Teaching High School Students to Demonize Israel

As a wave of anti-Israel hate spreads from elite college campuses to public high schools, some Massachusetts parents wanted to fight back. But they were not joined by the major Jewish organizations. What happened in Newton?

By Liel Leibovitz|July 18, 2019 8:59 PM


Shortly after Rosh Hashanah of 2011, Shiri Pagliuso, a Jewish ninth grader at the Newton South High School, came home with an awkward question for her father. She had learned some things about Israel in school, she said, and she wanted to know if they were true. For example, she asked if it was true that Israel was systematically torturing and killing Palestinian women.

Her father, Tony Pagliuso, pressed her for more information, so the young woman produced the handout she was given at school, titled the Arab World Studies Notebook. In it, Pagliuso found the following line [1]: “Over the past four decades, women have been active in the Palestinian resistance movement. Several hundred have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Israeli occupation forces.”

Pagliuso, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, was alarmed that such claims had somehow found their way into the curriculum of a public school. He called his daughter’s teacher, Jessica Engel.

“I fully expected when I called that I would be told, ‘Jeez we didn’t catch this and this shouldn’t be in the curriculum,’” he told [3] an interviewer shortly thereafter. “This was my full expectation. I was very wrong.”

Instead, according to Pagliuso, Engel informed him that the material was wholly appropriate. Pagliuso called the head of the school’s social studies department, Jennifer Morrill, only to hear a similar message. (Neither Engel or Morrill responded to a request for comment.)

Pagliuso finally managed to secure a meeting with the principal, Joel Stembridge. In an email to Tablet, Stembridge said that the book was not formally being taught; it was a reference available for teachers. In any case, according to Pagliuso, at the time Stembridge told him not only that the book was legitimate for use, but that the following year his daughter would study “some things that are going to be even more upsetting to you about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

In October of 2011, Pagliuso shared his frustration with a local newspaper, sparking the interest of a 93-year-old Newton resident named Margot Einstein. Together with a handful of other parents, they started looking into what the town’s schools were teaching. The ninth graders, they found, were learning about the ancient world, which included a unit on Islam, a subject taught largely via the Arab World Studies Notebook, which the school district had purchased for use in the 1990s. In addition to the claim that Israel was murdering and torturing Palestinian women, the Notebook included a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, containing the following lines, directed at Israel: “The usurper’s flesh will be my food/Beware—beware—of my hunger.”

As it turned out, the Arab World Studies Notebook received funding [4] from the government of Saudi Arabia, and, as Einstein soon found out, the Newton history teachers were receiving training workshops from prominent anti-Israel critics, including Paul Beran—then the director of the Outreach Center at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which also receives [5] generous Saudi support—a leader [6] of the BDS campaign against the Jewish state. Eighty Newton public school history teachers, from the elementary schools on up, took Beran’s workshop on teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The 10th grade students, focusing on modern history and including a unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were being introduced to the Hamas charter redacted to exclude the most inflammatory anti-Semitic clauses; materials that identified Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; a map of Jerusalem that referred to the Old City’s Jewish Quarter as a settlement; and a discussion of the one-state and two-state solutions, both containing nothing but voices critical of Israel. There was no mention of Palestinian wrongdoing, they noted, nor any attempt to present Israel as anything but a malevolent occupier of Palestinian land.

Einstein and her fellow activists took these issues to the school board, which, almost immediately, went on the defensive. Matt Hills, the Newton School Committee vice chair, told [7] The Jewish Advocate that Einstein represented only “a tiny, tiny number of people” whose concerns focused on “some unidentified bias.” The real issue, he concluded, was that “academic freedom is at stake, and by the way there’s not the slightest notion that there’s a problem with the curriculum.”

Wondering what other objectionable materials the curriculum might contain, the group of citizens asked the Newton School Committee to make it public, arguing that as residents of the town and taxpayers they had a right to know what was being taught to their children. The school committee refused.

