Over the past decade, the Boston suburb of Newton has been beset by controversy over how the conflict in the Middle East is being taught in its public schools.
The concern over anti-Israel bias in the school system began in 2011, when a Newton resident complained to school officials regarding the use of a supplemental text called The Arab World Studies Notebook, which contained “false and defamatory” anti-Israel sentiment. While the school board eventually removed the textbook, accusations and further evidence of anti-Israel bias within the school system have continued, reaching a fever pitch during a Newton School Committee hearing in late November 2018.
“Unfortunately, faculty and school officials haven’t been open and accountable to the public, including to parents,” Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA, an international fact-checking organization that monitors the media. “At a November public hearing, the school committee voted unanimously against transparency—that is, against allowing the public to know what materials are being used in the classroom.”
“What’s happening in Newton schools is part of a trend in public schools nationwide,” saidMiriam Elman, a professor of political science at Syracuse University
While the debate over how to teach the Middle East conflict has consumed this quaint Boston-area suburb, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Massachusetts, there has also been concern that the issues plaguing Newton are part of a wider national trend of anti-Israel sentiment seeping into high school classrooms across the country.
At a Jan. 28 event hosted by CAMERA at the Jewish Community Center in Newton, a panel of experts examined both the issues with curriculum in Newton, as well as other instances of anti-Israel bias in K-12 education that may be affecting younger students’ perception of Israel.
Miriam Elman, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and the new executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, said Newton is not alone in the use of anti-Israel materials within its school system.
“What’s happening in Newton schools is part of a trend in public schools nationwide,” she said.
In an article published in JNS in January, Elman and Levin noted that the anti-Israel ideologies are “trickling down” to high schools, which they term a “negative feedback loop.”
“Not only does anti-Israel hostility on college campuses influence the next generation of high school teachers, but these high school teachers are in turn sending kids up to college with a misinformed view of Israel,” said Elman.
One of the problems, she explained in her talk, stems from Title VI under the Higher Education Act, which provides federal funding for international-studies programs such as Middle East Studies departments found at universities throughout the country that have been accused of anti-Israel bias.
The campus watchdog group AMCHA Initiative published a list of more than 200 anti-Israel Middle East Studies professors at departments through the country.
“Young teachers, trained in humanities departments with an anti-Israel message, are taking those messages into public-school classrooms. The consequence is that, more and more, students are arriving on university campuses with grossly distorted views of the Jewish state,” said Elman.
As part of the Title VI’s requirements, “departments have to do outreach to K-12 as part of the program’s funding,” she added.
In turn, often these outreach programs to K-12 schools will sometimes include BDS groups or speakers.
‘Teachers use the Internet or workshop packets that are not vetted’
Elman pointed to one example in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where a voluntary workshop titled “Learning About Islam and the Arab World” was organized by the LA chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FORUSA), an interfaith organization that supports the BDS movement.
Similarly, in Newton, concern has been raised over the “Middle East Day” program, where BDS speakers and an anti-Israel film were screened, according to Levin.
Following the May 2018 “Middle East Day” program, the Boston chapter of Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote Newton Superintendent David Fleishman expressing concern over the “quality and credibility” of films and resources that were used.
“Unfortunately, when we recently reviewed what’s being taught in the classroom, we found demonstrably false and one-sided information with a clear ideological bent against Israel,” said Levin.
“We’re also very concerned that BDS-supporting guest speakers have been invited to address— unchallenged—large groups of students on school grounds. All the while, the superintendent is telling parents that any claims of anti-Israel bias are ‘baseless.’ It’s very problematic.”
Elman said oftentimes, what remains the most problematic are outside content and speakers.
She said that while textbook publishers are generally responsive to issues regarding anti-Israel bias found in their material, teachers, knowingly or unknowingly, will use anti-Israel materials in their classrooms.
“Often, materials teachers use from the Internet or workshop packets that are not vetted,” she noted. “Most teachers are unwitting participants in the negative feedback loop.”
As such, Elman said that efforts to combat anti-Israel bias need to start in the middle or high schools.
“Major Jewish organizations were slow to recognize and respond to anti-Israel activity on college campuses. My fear is that, once again, they’re not adequately responding to this negative feedback loop that is occurring between high school and college,” she said. “It’s the new frontier in anti-Israel activism. Newton is a case study of it.”