggressor and unwilling to compromise or pursue peace. Students also weren't given any opportunity to critically address the concept of jihad or the problems with Islamic society historically or in many places today, including the inferior status and mistreatment of women and the often precarious situation of non-Muslim minorities under Muslim-majority rule:
In a recent interview, CAMERA's communication director Jonah Cohen speaks to the decidedly anti-Israel perspective in the Newton public schools which their research team found in analyzing over 500 pages of teaching materials:
"It's all very disturbing, in terms of an unwillingness to delve into the topics of Islamic radicalism, or the ways in which extremists use Islamic doctrine to promote totalitarian and misogynistic ideologies that have managed to attract a substantial following."
We noted in our prior post that Newton residents finally became aware of the biased curricular materials which permeated the study of World History at the high schools after a Newton student told her father that she's been assigned a (Saudi Arabia-funded) book—the Arab World Studies Notebook—which contained a passage that claimed that IDF soldiers had tortured and killed hundreds of Palestinian women while they were imprisoned in Israeli jails.
"Widely used materials omit Israel's many offers of peace and statehood to the Palestinians, all of which were turned down. (The 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, 1967 at Khartoum, 2000 at Camp David, 2001 at Taba and the 2008 Olmert Plan.) These plans have been erased from the historical record, along with their rejections by the Arabs, including the ongoing refusal to accept any form of a Jewish state. Israel is depicted as being unwilling to compromise. The curricula also ignore or minimize terror attacks against Israel. Some classes use a one-page summary of the Hamas charter, omitting all references to its dedication to the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel. There is no mention of Palestinian and Fatah support for violence against Jews. Hamas and the PA are portrayed as moderates who seek a peaceful two-state solution, ignoring PA President Abbas's repeated statements that he will never recognize any Jewish state, no matter what form, along with the fact that the PA financially rewards terrorists and their families."
The father spoke to the school principal who refused to remove the offensive textbook and in fact promised that "even more upsetting" materials would be offered to the students in subsequent classes. That's when other parents began to look into the situation, finding that the problem was widespread and not just a matter of one book, class or teacher.
FOIA requests were filed. A battle ensued between the parents and advocacy groups, which insisted that assigning error-ridden and one-sided materials to impressionable young people was educational malpractice, and the Newton school district officials, who repeatedly defended teaching from biased and factually-flawed in order to provide a "Arab point of view" and sharpen the "critical thinking skills" of the students.
For more on the CAMERA study, and the multi-year efforts by the parents and Newton residents to get school officials to respond to their concerns, watch this documentary produced by Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
APT Petitions the Newton City Council
As we discussed in our prior post, several years ago the Newton School District began removing some of the more egregious and academically unsuitable materials in use in the high school history curriculum.
For example, the problematic Arab World Studies Notebook was pulled and a number of online videos and handouts and articles taken from the sketchy internet sites were also removed.
But according to APT, school officials are reneging on their promises that "all offending Middle East curricula" would be removed until new materials, vetted by expert professionals, could be located or created. As noted in a recent APT post:
This prompted APT to file a "citizens petition" calling for increased transparently of the high schools' Middle East history curriculum. APT presented the petition to the City Council's Programs & Services Committee back in December. The committee reportedly claimed it wouldn't be able to act on the petition because "City Council does not have the authority to enact a school department ordinance."
"This promise proved to be false. APT's Public Request for Information revealed that the same sort of materials we had protested for over 5 years were still being taught by 4 teachers at Newton South."
However, the chairman of the committee did at the time allow for the public hearing to proceed during which dozens of residents spoke out about the "blatant falsehoods about Israel" being taught in Newton, and attempts by school officials to ignore the issue and to "sweep it under the rug."
One parent of a 10th grader noted at the public hearing that she decided not to send her son to Newton North because she was frustrated with the fact that there had been "no acknowledgement of the issue."
Another parent, Tom Mountain, who also serves as chairman of the Newton Republican City Committee, reportedly said that the School Committee was "consistently unresponsive about the matter" and asked by as "anti-Israel cabal" has been allowed to "fester in our schools as long as they have."
Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman reportedly didn't attend the City Council public hearing.
Last February, hundreds of Newton parents and residents protested against the Middle East curriculum at a rally in front of City Hall.
May 2nd "Middle East Day" at Newton North High School and Screening of Ismail
On May 2nd Newton North High School held its second annual "Middle East Day" during which the student body was allegedly "treated to an all-day, school-wide event dedicated in large part to anti-Semitic Israel bashing."
There are legitimate questions and concerns regarding the content presented during the day-long event, including with respect to the films that were screened.
But irrespective of what was actually taught to the students that day, it's completely inappropriate for the school to have decided to partner with, or to allow students to partner with, a "lightening rod" for the BDS movement and a well-known purveyor of anti-Israel propaganda via his website, Electronic Intifada.
In terms of the content itself, of particular concern was the screening of the 2013 film Ismail, which depicts a day in the life of Palestinian painter Ismail Shammout (1930-2006). According to a description of the film, it's meant to convey the struggles of a young man who tries to support his family after their "expulsion to a refugee camp in 1948 by Israeli forces."