A great deal of attention is being paid to the growing anti-Israel atmosphere on college campuses. But anecdotal evidence suggests that high schools may be the next frontier in the effort to turn American educational institutions into hotbeds of advocacy critical of the Jewish state. Efforts to politicize the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict are already under way in Skokie, Illinois [8]; Charleston, South Carolina [9]; Manhattan [10] and elsewhere. And as some residents of Newton came to realize, what makes fighting back against these efforts so frustrating is the fact that the legacy Jewish institutions that have traditionally represented the community in such cases now find themselves at a loss, reaching out to school districts and local governments once stacked with allies and finding instead a new and alarming hostility. More than anything else, perhaps, the story of these recurring struggles over what America’s public school students learn about Israel is the story of a difficult choice the organized Jewish community has to make: either engage in a fight against anti-Jewish prejudice, or become part of the problem.

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At some point in Newton, Hillel Stavis, one of the community’s concerned members, insisted that he had the right to inspect the curriculum taught in a school paid for by his tax dollars. In response, principal Stembridge wrote back, on May 15 of 2012, and replied that putting together the relevant files will cost Stavis a pretty penny: “We estimate it will take teachers 5 hours for search and segregation time to review available hard copy and electronic artifacts,” he said.

In an email to Tablet, Stembridge denied this. “I don’t remember this at all – I doubt that it came directly from me, as these types of requests don’t usually go through me; they are handled by the city’s legal office, pursuant to the state law regarding public records requests.” But an email [11] obtained by Tablet does indeed show Stembridge, writing from his official school email address, asserting this point. “As there are 17 teachers who fall under your request, this yields 85 hours,” he wrote. “Pursuant to the rules and regulations of the Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records, the average hourly rate for the lowest paid employee capable of performing the task of segregation—in this case the teachers themselves—is $42.86. Total search costs will therefore be at least $3,643.10. We would then provide hard copies of these documents at 20 cents per page. If you wish to proceed with the request … we will require a check in the amount of $3,643.10 payable to the City of Newton to begin the search and segregation of these documents. We will await word from you on whether or not you wish to proceed with this request.”

Before Stavis even had a chance to reply, however, Matt Hills issued another order. “As a matter of policy,” he wrote in an email [12] dated July 8, 2012, “we have asked … the [Newton public school] team not to collect and disseminate curriculum information for this or any other course other than to the extent it is normally distributed to students. We do not feel there is any policy issue involved  (i.e., a systemically biased curriculum) and will not start down a path that could politicize curriculum decisions.” Even if someone was to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the materials, Hills concluded, the school system was still forbidden from handing out any materials.

By now, the issue was gaining traction among Newton parents, and a second group, calling itself PENS—Parents for Excellence in Newton Schools—became involved as well. In July of 2012, the group met with Ann Frederick, the town’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. According to a letter [13] they sent to Frederick shortly after the meeting, the deputy superintendent allegedly said that “assigning material with incorrect information, even if the purpose [of] using that material is to present supposedly factual information to students, could be beneficial because it would sharpen students’ critical thinking skills.” Also according to the letter, Frederick dismissed the parents’ concerns and suggested that anyone unhappy with the curriculum find another school. (Frederick did not reply to a request for comment.)

Alarmed now not only by the narrow facts being taught but also by the justification on the part of school representatives for teaching knowingly wrong facts, the complaints gained some traction: Even before Frederick met with representatives of PENS, her boss, Superintendent David Fleishman emailed [14] a concerned parent and promised that the Arab World Studies Notebook would no longer be used.

Except that turned out not to be the case: The textbook was taught again the following fall. At this point, a third group of concerned citizens, Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), joined the fight as well. It was formed by Charles Jacobs, a Newton resident and veteran pro-Israel advocate who spent two decades fighting to end slavery in Africa. Jacobs initially hoped, he said, that the school system would apologize for this error in judgment, remove the offensive material, and move on. When it refused to do so, he decided to turn to the heavy guns: the community’s battery of official Jewish organizations.

Their reaction surprised him even more.

“I showed the ADL, the JCRC, and the AJC much of the materials we had got our hands on,” he said. “I tried to talk to them. From the start, they were adamant in not wanting to take this on.” The officials, Jacobs added, said that confronting the school system might appear as if the Jewish community was trying to stifle academic freedom; besides, they argued, the problem wasn’t as bad as Jacobs made it out to be.

