We Need to Talk About the Antisemitic Mob in a New York City School

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Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Flashback to June 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police and the subsequent Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations around the United States, a Black teacher in a predominately white school posts a picture on social media that reads, “I Stand With BLM.”

The response from white students is outrage. There are demands for the teacher’s ouster from the school, and days later, they organize an in-school demonstration replete with “All Lives Matter” placards. The protest, which is recorded on social media, spirals out of control as students rush toward the teacher’s classroom, demanding her immediate firing. She is whisked away by security officers to safety in another part of the building. The situation is so tense that the police are called to the school to restore order.

If such an event actually happened, it would likely fill hours of cable news and lead to even more public protests against such rank and obvious racism.

Yet, this event occurred as described above—at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens. The crucial difference is that the teacher was Jewish, and she had posted a picture on social media (taken two days after Hamas’ brutal attacks in Israel on Oct. 7) that read, “I Stand With Israel.”

The other difference is that few people outside the Jewish community seem to care. It’s yet one more piece of evidence that even in the most Jewish city in America, antisemitism is simply not taken seriously—and Jews are scared.

The near-riot at Hillcrest High School occurred nearly two weeks ago ago—the Monday before Thanksgiving. But many in the community didn’t find out about the incident until the New York Post ran a story five days later.

The Post reported that students ran amok through the halls, chanting “Free Palestine” and “(The teacher) needs to go!” and linked to TikTok videos, which showed students cheering, dancing, and laughing in school halls as they waved Palestinian flags. Some students even tried to barge into the teacher’s classroom and were blocked by school security. Other clips also showed a water fountain ripped out and a boys’ bathroom vandalized by students participating in the mob. (The Hillcrest fiasco came on the heels of a city-wide school walkout on Nov. 9 to protest the war in Gaza.)

Supporters of these protests say that students are merely agitating for Palestinian sovereignty and an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, but to claim there isn’t a vicious antisemitic undercurrent (that regularly reveals itself at some of the protests) is simply gaslighting, or worse.

Indeed, New York City has been witness to a frightening uptick in antisemitic violence since Oct. 7—and the city’s schools have hardly been immune. There have been consistent reports of swastikas appearing in city schools and Jewish educators fearful about potential violence.

And the Department of Education has been slow to respond.

At a town hall in Manhattan the day after the near-riot, Chancellor David Banks obliquely referenced the incident and said, “What’s happening in the Middle East has gotten a lot of emotions from a lot of people. We’re still figuring out what’s going on.”

If it sounds like Banks was making excuses for the violence, he said something similar when he spoke to the media at the Jamaica high school on Monday afternoon.

Photograph of Hillcrest High School

Hillcrest High School on Highland Avenue in Queens is pictured on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Theodore Parisienne/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty

Noting that 30 percent of the student body at Hillcrest is Muslim, Banks said many of the kids there “feel a kindred spirit with the Palestinian community,” and so when they saw the teacher’s posting that said “I Stand With Israel,” they “took that as a message that [she] was affirming what is happening to” Palestinians in Gaza.

Banks also said that even though approximately 400 students participated in the near-riot, most of the school’s 2,500 large student body did not—though one might imagine that 16 percent of the school joining an antisemitic protest would be reason for concern, not that more than 80 percent didn’t.

While Banks made clear that the Department of Education would not allow the teacher to feel bullied, he had little to say about the upsurge in antisemitism or the growing fears among Jewish students and parents about potential violence.

Those fears are increasingly real. According to City Councilman Eric Dinowicz, who is head of the Jewish Caucus on the Council and spoke at a rally in Queens on Monday, “We are scared, and we are feeling alone, and we are not feeling the support that we should” from the Department of Education.

At a small rally earlier this week at Tweed Courthouse, a group of Jewish teachers blasted the chancellor’s response to the Hillcrest incident. Banks “failed to recognize the deep-seated Jewish hate present in our school and then doubled down on this failure by minimizing and erasing the legitimate concerns of our community,” said Tova Plaut, a member of the New York City Public School Alliance.

Others I spoke to said the problems run deeper. According to one administrator, “Jewish teachers and Jewish employees at all levels feel at risk, unsupported, and fearful.”

According to Dinowitz, whom I spoke with earlier this week, the situation is not new. “This isn’t just an incident at one particular school. It’s a culture that we’re seeing—Jewish teachers and students saying that they don’t feel supported and safe.”

Dinowitz, who previously worked as a public school teacher, said when swastikas were found at his school, an administrator simply laughed off the incident. There are “harmful antisemitic tropes all over the city,” he notes, and “there are many teachers who feel they cannot bring issues to the administration.”

A teacher at a high school in Brooklyn, who asked not to be named for fear that speaking publicly could cost her job or perhaps make her the target of violence, like the teacher at Hillcrest, “I have a stomach ache every day I walk into work.”

One student at her school did a Heil Hitler salute (she had to explain why it was wrong), while another came into a class with a shirt that had a Palestinian flag superimposed over Israel and a machine gun on the back.

When she tried recently to discuss the situation with one student and referenced the Hamas attack on Oct. 7—the student had no idea what she was referring to. Many of the students get their information from TikTok videos, where the atrocities of Oct. 7 largely go unmentioned.

On Monday, Banks referred to the situation at Hillcrest as a potentially teachable moment and an opportunity for dialogue among students.

When I asked about that happening, she chuckled. “Learning is not happening—but not from lack of will.” The climate in the school doesn’t allow for it, and the administration is more focused on preventing violence than educating. “The school is a powder keg and we don’t want to spark another Hillcrest,” she told me. “If we make it through without a riot, it will be the best win possible.”

At the same time, however, Dinowitz notes plenty of schools in the city are doing the right thing and that even after Banks’ initial missteps, he has been clear about “what is and isn’t acceptable.”

But if there is a larger lesson from Hillcrest, it is the double standard on antisemitism. It shouldn’t take a week for the DOE to respond to an attack on a Jewish educator, and Jewish students and teachers need to feel safe both inside school and out.

Right now, they don’t. Instead, the focus of DOE and school administrators is stopping an explosion. But, as the Brooklyn high school teacher ruefully told me, the result is that “The truth and the Jews are collateral damage.”



Post source: TDB

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