It's well-worth watching this film (click here).
Most of it is actually, in my view, a touching portrayal of sibling love—after a thankless job selling cakes with his little brother at a train station in Gaza, Shammout faces his own death and struggles to save his brother after they wander into a minefield.
The film portrays the distressing conditions of the camp, giving the impression to viewers that Israel is solely to blame for Shammout's and his family's wretched life and distressing conditions. But the really shameful part comes in just the first few minutes—a reenactment which "grotesquely" conjures up for viewers "gruesome scenes of Nazi barbarism."
You can watch it and decide for yourself, but here's how APT describes it:
But now it's not only APT that's outraged.
"the opening scenes show actors portraying Jewish soldiers acting toward Palestinians exactly like Nazis actually acted toward real Jews. It is a disgusting 'Jews-as-Nazis' defamation, the same defamation that is hounding Jews out of Europe today and hectoring Jewish students on American campuses."
The director of the ADL's New England office and executive director of the JCRC jointly wrote a letter to Superintendent Fleishman requesting that he "publicly address" (underline in the original) the concerns of the Jewish community including by providing a "full accounting" of all the content used for the May 2nd event; clarification as to which students were recipients of this content; and an "elucidation of the process" by which the program was developed along with relevant "internal vetting procedures."
It's a positive development that the ADL regional director and the Boston JCRC decided to weigh in because, as we noted in our prior post, one of the problems in Newton and a key reason that it's been so difficult to remove the problematic teaching material in a timely way, is that these local Jewish organizations were less than helpful to the parents and advocacy groups than they might otherwise have been.
So now that the ADL and Boston JCRC appear to be more actively willing to join with the parents and grassroots groups, will the school committee be more responsive to the parents about what happened?
At the very least, the District really should provide an explanation for its appalling lack of oversight of the May 2nd event at Newton North. Given the assurances that Superintendent Fleishman gave the ADL and JCRC back in September 2017 that the District would be "responsive" to concerns over its curriculum moving forward, it's bizarre that there wasn't better supervision.
This is especially so because last year's inaugural "Middle East Day" reportedly featured a pro-BDS professor from Tufts University and an anti-Israel activist affiliated with Massachusetts Peace Action, a left-wing organization that supports BDS against Israel (the group reportedly issued a call to its members to attend the public hearing at City Hall last December to oppose the APT's call for increased transparency in the high schools' Middle East history curriculum).
So far though the District hasn't responded publicly to the June 11th letter from Boston's Jewish communal organizations.
June 2018 Newton Public School Committee Meetings
This past month, at several meetings of the Newtown Public School Committee, dozens of furious parents and Newton residents came to "express their disgust at the willful negligence" of the Newton School Committee.
Two videos of the presentations given at the meetings were prepared by APT.
It's worth watching them, both in terms of the powerful statements made and the reactions of the committee throughout. None of them have anything to say in response to the speakers, except to insist that each presenter keep to the three minutes of time allotted.
The first video features the presentations of some 7 parents and Newton community members who spoke at the start of the June 11th committee meeting, attended by some 70 Newton residents (15 people had reportedly asked to address the committee but Ruth Goldman, the committee chair, gave only seven the opportunity):
Most the presenters expressed their anger at being "lied to" by the Superintendent and the school committee—nearly all noted that "nothing has changed" and that the school officials were "going back" on promises that had been made.
Many also directed their anger at the District school officials for allowing the screening of the "slick propaganda piece" Ismail and for condoning the May 2nd "all-day Israel bashing festival" to be held at Newton North for the entire high school "where no pro-Israel arguments were allowed."
Tom Mountain, who spoke at the City Council Cambers last December on the issue, was particularly impressive, thundering his disgust by asking whether the committee has "any sense of shame" that it could screen a "monumentally inappropriate" and "blatantly antisemitic" film at the high school.
He also pointed out that the liberal ADL and JCRC, and not just conservative organizations like his own, have "opened up an investigation" into the District's teaching. Mountain also questioned "what sort of Jew" could stonewall the efforts to protect mostly Jewish teenagers from being taught anti-Jewish propaganda.
Many of the speakers also used their allotted time to lambast other aspects of the curriculum.
Martin Lurie, who identified as a longtime Newton resident, spoke about students "not feeling safe expressing their support for Israel" or "openly identifying as Zionists" on account of the exclusion of important information about the Middle East conflict. Lurie explicitly mentioned how terror attacks against Israelis are omitted facts in the curriculum, along with the necessity of the security fence to prevent them.
Steve Gerzof, who noted that he had grandchildren in the Newton high schools, referred to one of the biased books still in use. He asked: if the book is supposed to be "balanced and neutral" why are there 225 references to Palestinians source and only 3 to Israeli sources?
Aaron Shneider, a recent college graduate and alum of the Newton school system pointed out that the issue mattered so much to him that he was coming to speak to the committee even though it was his birthday. He asked whether during the May 2nd event students not only watched Ismail but also learned about the 800,000 Jewish refugees who were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries. It's a good question. He also demanded that the school district "stop using our taxes to fund your political correctness."
