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A Very Jewish Town Feuds Over Israel Like Only Jews Can

Newton, Massachusetts is one of the most Jewish cities in the United States, with Jews making up between 20-30% of the Boston suburb’s population. Newton is so Jewish that there’s a part of town with three synagogues in a one-block radius. Newton is so Jewish that its Jewish population is not only mentioned on its Wikipedia page but also on Urban Dictionary. Newton is so Jewish that people, without any irony whatsoever, call it “Jewton.”

Here’s another way Newton is so Jewish: It’s the site of a years-long, multidirectional feud about Israel, fought between Jewish activists, Jewish institutions, and the local public school district — where both the superintendent and the school board chair are Jewish.

With the new school year just underway, three local taxpayers have intensified their campaign against the district with a lawsuit that is ostensibly about the town’s compliance with public meeting laws — but which school leaders are convinced is really about getting the superintendent fired because of how his schools have taught Middle East history.

One school leader, who spoke to the Forward on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, defended the school’s track record of teaching such a fraught subject.

“We strive for balance and lack of bias, and we use really good sources and really good materials,” this person said. “I would suggest that anyone could stand up and say, ‘you could do a better job of this, next year you should use this piece of literature.’… This is deeply difficult stuff.”

“All we want to do is have the Newton schools teach objectively,” Karen Hurvitz, the lawyer for the Newton residents, told the Forward. “Teach correct historical facts, correct geographical facts, correct religious facts, and not preach political views to the students, which they have steadfastly refused to do.”

School leaders have argued that what exactly are “correct historical facts” when it comes to the Arab-Israel conflict are not easy to agree upon. But the long history of the Newton fight — including the publishing of school board members’ private information in ads in major newspapers, and the school’s years-long use of a Saudi government-tied textbook that claimed that Muslims discovered America centuries before Columbus — has left nearly everyone involved skeptical of the other sides’ intentions.

Jews against Jews

School board meetings, often sparsely-attended, staid affairs, are often crowded and angry in Newton, especially when delegations are organized by groups like Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a not-for-profit advocacy group based in a nearby suburb. APT supports Hurvitz’ lawsuit, and has led the charge for years against the curriculum and school leadership, especially Superintendent David Fleishman and the School Committee’s former chair Matt Hills and current chair Ruth Goldman, all of whom are Jewish.

At one school board meeting in June, speaker after speaker castigated school leadership and demanded Fleishman’s firing. Video of the meeting shows that during the 30-minute public comment period, the chair of the state Republican Party’s Jewish caucus asked what kind of Jews could allow Jewish students to be subjected to anti-Semitic materials, continuing to yell after his time limit expired. A 94-year-old Holocaust survivor accused Fleishman of lying to the city, holding up a sign saying “Transparency – Yes! Ruth Goldman – No!” The school committee was stone-faced and unresponsive during the public comment period; the anti-school group left as soon as the public comment period ended, leaving the school committee to talk to a nearly-empty room about teacher training and catchment areas.

Such incidents have also happened at city council meetings, despite the fact that, as the city council has reminded protesters, the council lacks the power to compel the school district to do anything. But that hasn’t stopped continued rallies by the protesters: At one in February, local radio host Jeff Kuhner proclaimed, “We’ve got to drain the swamp in Newton.”

Who teaches the teachers?

The trouble all started in 2011, when Newton South High School freshman Shiri Pagliuso read in one of her World History textbooks that “several hundred [Palestinian women] have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Israeli occupation forces.” Troubled by the passage, she brought her textbook, the Arab World Studies Notebook, to her father Tony. Angered by what he later described as the book’s “outright propaganda” against Israel, he complained. When he wasn’t satisfied with Fleishman’s claim that the textbook fostered “critical thinking,” Pagliuso brought the textbook to the attention of the mayor, the Anti-Defamation League, the Israeli consulate and Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

Fleishman did not reply to an interview request given to his assistant.

APT’s president is Charles Jacobs, the former director of the campus pro-Israel group The David Project. He also campaigned this year against a local synagogue’s interfaith event featuring a speaker from the United States’ most prominent Muslim civil rights group, CAIR.

“What we found in Newton was pretty shocking six or seven years ago,” Jacobs told the Forward, referring to the textbook and other materials as well. “The teachers got all this stuff, it got a Harvard hekhsher, so how can it be anything but perfect? And they brought it into the schools.”

Indeed, the school had accepted the textbook based on the recommendation of Paul Beran, the director of nearby Harvard University’s Middle East Outreach Center, who led a teacher-training program.

But the textbook praised by Beran had years earlier been heavily criticized by the American Jewish Committee for its overt support for the Palestinian narrative over the Israeli one, publishers’ ties to the Saudi government, framing of passages from Muslim religious texts as facts rather than culturally-relevant stories, and ahistorical claims, such as maintaining that Muslim explorers had discovered the New World first and intermarried with the Native Americans, which the director of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat called “preposterous.”

Both school district leadership and the local chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Community Relations Council have said that the schools were highly responsive to parent and community complaints, revamping the World History curriculum and removing the textbook and other offending materials.

But APT said it continued to receive more complaints from parents about the curriculum, including one handout that edited the Hamas charter to substitute the militant group’s criticism of Jews with “Zionism.”

