CHICAGO (JTA) — A high school district with a large Jewish population has withdrawn its recommendation of an optional training opportunity for teachers called "Teaching Palestine" after local teachers, synagogues and national organizations protested.
The training was one of several offered to high school teachers in a section of north suburban Chicago. One of the schools, Niles North High, is the primary high school serving Skokie, a local Jewish population center.
"The course presented an extremely one-sided view of a very complex situation," said Rabbi Ari Hart of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue. By using the phrase "occupation of Palestine," he said, the course's language implied "that a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland is illegitimate."
The training opportunity does not offer continuing education credit, does not depend on accreditation from a school district and is open to teachers throughout the Chicago area, according to one of its designers, who characterized it as more of a discussion group. The training will still take place.
Offered by a group called Teachers for Social Justice, the course was open to "critical educators who want to teach about Palestine and the Palestine liberation struggle," according to a May 22 email to teachers obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It promised to teach both about how to develop curricula on Palestinian history, as well as how to counter objections from Zionists.
The email said the course also said it would draw connections between Palestinian issues and race relations in the United States.
Its objectives included "Develop a deeper understanding of the history and current political context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Palestine liberation struggle" and "Discuss concrete strategies for how to respond to Zionist Professional Developments and curricula or when parents/staff/others object to anti-Zionist curriculum."
The course said it would use Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization that supports the boycott Israel movement, as one resource.
The school district covering the high schools, Niles Township 219, has withdrawn the course after some local rabbis raised alarms and some parents, staff and others objected. Two Orthodox synagogues in Skokie, Or Torah and Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue, mobilized members to call the school to object. Two national pro-Israel groups, StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, also sent out notices to members about the course.
Hart said dozens of Skokie community members complained to the school.
"When you talk about how to deal with students who believe in the right of a Jewish state to exist, when they are targeted in that way and presented as a problem to be dealt with, that makes students and faculty feel unsafe," he said.
Hart also spoke Thursday with the district superintendent, Steven Isoye, and its director of equity, La Wanna Wells. Later that day, the district released a letter announcing the withdrawal of the recommendation for the course, and said it will work on a more rigorous set of standards for professional development courses.
"We recognize that without multiple perspectives surrounding this topic, we created a sense of exclusion by including this offering," the letter said. "We will continue to strive to create an equitable place of learning that allows each and every student to feel safe. We recognize the need to work collectively to educate each other on the cross-cultural, religious, political and socio-economic issues that impact our world."
Teachers for Social Justice did not respond to a request for comment. But its website says the Chicago-based group views teaching as inherently political. Other courses the group is offering this summer focus on racial justice in the United States and "US Imperialism's Impact on Honduras."
"[W]e must recognize and accept our role as either confronting the social, political, and educational inequities within U.S. school settings, or continuing to reproduce the oppressions in our current society," its "About Us" page says. "We stand for confronting these inequities. Neutrality is not possible. We understand that teaching is a political act."
An activist who took part in creating "Teaching Palestine," Lesley Williams, said that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is acknowledged by the international community, and that Palestinian students have said they do not feel that their perspectives are represented at school.
"We were hearing from teachers and also from students that they didn't feel Palestine was being actively covered in the curriculum," said Williams, an activist with Chicago's chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. "It's not as though the existence of these human rights abuses or the existence of the occupation is purely a partisan issue. These are facts that can't be denied."
Teachers at Niles North said students and faculty have repeatedly heard anti-Israel messages at school programs. A teacher told JTA that multiple speakers who were brought to the school to discuss various topics ended up criticizing Israel for oppressing Palestinians.
"There's an increasing amount of anti-Semitism events that have been happening," said a teacher who asked to remain anonymous, so as not to be publicly identified with the controversy. "I think that it's very concerning that this is kind of an insidious thing that's been increasing over the years."
The school is diverse, teachers said, with its 2,000 students speaking approximately 100 languages. It also has long had a large Jewish student population. But teachers said Israel was never an issue until this year.
"It's a school that has everyone — Jews, Muslims, every denomination of Christian you can imagine," said Aaron Minkus, a history teacher and faculty sponsor of the Israel Club for students, which he said focuses mostly on cultural events. "It's a rainbow, it's the United Nations, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, I'll be honest, never reared its ugly head."
To head off future issues of this kind, the district will be convening a working group of eight administrators and faculty over the summer "to establish a set of guidelines our schools will use to vet potential speakers before they come to our schools, as well as to vet potential professional development opportunities shared by the district," Jim Szczepaniak, the district's director of community relations, wrote in an email.
Hart said the administrators sounded sincere in wanting to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for their students.
"I think schools should focus on serving their students and on creating fair and equitable learning environments for each and every one of their students," he said. "In the context of a class on world history, I would expect that educators are provided with a variety of viewpoints and with nuanced materials, and allow their students to be exposed to many different views and ideas."