Disheartened, Jacobs teamed up with Einstein and her group and decided to continue to fight this battle. In October of 2013, APT published an ad in local Jewish newspapers that asked, “What are Newton Students Really Learning?” The ad also called on concerned citizens to call both the mayor’s office and Matt Hills, and provided the phone number listed on the City of Newton’s website. Unbeknownst to APT, the number Hills had publicly listen on the site was his home number, and its inclusion struck many in the organized Jewish community as having crossed a line.

Temple Emanuel, a large Conservative congregation in Newton where Matt Hills’ wife, Lisa Hills, serves as an officer [15], issued a scathing letter [16] on Nov. 1, 2013, arguing that the Hills family “has been constantly harassed with phone calls coming at all hours of the day and night, including the middle of the night, all in response to the incitement of the ad.” The Torah, the letter went on, “commands us not to stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is being shed. … That is not love of Israel. That is not Judaism.”

Five days later, every major Jewish organization in Boston joined in, taking issue not with the school system’s behavior but with Jacobs and his colleagues.

“Based on a careful review of the materials at issue by ADL and JCRC,” read a letter [17] dated Nov. 6, 2013, “there is substantial reason to believe that the allegations made in the ad are without merit. The ad misinterprets certain elements of the materials and lacks reasonable context. The Newton School Committee and its leadership have been responsive, and have addressed the questions posed to them in a thoughtful, constructive way. In contrast, the ad’s sponsor declined our invitation to explain the allegations and answer questions about them, a decision that we regret. We trust that this is reassuring to members of our community and that claims made against members of the Newton School Committee can now be put to rest.”

The letter surprised Jacobs, who claims that he had previously offered the ADL and the JCRC to both review his sources and speak to relevant students and parents concerned about this curriculum. Contacted this week for comment, a JCRC spokesperson replied: “The 2013 letter that JCRC signed together with other organizations speaks for itself, including the statement that there was a ‘careful review of the materials at issue.’” Todd Gutnick, the ADL’s senior director of communications, replied that “Our letter of November 2013 speaks for itself.”

Jacobs was also suspicious of the assertion that the ADL and the JCRC had conducted anything resembling a careful review, seeing as they did not reach out independently to any of the people originally involved in bringing this subject to light. A Newton resident had filed a FOIA request and, in December, received confirmation [18] that no one associated with either organization—or, for that matter, with any other major Jewish organization in Boston—had ever even asked to see the curriculum.

Reluctant to give up on the community’s biggest organizations, Jacobs decided to try again. On Feb. 26, 2014, he met with Jeremy Burton, the CEO of Boston’s JCRC, bringing along a parent who prefers to remain unnamed and who walked Burton through her child’s experience with the curriculum. The next day, Burton emailed [19] to thank Jacobs. “Thanks much for the meeting,” he wrote. “It was incredibly helpful and I’m grateful to you for bringing me and ‘Esther’ together. As discussed, I’d like to receive a copy of the full curriculum from her … before we discuss next steps on action.” Burton received the curriculum shortly thereafter; but, Jacobs said, in a phone call two weeks later, Burton apologized and said that his board would not let him proceed and take issue with the school system’s behavior. Jacobs refused to speculate as to why that may be the case. According to a JCRC spokesperson, “Esther” was not willing to provide her real name to the JCRC, and therefore could not be considered a credible source.

Regardless, a few months later, on June 6, 2014, the ADL and the JCRC issued another joint statement [20], this time attacking APT directly. “Over the last 2 years,” it read, “there has been a campaign of criticism—dominated by unfortunate innuendo and accusations that proved unsubstantiated by actual evidence—directed at the Newton School Committee over its supposed anti-Israelism, or embrace of anti-Semitism. The most prominent campaign has been waged by an organization named Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), in the form of a series of advertisements in local papers and in op-eds questioning not only the content of the Newton curriculum, but the integrity of several prominent leaders in the Jewish community.” APT, the latter continued, was blowing things out of proportion, while the school district was being responsive and responsible. “After two years of sustained media attention, and continued invitations to parents and students to come forward with any concerns, the ‘evidence’ that has been provided and the facts as presented in Newton have still not substantiated the level of hyperbole and innuendo that has tarnished our community,” the letter concluded. “The leveling of accusations ought to take place considerably more scrupulously than has occurred in connection with this matter. Careful, responsible, and civil discourse is far preferable to exaggerated or misleading accusations that are unsupported by the facts.”

