House Republicans Clash With Leaders of Public Schools Over Antisemitism Claims

A Republican-led House committee turned its attention to three of the most politically liberal school districts in the country on Wednesday, accusing them of tolerating antisemitism, but the district leaders pushed back forcefully, defending their schools.

The hearing was the third by House Republicans to expose what they see as a pro-Palestinian agenda gripping schools and college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

During the contentious two-hour session, Republicans accused the district leaders — from New York City, Berkeley, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md. — of “turning a blind eye” to antisemitism.

Enikia Ford Morthel, the superintendent of Berkeley schools, acknowledged some incidents in her schools, but pointedly stated that “antisemitism is not pervasive in Berkeley Unified School District.”

And David C. Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, said the repeatedly hostile questions from the panel suggested it was trying to elicit “gotcha moments” rather than solve the problem of antisemitism.

If we really care about solving for antisemitism, and I believe this deeply, it’s not about having gotcha moments. It’s about teaching. You have to raise the consciousness of young people. And the challenge we have as a system is that we do have some adults who bring their own bias into the classroom. And we’ve got to figure out how do we unpack all of it at the same time. But the ultimate answer for antisemitism is to teach, to expose young people to the Jewish community so that they understand our common humanity. And I would certainly ask that to my colleagues from across the nation, and I would call on Congress, quite frankly, to put the call out to action, to bring us together to talk about how we solve for this. This, this convening for too many people across America in education feels like the ultimate gotcha moment. It doesn’t sound like people are actually trying to solve for something that I believe we should be doing everything we can to solve for.

“We cannot simply discipline our way out of this problem,” he said. “The true antidote to ignorance and bias is to teach.”

The hearing came about five months after a hearing on antisemitism in which the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania gave lawyerly statements, prompting an intense backlash that helped lead to their resignations.

But on Wednesday, Republicans did not appear to elicit similarly damaging moments.

Nor did the school leaders’ answers appear to prompt widespread anger back in their communities, as happened when Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia, testified before Congress last month. Her promise to crack down on protesters seemed to mollify Republicans, at least temporarily, but deepened discontent on campus.

A confluence of factors led to the muted outcome on Wednesday. The hearing was held by a subcommittee with an inexperienced chair, featuring only a cameo by Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the Republican who led the sharpest questioning of the university presidents.

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The school leaders also seemed prepared for questions that had tripped up the Harvard and Penn presidents.

When Representative Aaron Bean of Florida, the first-term Republican who led the hearing, opened with a series of rapid-fire questions — Does Israel have the right to exist as a Jewish state? Was the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel an act of terrorism? — the school leaders gave brief, affirmative answers.

He then moved on, saying he had “to boogie” to get through the hearing.

“Mr. Banks, does Israel have the right to exist as a Jewish state?” “Absolutely.” “Ms. Silvestre?” “Yes.” “Ms. Ford Morthel?” “Yes.” “Does — is the phrase, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ is that antisemitic?” “I think most Jewish people experience that as antisemitic, and as such, it is not allowed in our schools.” “You would say it is?” “I would say it is antisemitic.” “Ms. Silvestre?” “It is if the intent is the destruction of the Jewish people, yes.” “And it is. And it is, and so I would say I’d put you down as a ‘yes.’ You’re OK with that?” A ‘yes’?” “Yes.” “Ms. Ford Morthel?” “If it is calling for — sorry. “It’s a yes — you can just go yes or no.” “It is if it is calling for the elimination of the Jewish people in Israel. And I will also say that I recognize that it does have different meaning to different members of —” “I’m going to go ‘yes.’ I’ll put you down, ‘yes.’ I got a boogie because five minutes goes by so fast.”

Throughout, the district leaders were quick to condemn antisemitism and said that they had addressed antisemitic incidents in their schools through disciplinary measures and new teaching guides to combat hate.

Mr. Banks said that New York had removed or disciplined, or was in the process of disciplining, at least a dozen staff members and school leaders, including removing a principal in the middle of the school year.

The district has also suspended at least 30 students, has involved the police when hate crimes were committed, and has retrained all 1,600 principals on the disciplinary code, he said.

When antisemitism rears its head, I believe we must respond. And we have. We have removed, disciplined or are in the process of disciplining at least a dozen staff and school leaders, including removing a principal in the middle of a school year. We have suspended at least 30 students.

Republicans accused him of not taking strong enough action.

In one of the more heated exchanges, Representative Brandon Williams, Republican of New York, grilled Mr. Banks about an incident last fall at Hillcrest High School in Queens, where, officials said, students led a raucous demonstration against a pro-Israel teacher.

The Education Department removed Hillcrest’s principal in December. Under questioning from Mr. Williams, Mr. Banks acknowledged that the principal was still on the city payroll.

“How can Jewish students feel safe in New York City public schools when you can’t even manage to terminate the principal of ‘Open Season on Jews High School,’” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Banks, who graduated from Hillcrest in the 1970s, responded: “It’s not ‘Open Season on Jews High School.’ It’s called Hillcrest High School. That’s the name of the school, and at that school, we considered his leadership not strong enough to be the leader in that school.”

