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Harassment of Palestinian Students and Staff Is Spreading in US Grade Schools

Schools are proving ill-equipped to protect students who have experienced increased bullying and harassment.

A supporter waits for a a rally to begin after a student walkout in solidarity with Palestine on October 25, 2023, in Santa Ana, California.

Part of the Series

Aaliyah is not okay. The 16-year-old Virginia-based, Palestinian-born high school junior says she has had a great deal of trouble concentrating on schoolwork as Israel’s war on Gaza escalates.

“All of my free time is spent on social media, seeing what’s happening,” she told Truthout. “Trying to focus on homework, as if everything is normal, has been difficult. I have friends who support me but the war is not affecting them directly. I feel very alone since there are so few Palestinian students in my school.”

That feeling was exacerbated when Aaliyah began working with a Muslim student group on campus to plan a walkout in solidarity with the people of Gaza. “We were told that posters could not use the words ‘genocide’ or ‘apartheid.’ Instead, we had to refer to the war as a ‘conflict,’” she said. “This made me upset because it was so inaccurate.”

Aaliyah is not the only Palestinian student to feel this way. Throughout the U.S., many Palestinian and Muslim students in elementary, middle and high school are anecdotally reporting an uptick in silencing, harassment and bullying that rivals the period immediately following 9/11.

What’s more, Palestinian and Muslim teachers have also experienced troubling behavior such as menacing emails, threatening phone calls, shunning by colleagues, as well as invasive scrutiny of personal social media posts that express criticism of Israel.

“One thing stands out about the current rise in Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian attitudes in schools,” Corey Saylor, national research and advocacy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told Truthout. “Before the war, pro-Palestinian student activists were targeted. Now it’s become more personal, and everyone who speaks out about Palestinian humanity is being targeted and doxed, with names, addresses and photos.”

“Everyone who speaks out about Palestinian humanity is being targeted…”

Saylor calls this “an unfortunate reality” but stresses that this is not new: Many Palestinian and Muslim students feel insecure in U.S. schools. A 2021 study conducted by CAIR California found that that more than 55 percent of the Muslim students surveyed reported feeling unwelcome, unsafe or uncomfortable at school due to their religious identity. Incidents included name calling, exclusion, rumor-mongering, physical assault — most commonly the yanking off of the hijabs worn by female students — and cyber stalking.

“In my experience, schools are incapable of effectively dealing with Islamophobia. In a crisis period, this inability is magnified,” he said. “But it is absolutely mind boggling that schools cannot protect every kid who is enrolled.”

The impact of this harassment has left Palestinian and Muslim students and instructors scrambling and scared. Visibly Muslim students report being called “terrorist,” “Osama” and “bomber,” while a Connecticut teacher (who asked not to be identified) told Truthout that “as the only Palestinian teacher in my school, I feel like I can’t speak. Zionist parents and teachers have been very vocal, and students who are Arab or Iranian feel silenced. One of them is thinking of changing her college essay from one that talked about her identity as a Middle Eastern woman” to something less likely to be considered “controversial.”

Avoiding Conflict

Massachusetts resident Nora Lester Murad, author of Ida in the Middle, a young adult novel about a Palestinian girl who triumphs over schoolhouse bullies, told Truthout that “teachers seem skilled in compassion, but their compassion is without content.” She describes an incident in which a 9-year-old Palestinian boy, the son of a friend, was punched in the face after being verbally taunted by another student. In response, the teacher tried to diffuse the tension, telling the boys that “we all need to get along and be friends.” Meanwhile, the substance of the conflict went unaddressed.

A 9-year-old Palestinian boy was punched in the face after being verbally taunted by another student.

“There is so much anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in this country, not just in education, but in mainstream media,” Murad said. “Schools that attempt to be diverse and inclusive think that this means embracing every perspective and positioning themselves in the center. They do not lead with principles. They do not stand up for ideals. Our entire culture tends to be conflict-avoidant, and since teachers are already in the crosshairs, restricted in terms of what they can say, what books they can assign and what language they can use, avoiding disagreements seems like the default. Unfortunately, it stifles conversations about truth and reality.”

Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi, a U.S.-born Palestinian and founder and CEO of Altair Education Consulting, a Baltimore-based firm that works to amplify the voices of students and teachers of color in educational settings, says this avoidance means that “teachable moments” are ignored.

“We’re at a tipping point,” she said. “Since 9/11, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim parents have become louder about keeping their children safe, and kids who were not yet born in 2001 are now speaking out. They’ve observed or participated in protests against police brutality and know that they can exercise their rights. We’re telling our stories of displacement, describing our lived experiences, and saying ‘enough is enough.’ We are three to four generations from the Nakba and have learned from the past. The time of being silent or invisible as students and teachers is over.”