So in fall 2013, it paid for a series of ads in local newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Jewish Advocate, highlighting offending passages and telling readers to contact Fleishman and Hills. Some of the ads contained Hills’ home phone number, and Hills told the Globe that he had received more than 100 calls, almost all from outside Newton and some in the middle of the night. Jacobs says he got the number from the School Committee’s website without knowing that it was a home number.

The ADL said at the time that the ads were inaccurate and “irresponsible.” Jacobs says the ADL was just “conflict-averse.”

APT discovered in 2014 that some teachers were in fact still using the Arab World Studies Notebook a year after the school said it had phased it out.

‘Middle East Day’

The Newton school system has stopped using the Arab World Studies Notebook to APT’s satisfaction. APT ran those newspaper ads only in 2013. But APT still uses the example of the Arab World Studies Notebook to criticize Newton’s schools, as in this 2016 YouTube video.

Indeed, the conflict between APT and the school system has shifted, but not resolved.

Now, the flashpoint is “Middle East Day” at Newton South. The 2018 event featured no supporters of the Israeli government and instead screened a short film depicting the expulsion of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

ATP, the ADL and the local chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council all criticized Newton for the lack of pro-Israel participants.

The movie “grotesquely aped the gruesome scenes of Nazi barbarism in ‘Schindler’s List,’ except with actors playing Jewish soldiers as the Nazis, and Palestinians as the Jews,” APT says on its website.

“The Middle East Day was really a Palestinian day,” ADL New England regional director Robert Trestan told the Forward.

Disgusted with the persistence of such attitudes in the Newton schools, Hurvitz filed her lawsuit on August 9, alleging that the school violated open meeting laws because the published minutes lacked the specific quotes from people speaking during the public comment period — many of whom were critical of the school leadership.

The district argued that the didn’t think they needed to do so because full video of all meetings is available on public access TV and on their website, but they agreed to update the transcripts going back to January.

The dog ate my contract

The anonymous school leader said the district has also already had to process over 10,000 pages of public records requests, with more coming all the time from APT and allied groups.

“We have a public school district to run,” the person said. “None of these people [filing requests] are parents.”

And the district will now have to produce many more documents, because Hurvitz has updated her lawsuit to argue that the school committee’s 2016 vote to extend Fleishman’s contract to 2021 also violated open meetings laws.

“Fleishman’s contract may be null and void,” Hurvitz argued in a press release.

Jacobs, who supports but is not a party to the lawsuit, told the Forward that he had five goals, including a new committee to vet Middle East-related curriculum materials, the school committee having “total transparency” with Newton citizens and a day of teacher reeducation akin to Starbucks’ recent day of anti-racism training.

“I want them to do a presentation to teachers and students on the new anti-Semitism — not the Holocaust, not Nazis, not skinheads, but the attacks on Israel, making Israel the Jew among nations,” Jacobs said. “They would do it if it happened to a black kid or a Latino or a gay.”

None of Jacobs’ demands included Fleishman’s firing, but the school leader was convinced that the protesters want his scalp, as well as the removal of Goldman, the school committee chair.

A national campaign

The leader said the school leadership is united in believing that they will outlast the controversy, because they have the support of most Newton residents and parents.

“It’s a very, small vocal group of people in Newton,” the school leader maintained. “Probably three quarters of the correspondence [we receive about the controversy] is from outside Newton and outside Massachusetts, and in some cases overseas, judging by the emails.” Many of the emails mention the Arab World Studies Notebook and other issues that the district says it resolved years ago.

Indeed, the Newton campaign has been picked up by national advocacy organizations with far larger support bases than APT, including the media watchdog CAMERA and the Middle East Forum think tank. CAMERA even published a book and launched a website last year to raise awareness of the issue. Many of these groups also share major donors with APT.

Jacobs and Hurvitz say local parents are too scared to publicly speak out in support of their efforts.

“Everybody who has a child in the Newton schools has been intimidated,” Hurvitz claimed. “They are worried about grades from the teachers, and they are worried about college recommendations.”

‘This is happening all over the country’

Indeed, APT is expanding its campaign against Newton Public Schools to take on what it sees as bias against conservatives. The organization’s research director, Ilya Feoktistov, published an article last month in the right-wing website The Federalist revealing FOIA’d emails between history teachers shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, trying to discuss how to balance maintaining the school’s standards of objectivity with teaching them ethical values.

“I’m finding it really difficult in the current climate to teach kids to appreciate other perspectives… How, exactly, do I ‘Teach students to distinguish between personal attacks and civil political disagreement’ when ‘policies’ are based on personal attacks, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.?” one teacher asked, adding, “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired for being a liberal propagandist.”

For this, Feoktistov compared the school system to his experiences growing up in the Soviet Union. The story was broadcast by “Fox & Friends,” one of President Donald Trump’s favorite TV shows.

The issues in Newton hinge on a fundamental question: Is it possible to teach about controversial issues in a totally objective and unbiased way?

“I think fundamentally, that’s profoundly difficult,” the school leader said. “This is deeply difficult stuff, and it’s nuanced. And I think the people that are having a lot of complaints, I would suggest that they aren’t nuanced.”

Jacobs says overt anti-Israel bias, not objectivity, is the main problem.

“This is happening all over the country,” he said. “Curriculum mills with an animus toward Israel, toward America, toward Judeo-Christian religion, with either radical-leftist or Islamist intent, are producing pedagogically correct, easily usable curriculum materials…. What we found in Newton, I believe, could be found in many, many, many schools.”

Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected]

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