That might’ve been the end of the affair, if it wasn’t for Steve Stotsky, a senior analyst with the pro-Israel group CAMERA. In June of 2017, Stotsky published a 109-page monograph [21] that not only discussed the innate bias of the Notebook textbook and the additional materials already known to parents in Newton, but discovered numerous other errors and omissions as well. For example, an eight-page timeline, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that Israel entered Lebanon in 1982 to counter attacks by Hezbollah; in reality, the IDF began its operation to fight against attacks by the PLO. The timeline contained other problematic statements as well: The only violent attack against civilians in Israel or the Palestinian territories it included, for example, was the massacre by Jewish Kiryat Arba resident Baruch Goldstein of 29 Palestinians in 1994. No Palestinian terrorist attacks or organizations were mentioned.

“Many of the materials used to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in Newton’s public schools, Stotsky wrote, “were marred by biased historical accounts [that] favor fringe perspectives at the expense of mainstream historians and include mainly unscholarly sources presenting distorted and incomplete information.”

The Stotsky report generated new interest in the case, compelling Burton and Robert Trestan, the ADL’s New England regional director, to meet with Superintendent Fleishman in September of 2017, a meeting also attended by the history department chairs of both of Newton’s high schools, Jen Morrill and Jon Bassett. (None of these school officials, including Fleishman, replied to Tablet’s request for comment.)

At the meeting, according to a letter [22] Trestan sent Fleishman the following month, and which was obtained by Tablet, the superintendent again promised that the problematic curriculum was a thing of the past, and that a new one was forthcoming. “We were pleased to learn,” Trestan wrote in his letter, “that the District made the determination prior to the 2015-16 school year that the Middle East curriculum should be changed, and therefore the materials and subject were not part of the World History class during the last school year. We understand from our meeting that until a new curriculum is developed, this subject and the previously used materials will not be taught in World History.”

Ilya Feoktistov, APT’s executive director, did not feel particularly inclined to take Fleishman at his word, and filed another public records request on Feb. 21 of 2018. This one, too, revealed [23] that many of the offensive materials were still in use. The request also unearthed an email [24] from Bassett, the chair of the History and Social Sciences Department at Newton North High School, to his colleagues teaching history at the school. “You should not change a thing in your teaching,” it read. “Keep doing what you do, and ignore the noise. We continue to enjoy the full confidence and support of our Superintendent, School Committee, City Council, and public.” Morrill, his counterpart at Newton South, sent an email [25] of her own, vowing to continue to teach the same “thoughtfully chosen materials.”

Dialing up the case’s already high temperature, Newton North introduced a new senior-level course in 2017 covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The course’s teacher, David Bedar, also helped run a program called Understanding and Celebrating the Middle East Day at the high school; in 2018, he invited Ali Abunimah’s Boston Palestine Film Festival to screen a movie portraying Israeli soldiers brutally beating Palestinians while forcing them on endless marches. Abunimah is a vociferous critic of Israel’s right to exist who has tweeted [26] that “supporting Zionism is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit.”

The screening was too egregious even for Burton and Trestan, and the two wrote a letter [27] asking Superintendent Fleishman for clarifications. Fleishman wrote [28] back on July 3 of 2018, again defending the school system’s commitment to critical thinking and citing the ADL and JCRC’s letter from 2017 noting that the system was not guilty of bias. Still, Fleishman promised to update the school’s procedure for inviting outside speakers to ensure greater oversight. Trestan and Burton replied [29] in a cautious note that thanked the superintendent for his efforts. “We are pleased that you plan to create and disseminate a clear document to explain to the larger school community about how and why the schools teach about complex and controversial topics,” went the letter. “Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of any service in this process or any others. We would welcome serving as resource for the Newton Public Schools and look forward to continuing our work together.”