Also impressive was Karen Hurwitz who identified as a lawyer and educator. She noted that the District claims to be teaching critical thinking, yet is actually only providing biased material while presenting it as factual. She also offered to give them a five-page list of educational materials that they could use in order to "educate" rather than "inflame and propagandize."
In a moving presentation, Margot Einstein, 94, considered the "tireless matriarch" of the 7-year-long grassroots campaign to reform the Newton school curriculum, used her three minutes to demand the dismissal of School Superintendent David Fleishman and Committee Chairwoman Ruth Goldman.
According to those present, the committee refused to respond to any of the speakers. After the seventh presenter has finished, Goldman simply called for the next topic on the committee's agenda.
In the second APT video, a separate set of parents and concerned residents addressed the school committee at their last meeting of the year. Once again, the speakers lambasted the school officials for screening the film Ismail, which "portrays Jews as Nazis":
Charles Jacobs also delivered a helpful three-minute primer on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, which he rightly regards as "no less dangerous than the old one":
Several of the speakers identified as Jews from the former Soviet Union. In their remarks they noted how the anti-Israel propaganda being presented to the Newton school children was similar to the "false picture of reality" and indoctrination to which they were subjected to by the Soviet totalitarian regime.
These presentations were helpful is showing exactly how screening Ismail shortchanged the Newton students, particularly with its reenactment of alleged Israeli atrocities.
The reality, as several of the speakers mentioned, is that there would've been no Arab Palestinian refugee crisis had the Arabs agreed to the UN partition plan, like the Zionists did; had they not subsequently waged war against the fledgling Jewish state; and if they hadn't listened to Arab elites and military leaders who urged them to leave their homes (see our post which examines these points in greater details, New report: "false promises made by [Arab] leaders and political elites" created Palestinian Nakba).
Also notable from among these presentations at the June 18th Newton School Committee meeting was the final speaker's decision to transfer his allotted 3 minutes to the committee itself.
Identifying himself as a resident of Newton for the past 40 years, he came up with no notes and just asked the committee members a few simple questions: "Do you understand the concerns of the community? Why won't you engage in a discussion with us?" He then offered them an opportunity to respond.
Unbelievably, they all sat in stone-faced silence, refusing to address these queries.
As in the past, the degree of condescension and even outright hostility exhibited by these school officials toward the parents and Newton residents during these few minutes of the meeting is frankly shocking. As we mentioned in our prior post, it's indicative of a bewildering level of obstruction that can only be idiosyncratic to Newton Public Schools and probably has a lot to do with the particular individual school officials involved.
Statement Exclusive for Legal Insurrection from Charles Jacobs, Americans for Peace and Tolerance
I reached out to APT's Charles Jacobs to ask him about next steps that he and other Newton parents and concerned citizens were planning to take, and what lessons other communities nation-wide should take from their experience in Newton.
Jacobs offered these remarks via email:
"This is a national problem. The Jewish community is now pretty much aware of the problem on campuses where Jewish and pro-Israel students are under ideological assault by a leftist professoriate and a plethora of student groups, now tied together and lined up against Israel through the notion of 'intersectionality.'
But what the Jewish community is now only beginning to see is that the problem of anti-Israelism has moved on to the high schools. Curriculum mills run by leftists and Muslim groups with animus toward the West, Judeo-Christianity and Israel are producing curricular materials that easily slide into the classroom. CAMERA is now taking on the effort to get parents and students to report these biased curricula materials.
Some of this material is egregious and openly hateful. Most of it is just biased, as though someone took the pages of the New York Times and turned it into a curriculum. What we found in Newton is in both categories. And as with the campus problem, Jewish establishment groups are reluctant to enter fights that can be seen as opposing academic freedom and so, just as on college campuses, grassroots groups are the ones that have to raise objections.
In Newton, we have been fighting this for over 5 years. CAMERA produced an important scholarly expose of the Newton curriculum. But because of an outrageous event on May 2, when an all-day assembly was held and where students watched films produced by organizations tied to the Electronic Intifada, and where no pro-Israel voice was permitted, even the ADL and the JCRC broke their silence and joined those of us demanding change.
We are now looking into legal pathways to approach the problem. We are also making an effort to force the School Committee to hold a hearing focused on it. The good news is that we are fast gaining more and more supporters."
Back in February CAMERA's executive director Andrea Levin described the situation in Newton as "still fluid."
After the screening of Ismail and Newton North's decision to partner with Ali Abunimah for a school event this spring, that description is now an understatement. Despite promises from public school officials that a "Newton curriculum development team" would be creating a new Middle East curriculum and that educators would properly vet the "quality and context" of presentations used in its high schools, the recent developments highlight a disturbing degree of backsliding on these assurances.
That this is occurring only emphasizes the importance of parents and other concerned citizens being—and staying—involved in what is being taught.
Bottom line: Despite the public school committee's assurances, anti-Israel propaganda is still being spread to hundreds of Newton-area students. If anti-Israel materials and presentations can be promoted in Newton, a place with a large Jewish population, a Jewish School Superintendent, and a school committee largely made up of Jews, then it can happen anywhere.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman