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K-12 Schools in New Jersey Are Becoming a Battlefield Over Palestine Advocacy

For months, pro-Israel advocates in New Jersey have lobbied school districts to suppress discussion of Palestine.

Rawda Elbatrawish (L) and Liora Pelavin organize flyers for a student dialogue at Teaneck High School in Teaneck, New Jersey, on January 19, 2024.

Part of the Series

On the heels of the eruption of the university movement for Palestine and the subsequent wave of repression that has been at the center of national politics, Congress has begun questioning K-12 school districts about how they will clamp down on the movement for Palestine. Under the guise of addressing “antisemitism,” public K-12 schools may become more of a flashpoint across the country over Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza.

In New Jersey, this has already been the case for several months.

Lobbying From Livingston to Newark

A microcosm of these attempts to silence Palestinian voices played out in Livingston, New Jersey, on February 27 when less than a dozen pro-Palestine activists found themselves surrounded by hundreds of pro-Israel parents and community members from Livingston and surrounding towns at a Board of Education meeting.

The superintendent of Livingston Public Schools had returned from a “fact-finding” delegation to Israel after October 7, which was paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, an influential pro-Israel organization in North Jersey. According to its website, the organization’s stated mission is to “ensure the continuity and strength of the Jewish People, to support a secure Jewish and democratic State of Israel, and to care for Jews in need locally and around the world.”

Concerned that he was about to use the Board of Education meeting to put forward pro-Israel propaganda in public schools, a small group of activists showed up to make public comments about the historic oppression of Palestinians and ongoing massacre Israel is carrying out in Gaza.

One of the activists at this meeting was Ro, a Palestinian teacher and organizer with Teaching While Muslim, an organization which works to include social justice, anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia in school curricula, and protect the rights of Muslim teachers. Ro is not one to shy away from denouncing Israel’s violence against Palestinians, but asked to use a nickname for this piece due to the harassment she and her colleagues have faced in the past several months.

“It has been absolutely terrifying to be a Palestinian Muslim teacher post-October 7,” Ro told Truthout. “People are actively trying to doxx you, to twist your words, to make you seem something that you’re not in order to suppress you.”

She described the Livingston Board of Education meeting as one of the most threatening environments she’d ever been in. Ro said that when the meeting was opened up to public comments, Zionist counterprotesters elbowed and tried to trip the pro-Palestine activists on their way to line up to make comments.

Mindy Greenspan, an anti-Zionist Jewish activist with the group SOMA Collective for Palestine was also among the pro-Palestine group at the Livingston Board of Education meeting and witnessed elbowing. “We were clearly the outsiders,” Greenspan said. “Clearly the ‘others.’”

This hostility to pro-Palestine advocacy in schools exists beyond Livingston. The Intercept reported in March that in Teaneck, New Jersey, pro-Israel activists, lobbyists and even one member of Congress went on offense against teenagers who walked out of a local high school in solidarity with Palestine. NJ Spotlight News also recently reported that high school students in Camden County were suspended after trying to hold a walkout. Likewise, West Orange high schoolers published a statement claiming that their attempt to hold a walkout in November 2023 resulted in them receiving death threats from parents on Facebook. As the West Orange students put it in their statement, “parents on the Facebook pages ‘West Orange 411’ and ‘07052’ posted threatening content, like trying to doxx us, threatening rape on us, and said they wanted to kill us and parade our dead, raped bodies around Gaza.”

There is even speculation that the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the same organization that paid superintendents in Livingston and other areas of the state to go to Israel, may have gotten a novel by a Palestinian author pulled from the curriculum of Newark Public Schools.

On January 2, Federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon made a Facebook post claiming that “after over a year of intense lobbying efforts” on the part of the advocacy and public affairs arm of the Federation, Newark pulled the book A Little Piece of Ground from 200 schools. The book follows the experience of Karim, a Palestinian teenage boy growing up in the occupied West Bank.

In the face of backlash from teachers and community members, district officials have maintained that the Federation’s charges of “antisemitism” and other claims had nothing to do with their district’s decision to pull the book. When asked if he was concerned that the pulling of the book might embolden individuals or groups to target books representing other oppressed communities, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León told Truthout he was motivated by other concerns that he declined to disclose. “Actually, I am more concerned that people would assume we take actions because of something other than academic reasons,” León said. “We are not that school district.”

