House committee hearing on ‘antisemitism’ takes aim at public school educators

Photo: David Banks, chancellor of New York City public schools, testifies before the House Committee on Education and Workforce. Credit: The House Committee on Education and Workforce/Youtube

As university administrations, police forces and right wing mobs brutalize and threaten students for standing with Palestine, Congress is continuing to call educational officials from across the country to testify about the “crisis of antisemitism” on campuses. It is clear how these committee “investigations” are designed to discipline pro-Palestine students and force compliance with Zionism from educational officials. 

It is not just the presidents of elite colleges and universities like Columbia, Harvard, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, and George Washington University facing Congressional screw-turning. On May 8, administrators from Berkeley Unified, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland school districts were called before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing to face allegations of “pervasive” antisemitism in schools. 

These three school districts are some of the largest and most diverse public school districts in the country, collectively responsible for the education of hundreds of thousands of students. The Committee on Education and Workforce statement stated their purpose clearly: “Antisemitic incidents have exploded in K-12 schools following Hamas’ horrific October 7 attack. Jewish teachers, students, and faculty have been denied a safe learning environment and forced to contend with antisemitic agitators due to district leaders’ inaction.”

The struggle in the schools

The fabricated panic around “antisemitism” in K-12 education parallels the development of this narrative as it relates to college campuses. The narrative goes like this: Since Oct. 7, “antisemitic” incidents have exploded, making Jewish students and teachers feel unsafe at school. These “incidents” include — as reported by Zionist organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Zionist Organization of America and the International Holocaust Remembrance Association — any kind of pro-Palestine speech or imagery. In some cases, what were deemed “antisemitic” incidents included such benign things as wearing watermelon-themed jewelry or a hijab.

These Zionist groups are often framed as “community organizations” in relation to the school districts at hand. With immense funding and dozens of paid staff, these organizations are deeply intertwined with curriculum development and other important internal workings of these school districts through their lobbying and influence apparatuses. Berkeley, New York City, and Montgomery County in Maryland are not only among the most populous and racially diverse school districts in the country, but they are also districts with some of the highest class disparities in the country. 

Despite being one of the wealthiest cities in the world, over 100,000 of New York Public School students — about 10% of all public students enrolled in New York City — are homeless or housing insecure. Montgomery County Public Schools serves both poor, working class, largely immigrant students in some of the most diverse zip codes in the United States, as well as students in Bethesda and Potomac which are among the wealthiest bastions of ruling class suburbia. It is not a coincidence that Congress has targeted these three districts — with potential to call in others like the District of Columbia Public Schools — where the reproduction of ruling class ideology is particularly essential.

Anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia is running rampant

Despite the full court press in Congress and the media to make it seem like “antisemitism” is raging, educators and students who are speaking out for Palestine are the ones being disciplined, harassed and threatened. With regard to Montgomery County Public Schools in particular, four middle school teachers have been placed on leave for speaking in solidarity with Palestine, in some cases on personal social media. Arab and Muslim students have been specifically targeted.

Math teacher Hajur el-Haggan was placed on administrative leave for mentioning Palestine in her email signature — even after complying with administration and removing the slogan when asked. A Muslim student at Northwood High School in Montgomery County testified to the Board of Education last week that at her school, she had witnessed staff members recording and intimidating students participating in an educational event called “Hijab Day”; confronting and harassing students wearing clothing with anti-Zionist messaging; tearing down Muslim Student Association posters from school boards; as well as other instances of stalking and harassment, including lying about MSA activities and comparing them to the KKK. However, it is pro-Palestinian teachers being placed on leave, censured, and threatened with termination.

In one part of this student’s testimony, she described a peer saying about their Muslim classmates at the school, “I hope they burn in hell and get buried with the dead Palestinians.” Other students who have organized walkouts, teach-ins, or other admirable solidarity events during this school year have been similarly harassed, silenced, and targeted. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg that goes much deeper than incidents since Oct. 7.

The idea that any of this is born from a sincere concern for the safety of Jewish people is manifestly untrue. At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamicci asked the committee to condemn right wing antisemitism from the likes of Nick Fuentes and the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right,” rally where fascists chanted “Jews will not replace us.” While played for cheap partisan points against obviously insincere Republican representatives, not a single member of the committee condemned these truly vile acts of antisemitism from the far right. 

The role of Congress

Before dawn on the same day as these hearings, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Pamela Smith’s scheduled hearing in front of the House Oversight Committee was canceled after the city finally conceded to the demands of George Washington University President Ellen Granberg to brutally raid and disperse the solidarity encampment at the university’s yard renamed “Shuhada’ (Martyrs) Square” by the students in honor of those Palestinians killed in Israel’s ongoing genocide. House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer makes the dynamic clear in his statement: “I am pleased that the potential Oversight hearing led to swift action by Mayor Bowser and MPD Chief Smith.”

Rep. Brandon Williams of New York grilled David Banks, the chancellor of New York City public schools, specifically on the lack of terminations and quite literally scoffing and laughing out loud at Banks’ meek response that “all educators have due process rights,” and can’t be fired arbitrarily before an investigation is completed. During the Congressional hearing, the representative from Berkeley Unified was grilled on the relationship between the school district and the Liberated Ethnic Studies Consortium, a progressive curriculum development organization built on the legacy of the movement in California to create more diverse curricula at all levels.

This demonstrates precisely the purpose of these hearings. Committee Chairman Bean grilled every school district representative on just how many teachers they’ve fired, how many students they’ve suspended or expelled, explicitly to make the point that these actions must be taken. These hearings, along with other attacks on public education — whether in the form of union busting or so-called “critical race theory,” “gender ideology,” or any other form of “parent’s rights” movements — must be seen as part of a full frontal assault on public education, academic freedom and the First Amendment more broadly.

Students, however, are not backing down. High schoolers have organized walkouts, teach-ins, open letters, testified in front of school boards, filed curricula and discrimination complaints, and countless other actions over the last months. Recently, students in Boston walked out of class to join the Gaza solidarity encampment at MIT. Congressional hearings, suspensions, censorship, and the whole suite of state repression have not broken the burgeoning revolutionary spirit among the youth. And it is not that they are brainwashed by Tik-Tok like this same Congress would have you believe — it is that the youth see this genocide for what it is.

Related Articles

Back to top button