Contacted this week for comment, a JCRC spokesperson replied: “At no time between February 2014 and May 2018 was JCRC contacted with such materials by any parent who was willing to share with us, even in confidence, their name, or to otherwise enable us to verify that they were in fact a Newton parent. In June 2018, following the event known as Middle East Day, JCRC was contacted by parents and students at Newton North High School. Our record of public engagement since then speaks for itself.”

Feeling, Jacobs said, as if they’d run out of options, Newton residents organized under a new group called Education Without Indoctrination (EWI), led by attorney and Jewish civil rights advocate Karen Hurvitz. EWI filed a petition [30], calling on the town to adopt a policy of transparency regarding its curriculum, properly vet materials on controversial subjects, and allow the public access to materials taught in public school classrooms. On Nov. 27, 2018, the school committee held a public meeting at the Seasholes Auditorium at Newton South to discuss the petition.

“The Newton South High School auditorium filled to capacity before the hearing began,” reported [31] the local NPR affiliate. “Most attendees wore red stickers that said ‘Support Newton Values.’ Hundreds of current and former students had signed a letter in defense of their teachers and most parents spoke against the petition.” The report portrayed Jacobs as an extremist, quoting from a letter, published in December of 2017 by the JCRC and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and accusing Jacobs and APT of being “the true face of extremism in our community” and “purveyors of hatred and division” who “engage in outrageous attacks on communal institutions and individuals involved in the important work of building relationships among Boston-area Muslims and Jews.”

The radio station also interviewed students sympathetic to their teachers and supportive of the curriculum. “Finn Flaherty,” it reported, “who graduated from Newton North last year, said he was disappointed the hearing was even taking place. ‘We are a de facto segregated city with real problems, and here we are indulging in attempts to punish our teachers for taking a risk to provide a quality education to their students.’”

But not all students received such an attentive hearing. In a March 25, 2019, meeting of the Newton School Committee, two current Newton South students, Joshua Avraham Erani and Joseph Rasamat—both active in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization’s fraternity, AZA—asked to speak and make themselves heard. Reading nervously from his cellphone screen, Erani shared [32] his own experiences being exposed to the contested curriculum, and said he felt high school should give him an education, not a political indoctrination. “I would like to know, specifically from Mr. Fleishman,” he asked, “I’d like to know what is being done, what concrete steps are being taken to make sure that bias like this is not forced on students again.” For a few long moments, there was silence. Then, a spokeswoman for the committee delivered her verdict: “There’s no response,” she said. Erani spoke for another minute, and then was interrupted mid-sentence and told that his time was up. Rasamat didn’t fare much better, speaking quickly to meet the allotted time frame and receiving no response as well.’

For his part, Stembridge stands by the way things were handled. “Whenever a parent objects to curriculum we have a process that we use to review the material in question,” he wrote to Tablet. “I can tell you that we agreed with Mr. Pagliuso, and removed the article that he was concerned about from use in our school (this was prior to the decision about the remainder of the Notebook). If anything, this was an example of the process working as it should: a concern was raised, we reviewed it, agreed with the parent raising the concern, and the materials were removed. I can also tell you that, in general, we believe it is our responsibility to engage our students in thinking deeply about the conflicts in our world, especially when there are confusing, multiple viewpoints in existence. We take pride in teaching our students not what to think, but instead to think for themselves.” Stembridge said the World Arab Studies Notebook was no longer being used.

But, according to Feoktistov, the curriculum otherwise remains largely unchanged-still containing most of the problematic elements he and other concerned parties pointed out.

And so, the controversy surrounding the Newton curriculum is far from over. On March 28, 2019, a group of Newton residents, represented by Hurvitz, filed a lawsuit [33] against the Newton School Committee, Superintendent Fleishman and others, arguing that the school system promotes stereotypes against Jews, a violation of the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution and the Massachusetts Student Anti-Discrimination Act. In a sign that the case is attracting widespread attention, an amicus brief was filed last month by a host of groups supporting the defendants, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “Plaintiffs’ efforts here evoke similar unfortunate efforts in our history such as the attempted suppression, through litigation, of public education about evolution, reproductive health, and LGBTQ rights,” read the brief.

The case is currently being heard in court. None of Boston’s storied historical Jewish organizations has yet weighed in.

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