“Is the former principal at Hillcrest still drawing a salary from New York City public schools today?” “Yes, he is.” “I’m sorry. Can you say that again?” “I said, yes, he is. He is no longer the —” “You are still paying —” “He is no longer the principal of the school.” “How, how can Jewish students feel safe at New York City public schools when you can’t even manage to terminate the principal of ‘open season on Jews high school,’ or even endorse suspension of a student harassment? How can Jewish students go to school knowing that he is still on your payroll? Your payroll, sir.” “I know whose payroll it is, sir. And it’s not, it’s not ‘open season on Jews school.’ It’s called Hillcrest High School. That’s the name of the school. And at that school, we considered his leadership not strong enough to be the leader in that school.” “Wow, but he can still —” “He’s no longer —” “He’s still strong enough to participate in your school district? He’s still strong school to be on your payroll —” “As the leader of that school.” “Is he still strong enough a leader to be on your payroll, sir?” “Every one of the —” “Is that what you’re saying? You’re endorsing him to continue on your payroll because he has the moral authority to lead —” “Within our system.” “Is that what you’re saying, Mr. Banks?” “What I said is what I just —” “You’re saying that he still has the moral authority to be —” “I did not say that. That’s what you said.” That is what I’m asking you. You’re, you’re justifying his continuing employment. And I’m trying to challenge how can that be?” “He, every employee who works in our schools has due process rights, sir.” [laughing] “Due process.” We do not have the authority —” “There are egregious crimes —” “Just because I disagree to just terminate someone. That’s not the way that it works in our school system.”

Questioned again about why the Hillcrest principal had not been fired, Mr. Banks said that every employee in the school system has due process rights. Ms. Stefanik later forced Mr. Banks to acknowledge that the principal was still employed, in Mr. Banks’s words, on “one of the teams under one of our deputy chancellors.”

Ms. Stefanik also asked Mr. Banks about a New York City teacher who posted approvingly about Hamas on social media. Mr. Banks called the teacher’s posting “absolutely disgusting,” but refused to say what disciplinary action had been taken, if any.

Ms. Stefanik complained that Mr. Banks and other school leaders were paying “lip service” to the issue of antisemitism, and that there was “a lack of enforcement and a lack of accountability.”

Mr. Banks rejected that accusation. Overall, he said, the New York City school system has recorded more than 280 “incidents” since Oct. 7. About 40 percent have been antisemitic, he said, and another 30 percent were Islamophobic. He said that while the district “can’t prevent every incident from ever happening,” school leaders were doing their best.

He pointed to an incident at a Brooklyn grade school, where a map of North Africa and the Middle East did not include Israel, labeling it “Palestine.” Mr. Banks said that “to me, that’s antisemitic.” But he also pushed back on calls to fire the teacher, saying she acknowledged that she “made a mistake.”

Here’s the challenge. These things don’t always come down to so clear. yes and no. I’ll give you an example. We had a school where a teacher hung up a map of the Middle East that eliminated Israel from the map. So the question is, is that antisemitic? To me, that’s antisemitic, and we had it removed. But others have said, ‘Did you fire her?’ She said essentially, ‘I made a mistake. I didn’t intend it to be antisemitic.’ And she had a reason.

The teacher, Rita Lahoud, who identified herself as a Palestinian American, said in an email on Tuesday that she “felt abandoned and unprotected” by the city’s Education Department after news of the classroom map drew backlash on social media.

Ms. Ford Morthel, the superintendent in Berkeley, said Jewish students in her district had shared painful stories about antisemitism in their schools. But she refused to say whether any teachers had been fired in response to accusations of antisemitism.

Under questioning by Representative Kevin Kiley, Republican of California, Ms. Ford Morthel acknowledged that a group known as Liberated Ethnic Studies was a “thought partner” of the district. That group has put forth sample teaching materials that portray Israel as a settler-colonial entity and are strongly critical of the country.

Karla Silvestre, the school board president in Montgomery County, outside Washington, said the board was committed to fighting antisemitism, hatred and racism, but “I can tell you we haven’t gotten it right every time.”

Still, she said, the board tries to improve its responses, and starting this summer, Montgomery County will have “mandatory hate-based training” for all staff.

Some critics of the education system who attended the hearing said they were disappointed.

“I thought that the questions were not sharp,” said Lori Lowenthal Marcus, legal director of the Deborah Project, a group that has sued several California school districts, including Berkeley, for what it considers antisemitic bias in curriculum materials about Israel. “I thought that the people testifying were able to slide away.”

The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, accused Republicans of hypocrisy, pointing out that President Donald J. Trump spoke of “very fine people on both sides” after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

“If my colleagues cared about antisemitism, they would denounce and condemn these comments from the leader of their party,” Ms. Bonamici said. “Does anyone have the courage to stand up against that?”

After a pause, she said, “Let the record show that no one spoke up.”

Alan Blinder, Jacey Fortin, Heather Knight, Sarah Mervosh and Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on May 9, 2024, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Public School Chiefs Parry Antisemitism Claims.

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/08/us/house-gop-public-school-leaders-antisemitism.html

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