House committee grills education officials on Jew-hatred in K-12 schools
David Banks, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, testifies before a House hearing on antisemitism in K-12 schools on May 8, 2024. Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats

‘What’s very concerning about these hearings is that we’re getting lip service but a lack of enforcement, a lack of accountability,’ said Rep. Elise Stefanik.

By Andrew Bernard
May 8, 2024

(JNS) — Members of Congress grilled education officials from New York, California and Maryland on Wednesday about “pervasive” antisemitism in K-12 schools.

Members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education repeatedly asked David Banks, the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, about a student-led rampage at Hillcrest High School in Queens that targeted a Jewish teacher.

“We suspended students. We removed the principal of the school. We engaged the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a deeper dive into the education of those kids,” Banks said. “What’s happening at that school now has transformed in significant ways. We’re not fully arrived. This is a work in progress.”

A Hillcrest graduate, Banks said that the teacher who was targeted after attending a pro-Israel rally decided to return to the school, which he called “one of the most heroic things I’ve ever heard.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), one of the committee’s leading voices challenging Jew-hatred in the U.S. education system, pressed Banks for reassigning the Hillcrest principal to another role within the city’s Department of Education rather than firing him.

“That’s concerning to me that you have him in a senior position,” Stefanik said. “What’s very concerning about these hearings is that we’re getting lip service but a lack of enforcement, a lack of accountability.”

“These rules and policies matter, whether it’s teachers, administrators or students violating the rules,” she said.

Stefanik also asked about an alleged incident at Origins High School in Brooklyn, where she said 40 to 50 students marched through the halls chanting “death to Israel” and “kill the Jews.”

Banks denied that the march and chants had taken place.

“We’ve done our investigation. We have found no evidence that there was any movement through the hall saying ‘death to the Jews,’” Banks said. “We have found no evidence that that actually happened, but we have found a wide range of deeply troubling antisemitic things that have happened at Origins High School.

“This is the one case that has troubled me the most, congresswoman,” he added.

A teacher and security officer at the school are suing Banks, the school and New York City for antisemitic harassment and retaliation. The two allege that Banks, the school and the city failed to prevent students from engaging in “a broad campaign of hate speech while on school premises.” 

Banks testified on Wednesday that several students were suspended at Origins but that he could not discuss ongoing litigation.

Lawmakers also heard from Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, which is the subject of a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law for violating the civil rights of Jewish students.

“Antisemitism is not pervasive in Berkeley Unified School District,” said Ford Morthel, who defended a teacher who created a slideshow about Oct. 7 that claimed that “for some Palestinians, ‘from the river to the sea’ is a call for freedom and peace.”

“We definitely believe that it’s important to expose our students to a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and if it was presented as a perspective, I do think it’s appropriate,” she said of the slogan. 

Earlier in the hearing she had said that “from the river to the sea” is antisemitic “if it is calling for the elimination of the Jewish people in Israel.” 

“I will also say that I recognize that it does have different meaning to different members of our community,” she said.

Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) said students repeat “from the river to the sea,” because their teachers tell them that it’s an acceptable phrase to use.

“You said earlier you thought this was antisemitic and you put this on a slide in the classroom, and then students go around the halls saying it,” Kiley said. “I don’t think there’s any anything surprising about that.”

Some Democrats on the committee questioned whether the Republican-led investigation into Jew-hatred was failing to address other forms of bigotry.

“We’ve also been unable to get any hearings on other forms of hate,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). “I’d ask Chancellor Banks, do you deal with other forms of hate other than antisemitism, like homophobia or racism? Do transgender students have a right to be safe in school?”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a former New York City schoolteacher who is one of the harshest critics of Israel in Congress, said his congressional colleagues are accusing teachers hypocritically. 

“I have members of Congress talking about teachers teaching hate. None of them have an education background, by the way,” Bowman said. 

“I work in Congress. When you go in the rotunda and you look at American history, you see colonists coming in and taking over America from the Native Americans,” he said. “There is no reference to the black people who built this country in our rotunda. But we’re scolding you about teaching hate.”

“Do you know how many black statues there are in the Capitol? Three,” Bowman added. “You know how many Confederate statues there are in the Capitol? 12.”

“I work in an institution that teaches hate—and with our policy,” he said.

Bowman also said that schools are failing to teach about “a part of the history where the Jewish people and Muslims and Christians lived together in harmony in the Middle East and different parts of the world.”

Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.), who chaired the subcommittee hearing, said that he hopes that the discussion will be an example for school districts across the country to address Jew-hatred.

“Hopefully it’s not only a wake-up call for your school districts, but to everybody that’s watching across America,” Bean said. “It’s 2024. There’s no place for this at all in America.”

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