In response to several anti-Semitic incidents, Americans for Peace and Tolerance (where I work) launched an extensive investigation into anti-Semitic bullying and harassment of Jewish, pro-Israel students by radical left-wing history teachers at Newton North High School in Massachusetts. The investigation is ongoing, with thousands of internal emails and other documents already obtained and examined under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. Thousands more are on their way.
We have previously published reports about misconduct within the Newton North history department. We've reported about how twelfth-graders at Newton North are taught lies about Israel in a class conducted by history teacher David Bedar. We also reported on an anti-Semitic hatefest at Newton North organized by some of those twelfth-graders during the school's annual Middle East Day, which featured Palestinian propaganda films screened by Ali Abunimah's Boston Palestine Film Festival.
Recently, we reported about an organized protest staged by Newton North history teachers against people and organizations in Newton's Jewish community who question the school's anti-Israel "lessons." In a widely read report in The Federalist, we also revealed how Newton North history teachers have coordinated to "call out" conservative students' opinions in their classrooms after the unexpected results of the 2016 elections.
History teacher David Bedar noted that he found it "really difficult in the current climate to teach kids to appreciate other perspectives." Another teacher vowed to feed her students "a constant drip of information that counters the Trump story of America." In a stunning statement, one history teacher rejected the need to teach objective facts altogether, writing that objectivity might be "the most effective destructive weapon against social justice."
Now, new information is emerging from internal communications we obtained under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, which points to a troubling and unreported pattern of harassment and discrimination against Jewish students by Newton North teachers. Here are four examples.
No Accomodations for Cancer
Two years ago, a Jewish student at Newton North — we'll call her Becky — was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer with a 60-70 percent survival rate, just before she was to start her junior year. Her parents moved her to Israel for a year of treatment by its amazing doctors. Becky wanted to attend a U.S.-accredited international school in Israel, because she wanted to graduate with her friends back in Newton after she got better and returned home.
In response to this plan, and to Becky's desire to take an AP class, Jonathan Bassett, the chair of the Newton North history department, stated: "This is, of course, somewhat ridiculous." He then wrote: "I'm not going to entertain requests … to take [a course] pass/fail, or any other modification." He finished with, "I'm not going to have them play the cancer card on me if it doesn't go well."
At Newton South, Newton's other high school, a more sympathetic attitude appears to prevail. An Israeli student was given the choice to take an entire semester of classes pass/fail simply because a visa issue forced him to miss a few days of school.
Bassett has been intensely hostile to community members concerned about anti-Israel bias in his school, telling teachers to "ignore the noise" and, in the words of a former school committee member, "wax[ing] poetic about this garbage," referring to the community members' concerns. Two years ago, Bassett dismissed a Jewish parent's concerns about anti-Israel and pro-Islam history lessons in class, telling the principal, "She has some mental health issues and is visibly unwell."
IDF Sweatshirt Reported to Police
Earlier this year, a Newton North history teacher had someone who apparently turned out to be a visiting former student reported to the Newton Police Department, because the former student came into the history office looking for a couple of teachers and happened to be wearing a sweatshirt with an Israel Defense Forces logo. The teacher felt that the former student represented a threat to the school.
Considering Police Investigation of Jewish Culture Club
In 2017, Newton North officials seriously considered having the Newton Police Department investigate leaders of the student Jewish Culture Club at Newton North over an internet post that might – or might not – have been written by a member of the club. A former teacher at Newton North demanded that school officials "[convene] a meeting with the leaders of the Jewish Culture Club … along with the Rabbi who works with them and their adviser … to discuss the post."
The dean balked at the "the thought of speaking to a group of students who may not be involved," but was "more than willing to set up a meeting with [since-deceased Newton Police] Officer Panica" and have the Newton Police Department investigate the online activity of Jewish Culture Club leaders. The Newton Public Schools' lawyer has been fiercely resisting our attempts to obtain the content of the post.
Allowing Swastika Cyberbullying
Swastikas have made several recent appearances as graffiti on the Newton North campus, and have even now gone digital. In August, a Jewish Republican Newton North parent described on Fox News how students at the school went to his son's Facebook page, photoshopped swastikas onto his son's hat in pictures of the son and his friends at a Donald Trump rally, and spread these anti-Semitic caricatures all over social media.
This seems to be a fairly clear case of anti-Semitic cyberbullying, according to the federal government's definitions of both anti-Semitism and cyberbullying. Yet, according to the parent, the school refused to discipline those responsible.
Tap on Wrist for Student Denying Genocide
Consequence-free Jew-hatred among Newton North students seems to play a significant role in the hostile environment for pro-Israel Jews at the school. Public records show that Bedar and some of his fellow history teachers at Newton North have repeatedly tolerated blatant and public anti-Semitic harassment by an out-of-control student. In January of this year, a student at Newton North, we'll call him "S," was deep into a year-long bullying spree against Jewish and Armenian students, which he waged in diverse contexts and imaginative ways. Among "S's" offenses, in the teachers' own words:
Here is the entirety of the reprimand that "S" received from Bedar for his anti-Semitic and anti-Armenian abuse:
When he represented Hungary [as part of Newton North's Model United Nations team], [S] made many anti-semetic [sic] comments because he believes that is how Hungary would act in the UN.
[S] denied the Armenian Genocide in conversation with NNHS students at MIT [Model United Nations] conference.
In [a] conversation [with a Jewish female student during lunch,] '[S] made anti-semetic [sic] comments while referring to the relationship between Palestine and Israel. When I asked about this yesterday, he admitted to saying them, but said he was joking.'
It is difficult to imagine a student who made racist "jokes" about any other minority being treated in such a casual and lighthearted manner. Because of the failure of the teachers to discipline "S," the student members of the Model UN club finally had to take the matter into their own hands. They voted him out.
[S], I'm trusting that you follow through with your promises, listen to my advice, and continue active participation in the [Model United Nations] club in an appropriate, respectful manner that meets expectations. Thanks for coming this afternoon and I'm looking forward to working with you in Model UN going forward.
Failure to Protect Civil Rights Is Legally Actionable
In 2015, a New York school district was forced to pay $4.48 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of "taking little or no action to address the pervasive anti-Semitic harassment" in its schools. Under United States civil rights laws, "deliberate indifference" from public school teachers to civil rights violations by students is nearly as repugnant as the civil rights violations themselves.
Some Newton North teachers and administrators, who have a legal duty to protect the civil rights of Jewish students, are themselves encouraging an anti-Semitic hostile learning environment through their treatment of pro-Israel Jewish students and by teaching lies about Israel, which may incite students against pro-Israel Jews and Israel.
During the Jim Crow era of the American South, local and state governments that should have protected civil rights seemed to be indifferent or hostile to pleas for those rights. It took federal intervention to provide protection to African Americans, and it may require the same for Jewish students in Newton, Massachusetts.
Whether through private action in the federal courts or through the enforcement powers of the Department of Education under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Jewish students of Newton North should, in principle, have the vast power and resources of the federal government to fight on their behalf against local government abuses. American Jews need to act with the understanding that freedom isn't free, and that rights are very often not self-enforcing.
Ilya Feoktistov is the executive director of Americans for Peace and Tolerance.