Anti-Israel activism at colleges and universities receives a lot of media attention and debate, typically surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The BDS debate typically includes a cast of players who are capable of speaking for and defending themselves, including student and outside groups on each side, video and adult witnesses.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that higher education is the only focus of anti-Israel activism.
I am active in researching and countering the academic boycott movement, and have written extensively about BDS at my own website and elsewhere, and also lectured on the history of BDS. One frequent complaint I hear is that by the time many students reach college, they already have been turned against Israel.
Yet it is much more difficult to document anti-Israel activism when it takes place prior to higher education. Such activities take place in schools to which access is limited, and the young students are not developmentally able to report on what happens.
But I have proof that it happens.
In the past year, I have investigated and documented anti-Israel activism in a third-grade classroom. It took a Freedom of Information Law request and almost a year of court litigation, but finally key documents and video have been released.
The school was the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, in Ithaca, New York, where I teach at Cornell Law School. Had I not lived in Ithaca, it’s unlikely I ever would have known about the event.
On Friday morning, September 18, 2015, the three third-grade classes jointly heard what was supposed to be a presentation on “human rights.”
The event was arranged by Ariel Gold, a self-described anti-Zionist activist who leads the Ithaca chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and is employed by the women’s antiwar group Code Pink. Gold is best known for disrupting speeches and events, and even prayers at the Western Wall. She uses her own children in her anti-Israel activism, and arranged for her 12-year old daughter to speak at the event.
Another activist in attendance was Mary Anne Grady Flores, an Ithaca “peace activist” most famous for her arrest while protesting drone warfare at a Syracuse, New York, airbase. The case is now on appeal. Flores is a leader in the Ithaca chapter of The Catholic Worker Movement, which coordinates with Gold and other anti-Israel activists, and recently arranged for anti-Zionist Miko Peled to speak in Ithaca at The Greater Ithaca Activities Center.
Gold and Flores brought with them that day a guest whose appearance was not pre approved: Bassem Tamimi, from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Gold was the coordinator for Tamimi’s national speaking tour in the fall of 2015 (he has since claimed that he has been banned from entering the United States for making false statements on a visa application).
While some view Tamimi as a hero because of his protests, he also has generated enormous controversy because he places children, including his own, in positions of danger in order to generate viral videos and photos.
He and others in the Tamimi media operation send children to try to provoke a reaction from Israeli soldiers and border police, including by kicking them, accompanied by a phalanx of photographers and videographers. It’s a brilliant, but dangerous, media tactic. If the soldiers don’t react, the media meme is that Israeli soldiers are afraid of brave Palestinian children; if the soldiers do react, that’s used to claim Israeli abuse of children. Tamimi’s daughter Ahed received an award from then Turkish prime minister (and current President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for one such confrontation.
The Tamimi event was arranged through a third-grade teacher, Brooke Burnett, a friend of Gold and Flores.
When I first heard that Gold, Flores and Tamimi spoke about Israel in a public school, I immediately suspected that this was not a true educational event, but political activism. I broke the story a couple of days later, on September 20, 2015.
That story ignited local media and national social media attention.
Initially, the principal of the elementary school, Susan Eschbach, attempted to downplay the significance of the Tamimi event. In a September 22, 2015, statement to the school community, Eschbach denied that there was anything improper. The statement provided, in pertinent part:
“Responding to the concerns about Tamimi’s arrival at BJM….
There were many adults present in the class and at no time was there an anti-Israel, anti-Palestine, anti-Jewish, or anti-Muslim stance. The children took away from this experience several messages. ”I can be an ambassador for peace.” “You can make friends across borders and that is a good thing.” “Children want the option to live peacefully and to go to school. Children can help stand for these desires.” “Everyone should work things out to live together.” And “Love will make peace, not hate.” The children had meaningful, relevant and appropriate conversations.
Yet just a few days later, after an investigation by the Ithaca City School District, the district’s superintendent, Luvelle Brown, condemned the event. The superintendent’s statement provided, in part:
“… The assumed purpose of the talk was to focus on human rights and peace. Upon further investigation, we have learned that the speakers went beyond the original intent of the talk. Additionally, school administration was not informed beforehand of the invitation to include one of the speakers….
The Ithaca City School District’s position is that such statements [regarding Israel at the event] are not developmentally appropriate for third-graders, nor aligned with the New York State standards. The statements were politically skewed, inflammatory and not endorsed by the Ithaca City School District. (emphasis added)
…We recognize that the Israeli Palestinian conflict is very sensitive to many members of our community. We also recognize that this delicate topic was not presented in a manner consistent with its importance. We sincerely regret that this has occurred.”
There was a furious reaction to the superintendent’s statement. JVP, in which Gold is active, started a petition drive denouncing the superintendent and asserting that criticism of the Tamimi event was an attempt to stifle Palestinian voices. There was a flurry of negative mails to the superintendent, organized by local JVP activists.
The superintendent stood by his statement, but that statement did not give many details as to what happened at the Tamimi event, what evidence (such as video) existed and what he learned during the investigation.
So I served a New York State FOIL request for all documents relating to the Tamimi event.
The ICSD initially refused to produce many documents, including video, and heavily redacted other documents produced, such as this one:
You’d have thought I sought top secret CIA documents, from the vigor of the redactions.
Yet even those documents initially produced confirmed that the Tamimi event was anti-Israel activism, and was much worse than thought.
The children were shown video by a child relative of Tamimi, Janna Jihad, complaining about Israel killing Palestinians and calling Israelis terrorists. (Janna is a media star, and has been used by the Tamimi clan since age 5 in videos confronting soldiers.) A video was played of Tamimi’s daughter Ahed, describing how she could not play sports because of “the wall.” Another book was read about a Palestinian child suffering in Gaza.
