House Republicans’ Next Target: Reports of Antisemitism in K-12 Schools

School district officials have faced off with students, parents, school board members and teachers about issues related to the Israel-Hamas war — but until now, not members of Congress.

On Wednesday, leaders from three public school districts — New York City; Berkeley, Calif.; and Montgomery County in Maryland — will be questioned by members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has grilled four college presidents on accusations of campus antisemitism, helping to topple two of them.

For the three public school leaders, who are likely to face a similarly tense environment, “it’s hard to imagine a less welcome invitation,” said Justin Driver, a professor at Yale Law School who is an expert on how constitutional law applies to schools.

The three school districts, all diverse, have robust American Jewish communities. They are also in staunchly liberal areas, making them ripe targets for the Republicans who run the committee. And they have had their share of controversies.

In New York City, an elementary school posted a map of the “Arab world” that did not label Israel, identifying the country as “Palestine.” In Montgomery County, outside Washington, swastikas have been drawn on school desks. And in Berkeley, several teachers presented lessons that referred to Israeli “apartheid” against Palestinians.

The district leaders — David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools; Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of Berkeley schools; and Karla Silvestre, the school board president in Montgomery County — must walk a tightrope at the hearing. They are likely to face complex questions about free speech and the point at which protest of Israel veers into antisemitism. Those are matters of contentious debate, both nationally and in their own communities.

In addition to the House hearing, the U.S. Education Department is investigating the districts for their handling of antisemitism accusations, after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Muslim and pro-Palestinian organizations have also said that many public schools are hostile to their views, whether by omitting Palestinian history from the curriculum or by limiting pro-Palestinian speech.

The congressional hearing is likely to focus on political speech by teachers, lesson plans that have included harsh critiques of Israel, and pro-Palestinian student protests such as walkouts.

While the specific incidents may differ from those discussed at the college antisemitism hearings, “the underlying issue is the same,” said Representative Kevin Kiley, Republican of California, who is a committee member. “We’re trying to ensure that campuses, whether secondary school or college campus, are safe for students and complying with civil rights laws.”

The Republican representatives may also use the hearing to campaign against what they see as a broader leftist orthodoxy gripping education, with questions on topics like diversity, equity and inclusion programs and discipline practices in schools.

Here are some issues that the district leaders may face.

Part of the hearing may focus on the free-speech rights of individual teachers.

At a university, faculty members enjoy broad protections for free speech and academic freedom, whether they make statements in the classroom or at a protest.

But in public schools, employers can limit free speech when their employees are on the job. And public-school teachers do not enjoy the same academic freedom rights as tenured college professors; they are expected to follow state and district curriculum standards.

“The difference between the First Amendment on college campuses and in high schools is roughly the difference between noon and midnight,” Professor Driver said.

But a teacher’s right to speak politically off campus is a gray area.

In Montgomery County, complaints were made against two teachers who expressed pro-Palestinian views on personal social media pages, and one who included in her email signature the contested phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which went out to other district employees.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has filed a lawsuit arguing that the district violated the First Amendment by suspending the three teachers.

“What’s really dangerous right now is the framing that supporting Palestine is out of bounds,” said Justin Sadowsky, a lawyer for CAIR. He encouraged districts to focus on punishing what he called “actual incidents of antisemitism,” such as the drawing of swastikas, while leaving room for First Amendment expression.

School districts have been accused of failing to respond adequately to a broad array of incidents, such as the scrawling of the phrase “Kill Jews” in a school bathroom and pro-Palestinian student walkouts that disrupted the school day.

Some accusations — such as one levied at a California teacher for wearing a “Free Palestine” sticker — speak to a broader debate, including within the Jewish community, about when criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

The Zionist Organization of America, a conservative group that filed a complaint against Montgomery County, has accused the district of allowing antisemitism to fester and of having a “weak response” to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. The group noted that the district put out forceful statements condemning police killings of Black Americans in 2020 and hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2021.

“What I want to see is a stop to this double standard,” said Susan Tuchman, a lawyer for the group. “You have got to treat the harassment and intimidation and bigotry against Jews in the same forceful way, and they are just not doing that.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County school board said that the district took complaints of antisemitism seriously, and said that “our commitment is to ensure that schools are welcoming and safe spaces for all our very diverse student body.”

In some cases, Jewish teachers have been the ones targeted. In New York City in November, hundreds of students at Hillcrest High School in Queens thronged hallways to call for the firing of a teacher who had posted to social media a picture of herself with an “I Stand With Israel” sign. That teacher, Karen Marder, later wrote in an opinion article that she and a Palestinian American colleague had held discussion sessions with students, which had led to some measure of reconciliation.

Curriculum is another contentious issue.

Schools have sometimes struggled to deal with the complexity of Jewish ethnic and religious identity. And Republicans tend to oppose curricular efforts — such as California’s push for ethnic studies — that view history through the lens of racial, ethnic and gender oppression.

In the Berkeley school district, which has 9,000 students, ethnic studies classrooms have sometimes become venues for lessons on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jewish groups have called unbalanced, ahistoric or antisemitic.

Tyler Gregory, chief executive of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area, said he believed that it was appropriate for Congress to hold the district to account.

But he noted that most Bay Area Jews were politically progressive. “It makes me nervous when I feel like we’re means to a partisan end,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Berkeley Unified School District declined an interview request.

Mr. Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, outlined steps his administration will take, such as creating new curriculum resources on antisemitism, the Holocaust and Islamophobia.

But in an apparent reference to some Republican lawmakers, he said at a recent news conference, “I fundamentally believe that if we truly care about solving antisemitism, you don’t do it through cheap political theater.”

Troy Closson contributed reporting.

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