Building Emotional Resilience

Although not every school allows social and emotional learning to be integrated into the curriculum, those that allow it can help students express empathy for one another and navigate a range of issues and feelings. “Twenty minutes of accountable talk in a circle can give kids a place to vent and have their emotional responses heard and validated,” Ramadan-Shinnawi says.

“We’re telling our stories of displacement, describing our lived experiences, and saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Aline Batarseh, a Palestinian American mother of two and executive director of Visualizing Palestine, agrees, but notes that misinformation about Palestine continues to distort what U.S. residents think they know about the region.

“Even before the October escalation, nearly 200 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli government,” since the start of 2023, she told Truthout. “Few outside of the Palestinian community are outraged by this. Few even realize that Palestinians are being murdered or are routinely denied water, food, electricity and the ability to travel. People are locked in in Gaza. As Palestinians, we are not okay. There is a knot in my heart. But the war is not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim issue. It is an issue of human rights, of human dignity.”

And it has taken a huge toll on communities living outside of the Middle East.

Betarseh says she and her family have been glued to news reports. “As we watch the number of Palestinian deaths increase, it is horrific to digest,” she said. “We go to protests. We stay in community with each other, but we’re hurting.”

Palestinian American high school instructor Mona Mustafa is similarly distressed. “I can’t put my phone down,” the Paterson, New Jersey, history and Arabic teacher told Truthout. “I am heartbroken about what is happening and it’s having an impact on my mental health. I am grieving. My students continually ask me about what’s going on. I may be the first, or maybe the only, Palestinian adult they’ve met, so I want to help them understand what is happening. But it is very hard. I have three kids; they’ve heard Palestinians being called ‘terrorists’ so there is a lot of fear. I’ve taken them to protests but I worry when they see me crying. I do not want to project my sadness onto them.”

The school’s Palestinian students “felt ignored, sad that no one was asking them if they were okay or if their families were okay. They worried about being labeled ‘terrorists.’ They felt misunderstood.”

Mustafa also feels a responsibility to help the school’s Palestinian students, and she and another teacher are now holding once-weekly lunch hour meetings to discuss the war. “Before we reached out to them they said they felt ignored, sad that no one was asking them if they were okay or if their families were okay. They worried about being labeled ‘terrorists.’ They felt misunderstood, low-energy, angry.”

Palestinians in the U.S., she continues, are expected to go on with life as usual. “This is impossible. Even if it’s not our friends or families who are dying, we are in mourning,” she said. “People in Gaza deserve to live and be happy, but here in the U.S. we also worry about our safety when we’re out in public.”

By all accounts, creating a safe environment that fosters difficult classroom conversations is extremely challenging. “It’s become really hard for teachers in many part of the country to teach,” Wayne Au, interim dean of the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, and a member of the editorial board of Rethinking Schools, a progressive nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization, told Truthout. “In some states there are restrictions on how U.S. history can be taught, and what subjects can be included. The anti-CRT, anti-queer, anti-trans targeting has been intense. In addition, when the topic of Israel-Palestine comes up, a lot of people lose the ability to be rational and have a substantive conversation. Many people don’t want to engage with the issue. Nonetheless, teachers who have a social justice perspective can open up space for complexity; we can talk about how both Jews and Palestinians are mourning and grieving. We can address how we treat each other and how we can avoid racist stereotypes.”

Au also suggests that teachers get connected to supportive community and social justice organizations, including unions, as a way to protect against complaints and backlash.

Likewise, Cierra Kaler-Jones, executive director of Rethinking Schools, encourages students to parse primary source documents and debate the differences between fact and opinion. “Teachers can help students understand solidarity with people who fight for freedom and justice and learn about the power of protest and resistance. Teachers can help students unpack the words they use and analyze terms like terrorist, occupation and colonialism,” Kaler-Jones said. Educators can also offer their colleagues information to help them become better informed about the dynamics that are unfolding in the Middle East and connect them to resources.

All of this is vitally important, Ramadan-Sinnawi told Truthout. In addition, she says she feels uplifted by the work of the progressive Jews who are publicly demanding a ceasefire.

“When hundreds of Jewish activists showed up on Capitol Hill it was powerful. People who put their lives on the line for what they believe increase my faith in humanity. When schools give students the space to grieve and express their emotions, it spills out into the wider community. Building empathy, thinking critically about Zionism and white supremacy, and allowing a range of perspectives to be heard increases media literacy and helps people zero in on their goals and values.”

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