There was video of the Tamimi event taken by the activists and provided to the school, but the ICSD would not turn it over. Based on a “partial transcript” prepared by the ICSD, it was disclosed that Tamimi urged the third-graders to become “freedom fighters for Palestine.”
There was no evidence in the paper record produced that there was any discussion of the suffering of Israeli children, of the suicide bombing campaign that led to construction of “the wall,” or any semblance of presenting both sides of the dispute.
Gold defended the event on local TV. Tamimi also defended the event as appropriate for children:
Yet because the ICSD so heavily redacted documents, refused to produce others they wouldn’t even identify and refused to release the video even if redacted to protect student confidentiality, I had to go to court, twice.
The first time was to get a temporary restraining order and injunction ordering the preservation of records, after the ICSD indicated the teacher’s union took the position with members that at least some emails covered by the FOIL request might be considered personal, and need not be turned over to the ICSD as part of my FOIL Request. The court granted temporary and permanent injunctions.
I had to file a second lawsuit, this time seeking the records withheld, removal of redaction on some documents, and most important, the video (with redaction of student identifying information).
The ICSD fought me on all those grounds, but eventually the court ruled in my favor on the key disputes.
The ICSD was forced to turn over to me a document indicating that at least one third-grade student suffered nightmares as a result of the presentation and that a Letter of Reprimand was issued to the school principal for attempting to cover-up the nature of the event.
After the court ruled in my favor, it took several weeks, but the school district did provide two redacted videos which reflect a portion of the event.
The first video turned over by the district was a short video of the Janna Jihad video being played to the class. Bassem Tamimi is sitting to the left of the screen. He starts by stating, “[Janna Jihad in the video is] Eight years old. This is the message for the world and from the Palestinian children.” In the video, Jihad tells the news anchor, “Israel kill Gaza, kill Palestinians…. They can’t be terrorists. We don’t like them to be terrorists.”
The second, and main video, is a class discussion after the formal presentation was over.
While we don’t have video of the full presentation, you can see the themes mentioned in documents repeated by the students, particularly the “wall” (the security barrier), how families suffer, how Israel is wrong and Palestinians are right, and how only Palestinian children suffer.
In the video, you can see how heavily teacher Burnett pushed the students to view Israel negatively and to accept what the students had just been shown. Nothing has been deleted. I added the subtitles and enhanced the audio so you could hear better.
Gold accused Israel of violating “laws” by the United Nations, a complex topic on which there is much disagreement, but which is presented to young children as simple.
Tamimi, followed by Gold, stressed the role of children in struggle:
The “Woman” speaking in the video, who we believe to be Mary Grady Flores, also presents the “truth” as being only on the Palestinian side. Tamimi urged the third graders to become activists and freedom fighters for Palestine.
The students reacted strongly to the presentation and discussion.
One student said he didn’t want to see anymore videos, and got up to walk out:
Another student picked up on the part of the presentation about Tamimi’s daughter allegedly being deprived of the ability to play sports. Numerous students expressed anger and hatred toward Israel, and made suggestions as to how to fight back:
There was no discussion about the suffering of Israeli children at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, such as Bassem Tamimi’s cousin Ahlem Tamimi. Ahlem masterminded the Sbarro Pizza suicide bombing and is a hero among the Tamimi clan in Nabi Saleh, and Bassem Tamimi has refused to denounce her.
While I think the whole discussion was inappropriate for third graders, if the school was going to hold an educational event, it would have been good to talk not only about Janna Jihad, but also about Malki Roth, who was killed in the Sbarro Pizza massacre by Bassem Tamimi’s cousin. It also could have been explained that the “wall” was built only after dozens of other children (and several hundred other civilians) were killed by Palestinian suicide bombers, and that the wall protects children. As to Gaza, the brutality of Hamas could have been mentioned, and the Israeli attacks put in the context of relentless Hamas rocket fire even after Israel accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal.
There is no evidence in what has been released of a balanced presentation. The emotions of young children were manipulated by adults in positions of power and authority, and who occupied positions of trust.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this fiasco. Gold, Flores and Tamimi, of course, are to blame for crossing a line. These were not their children and this was a public school. They may have a parental right to teach their own children to hate Israel, but they don’t have the right to go into a public school and do the same to a captive audience of other people’s children.
This also is not a free speech issue. No one prevented Tamimi from dozens of appearances nationwide and in Ithaca outside of the school. The claim pushed by JVP that the Superintendent’s statement “stifled” Palestinian voices is ludicrous.
Teacher Burnett also deserves blame; from the video it appears that she brought her own political viewpoints into the discussion. The other teachers present also are to blame for not speaking up and allowing this to happen to their students. The school principal never should have attempted to whitewash what happened.
The school district also deserves both credit and blame. To his credit, Superintendent Brown quickly and publicly condemned the Tamimi event. Yet the school district fought me in court to avoid transparency as to what happened, particularly the video, despite my early offer to have the video redacted to protect student privacy. There also has been no substantial corrective action. There were no follow up programs to present a more positive view of Israel, and the only disciplinary action was a letter of reprimand to the principal.
The big lesson of the Tamimi event gets back to where I started. The Tamimi event took place far below the radar. It was happenstance that I found out about it, and only a year of litigation brought the evidence to the public light.
How many other anti-Israel activists, including teachers, are working their way through elementary schools, middle schools and high schools turning students against Israel?
Those are all questions that need to be answered, so that we can understand why, by the time they get to college, so many students already have turned against Israel.