Note: A version of this article was published by the Jewish News Syndicate on June 18, 2019
Saint Ignatius of Loyola is alleged to have said “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Anti-Israel ideologues have adopted a similar strategy, targeting ever-younger age groups in their effort to turn Americans against the world’s sole Jewish state. The growing presence of anti-Israel units in America’s high schools and middle schools represents an ambitious extension of the campaign against Israel that has flourished on college campuses.
The unmonitored classrooms of America’s public schools present a tempting target for anti-Israel indoctrinators. With rare exceptions, the insertion of biased curricula occurs uncontested. Alert citizens who discover anti-Israel bias in classroom materials and bring them to the attention of school officials encounter bureaucratic indifference.
But remaining silent is not an acceptable option; the problem will not go away by itself. A forceful public response followed by relentless monitoring and engagement with school officials has been the only way to effectively contest anti-Israel bias.
Many are perplexed by the current educational climate and wonder how it came about.
Far-left activists have taken control of university humanities departments and schools of education, and imposed an academic orthodoxy that is receptive to anti-Zionism. The once prevalent image of Israelis as plucky Jews rebuilding their ancient homeland has been replaced by the bleak image of a militarized colonial-settler state infringing upon the lives of victimized Palestinians.
This transformation of Israel’s image was achieved by recasting the Jews as foreign invaders who expropriated Palestinian land to build a state. The Palestinian plight is analogized to civil–rights struggles in South Africa and the American South.
This transformation relies upon concealing documented history and misrepresenting Palestinian intentions. Students are not informed that the ultimate goal of all significant Palestinian political groups is to replace the Jewish state, not find a lasting accommodation with it. Students are left in the dark about the inculcation of generations of Palestinians with the belief that Jews are intrinsically villainous and cowardly. This hatred is expressed in Palestinian schoolbooks, in the official media, in sermons, at public commemorations and in children’s programming. The failure of school curricula to acknowledge this crucial element limits students’ capacity to understand why the conflict has been so resistant to resolution.
The altered history provided to students starts with the emergence of the modern Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century. The historical context on which Zionism is built is missing. The Zionists’ insistence on settling the territories of the Palestine British Mandate can only be understood in the context of the Jewish connection to the land that spans several thousand years.
Palestinian Arabs are portrayed as indigenous; Jews are not. The new account emphasizes that the Arabs outnumbered the Jews in the early 20th century, and that the Jews unfairly got a larger portion of the land (west of the Jordan River). Students do not learn that the Jewish population once numbered in the millions, and that Jews preceded the Arab presence by many centuries. It is not explained that the Jewish remnant residing among an Arab majority at the point in time that the account begins reflected the cumulative impact of prior expulsions, dispersal, massacres and centuries of depopulation due to neglect of the land under Turkish rule.
Skipping over the historic Jewish connection also allows teachers to dismiss the crucial role of religion in shaping and fueling the conflict. As a result, students are at a loss to explain why this relatively small conflict commands so much world attention. Anti-Zionist accounts circumvent this puzzling question by portraying Israel as a uniquely odious abuser of human rights.
Teachers, who have absorbed the anti-Zionist account from their college courses and from biased continuing-education workshops, zealously integrate units on the conflict into their courses.
Counteracting unscholarly, anti-Israel activity
The eight-year controversy in the Massachusetts city of Newton has served as a wake-up call for many. In 2011, concerned town residents contacted school officials to express their outrage following the discovery of an assignment at Newton South High School that falsely accused Israeli soldiers of imprisoning and murdering Palestinian women. The uncovering of other biased materials launched a campaign by concerned citizens to ensure that the Middle East conflict was being taught properly.
After school officials rebuffed requests for public scrutiny of classroom materials, citizens turned to the Newton School Committee for help. The School Committee sided with the school administration. Committee vice chair Matt Hills demeaned the concerned citizens and accused them of engaging in “McCarthyesque” behavior in a column published in a local newspaper (2012).
More recently, citizen complainants have documented a myriad of problems with an ideologically tainted senior elective course at Newton North High School. The course skirts Palestinian terrorism, obscuring the reasons for current Israeli security measures like the security barrier, travel restrictions and intrusive raids. There is nothing on the relentless stoking of Palestinian hatred towards Jews in Palestinian schools, media and general culture.
On Nov. 28, 2018 the School Committee called a meeting after a petition by citizens. But rather than hear the petitioners’ concerns, the committee turned the meeting into a rally for the course’s teacher, David Bedar. After Bedar and his supporters had their say, they staged a walkout without even bothering to hear the other side; this set a terrible example for the many attending students who obediently left at Bedar’s cue.
Requests for transparency of the classroom materials were depicted as attempts to impose censorship. At the meeting’s end, each school committee member read a prepared statement opposing transparency in school materials.
Newton continues to resist scholarly accounting, instead lending support to their teacher’s demagoguery. At the 2019 Newton North graduation ceremony, Bedar was the featured faculty speaker, where he ironically spoke of the importance of listening to diverse points of views.
There are examples from other school systems of success in counteracting unscholarly, anti-Israel activity.
In Brookline, a town neighboring Newton, school officials took citizen complaints seriously and made sure teachers did not bring inaccurate materials or follow politicized lesson plans. Teachers were sent to a seminar conducted by a vetted, mainstream academic at a local university to get a balanced perspective.
In Illinois teachers in School District 219 were offered a course on “Palestine and the Palestine liberation struggle” sponsored by the radical anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. It promised to “Discuss concrete strategies for how to respond to Zionist Professional Developments and curricula or when parents/staff/others object to anti-Zionist curriculum.” An immediate outcry from the Jewish community and from Jewish organizations compelled school officials to remove the course offering.
The Newton experience shows what advocates of factual, balanced history are up against. Younger Americans are susceptible to this falsified account because the events surrounding the establishment of Israel, including its early struggles to survive against overwhelming odds, has receded out of living memory. This effect is apparent in opinion polls that demonstrate declining support for Israel in each subsequent generation of Americans.
Parents remain in the dark about the indoctrination to which their children are subjected and will be badly shaken when they discover its consequences.