School district grilled by Congress accused of teaching one-sided lessons on Gaza

By MICHAEL STARR  The Jerusalem Post

MAY 14, 2024 20:05 Updated: MAY 14, 2024 20:53

                                                                              School district grilled at Congress clashed with parent over Gaza war lessons (photo credit: The Deborah Project)

One of the school districts that attended the Wednesday House Education & Workforce on antisemitism in K-12 schools congressional session is facing legal challenge from a parent over their refusal to provide full Israel-Hamas War lesson plan materials that a public interest law firm has charged as biased against Israel.

Parent Yossi Fendel and the Deborah Project petitioned the Superior Court of California, Alameda County on April 4 for full disclosure of a Berkeley Unified School District-sanctioned curriculum being taught to Fendel’s child.
The BUSD curriculum on the Gaza war is allegedly being withheld from Fendel’s review in violation of parental rights afforded by the 1998 Education Empowerment Act because the district knew that the material presented a “one-sided presentation of issues relating to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.”

BUSD Curriculum and Instruction Director Chris Albeck showed Fendel lesson slides in January, after months long correspondence with teacher Alex Day and the director, which Fendel said showed no balance, focusing on Israeli culpability.

The value-ladened language used in classes

One slide reportedly contained a list of vocabulary terms that included the terms “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “settler colonialism” but not “terrorism.” A slide on topics that were “okay to say” allegedly included statements such as “This is genocide” or “This is apartheid,” but disallowed “jokes about terrorism” or “jokes about suicide bombing.”

                                                                    School district grilled at Congress clashed with parent over Gaza war lessons (credit: The Deborah Project)

Other slides given to Fendel in February included the October 7 Massacre, but questions and prompts focused on the Israeli military invasion against Hamas, which was described as an “all out assault on Gaza.”
Students were asked “how difficult do you think the evacuation would be for civilians living in the northern part of Gaza?” and “Do you think that the Israeli government gave enough time for the evacuation?”

Other questions asked whether the Israeli government’s strategy to defend itself was effective, and asked students to explain how they felt about the amount of “lives lost or damage done to Gaza’s infrastructure,” but provided no prompts on the Israeli perspective.

“Do you think Netanyahu’s directions to the Palestinians are fair,” a lesson on a Rafah military operation asked.

One slide labeled “hostages prior to 10/7” included the capture of the mentally ill Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed in 2014 and 2015, but also included an Al-Jazeera graphic on security and terrorism prisoners describing Palestinian “political prisoners held in Israeli Prisons.”

Another graphic created by activist Sarah Epperson was entitled “Death toll reveals the scale of Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict'” which listed civilian and combatant deaths together.

A slide on ceasefire indicated that most American voters wanted a ceasefire, which the slide said was stopping the war, and said that no one in congress supports one. The slides did not detail the conditions that would be necessary for a ceasefire, such as release of hostages and surrender of Hamas.

Fendel had become concerned about the lesson plan after Day attended a November 15 school board meeting in which he demanded the need to “teach for Palestine.”

“We need to teach about Palestine, because what do we do if I’m in a history classroom talking about colonialism and a student says ‘does this apply to my family in Palestine?’ Am I to lie to them?” asked Day.

The filing against BUSD said that “The charge of colonialism is an extremely controversial, loaded term that is factually disputed (as well as wrong) and at a minimum impugns the Jewish history in and commitment to the land of Israel – a commitment which is central to the Jewish belief of Petitioner Fendel and his son, as well as a feature of their ethnic identity and ancestry.”

Since Fendel’s initial request in November, he was promised with the full lesson materials, but was later told by BUSD and the Ethnic Studies Department that the schools were “not at liberty to share the curriculum directly with families, as per the practice we use with all curriculum.”

“Respondent knew that the material it was using – and hiding from parents — is a one-sided presentation of issues relating to the conflict between Israel and Hamas that condemns the Jewish State’s exercise of self-defense, ignores and misrepresents the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and impugns Israel’s right—conferred by the United Nations—to exist as a ‘Jewish State,'” said the Deborah Project.

The lessons were vetted by BUSD. During the May 8 Congressional hearing, BUSD superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel told the taskforce on antisemitism that the district created its own curriculums, and included partnerships with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Consortium. The Consortium had previously advanced a California Ethnic Studies program that was panned by Jewish organizations.

Morthel was challenged by congress people on antisemitism in the school. According to a February complaint, an art teacher in Berkeley told her class of second-graders to write “Stop Bombing Babies” on sticky notes to be plastered by the door of a Jewish teacher’s classroom. The federal action filed by the ADL and Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law alleged that mobs of students had attacked Jewish students and had been asked what “their number is” in reference to the tattooing of Holocaust victims by the Nazis. Students have reported hearing calls to “kill the Jews” at schools. Prior to the federal action, a letter signed by 1,370 Berkeley community members about the harassment of Jewish students was sent to Morthel.

The superintendent said that since October 7 there had been nine formal complaints in the district, but that BUSD did not publicly share information about the action it takes against students and teachers in such situations. Morthel said that the complaints were not indicative of a pervasive antisemitism issue, and that students and teachers sometimes made mistakes.

“I hope to share the ongoing work we are doing at Berkeley unified to oppose antisemitism, Islamophobia and all kinds of hate, and to provide every student safe, welcoming and humanizing classrooms during these challenging times,” said Morthel. “As I’ve engaged [with] members of our Jewish community, some have shared painful experiences of antisemitism. Antisemitic incidents in our schools are not acceptable and they are not who we are.”

Deborah Project Legal Director Lori Lowenthal Marcus said that the problem of teachers inserting personal anti-Israel perspective into lessons has not been limited to BUSD, and has been a problem facing many schools in the US since October 7. The topic would not just be inserted in ethnic studies programs, but that she had seen anti-Israel bias inserted into world studies, math, and literature.

“In some ways it’s way worse at K-12 than in universities,” said Lowenthal Marcus.
Lowenthal Marcus said that at university most students know how to think, but in middle school teachers are authoritative and what teachers teach is perceived as facts. For Jewish students, the problem is compounded, because according to Lowenthal Marcus they are not just learning false information, but are ostracized by their peers and teachers.

Please click here to view the full article.