Geoff Johnson, a parent of two kids in Newark Public Schools, has been working to get a clear answer from the district about how the decision was made. As a parent, he finds it concerning that an organization far removed from his community could have influence over the curriculum. “As a parent, I don’t want anyone who’s outside of our community, other than the families and educators who are living here or working here, determining what’s in our schools in any way,” he told Truthout. “Newark is not a community where people would have an issue reading a book about Palestine. It’s just not.”

Johnson said that despite having several detailed phone conversations and an email exchange with León, he feels he hasn’t been given a clear answer about why, exactly, the book was pulled. The Federation, likewise, did not respond to Truthout’s multiple requests for comment.

For years, and especially in recent months, many anti-Zionist Jews have argued that security and care for Jewish people is not synonymous with support for an ethnonationalist regime in Israel. SOMA Collective for Palestine’s Greenspan shares this perspective. “I as a Jewish person don’t support Israel,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, [the Federation’s] mission runs counter to Jewish values and Jewish teachings, and they just seek to keep people in the cult and keep them in line.”

Paving the Way for the Right

Ro and Johnson both compared the Federation to Moms for Liberty, the right-wing organization that lobbies against teaching of Black history and inclusion of LGBTQ+ voices in schools. While the organization and pro-Israel advocates in New Jersey more broadly have not been directly organizing against Black history and LGBTQ+ rights in schools, there are clear examples of how their efforts to silence pro-Palestine voices are eroding advocacy for these other oppressed communities and empowering right-wing organizations.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District has a well-documented history of racial injustice, despite the fact that these two towns generally see themselves as progressively liberal. As a result of this injustice in the schools, as well as an incident of anti-Black police-perpetrated violence against teenagers in Maplewood, several teachers and community members formed the group MapSO Freedom School. Since its formation in 2017, this group has used community events, youth development and educator professional development workshops, and teacher organizing to strengthen the school district’s understanding of systemic racism, settler colonialism, and other forms of oppression.

Recently, MapSO Freedom School has come under fierce attacks by defenders of the Israeli government and military in the community and surrounding towns because the organization has held events and shared resources on social media providing context on Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. According to TJ Whitaker, a co-founder of MapSO Freedom School and teacher in the district since 2002, harassment of the group’s members has “become the norm.” He said that in the face of these attacks, there has been little support within the district.

“One of the probably most disappointing things we’ve experienced is some of our own union members who have shared information publicly about us, who have gone to our union leadership to complain and to try to take away our freedom of speech to talk about these issues,” Whitaker said.

As a result of pressure from local pro-Israel advocates, the district’s Board of Education voted on November 30, 2023, to end a working relationship that the district had initially established with MapSO Freedom School to address the district’s lack of racial justice initiatives.

One does not need to be in the schools to witness the backlash that pro-Palestine teachers in the district are facing. On May 4, a pro-Israel social media user made a post in SOMA Talks, a private Facebook group with 2,500 members. The post showed a picture of a classroom door in South Orange Middle School (also in the district) which had a poster on it which simply said the word “Gaza.” The community member who made the post on Facebook argued that, “Teacher political views should remain outside of the classroom and our children.” Several people in the group commented in agreement, with one commenter claiming that, “the modern day radical leftist cabal — which makes up approx 99.7% of SOMA — have an institutionalized hatred of jews [sic].” Another claimed to have sent three separate emails to a member of MapSO Freedom School who teaches at the high school, naming her multiple times in the comments for all to see.

This type of harassment in the district has not been limited to teachers. On January 12, I witnessed roughly 100 students at Columbia High School walk out of school to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. I stood with several parents of the students and community members outside the school grounds in solidarity with the students. A smaller group of aggressive pro-Israel counterprotesters also showed up, and many tried to take pictures of the students and community members supporting them in an attempt to intimidate them and potentially expose them to further harassment. Another counterprotester walked around the perimeter of the field where students were gathering, using binoculars to try to get a closer look at the students.

During the walkout, a rental van drove around displaying a mini-billboard with a seemingly pro-Israel quote by Martin Luther King Jr. (despite the fact that MLK repeatedly condemned colonialism and apartheid during his lifetime). In Kibbutz SOMA, another private Facebook group which has since been deleted, a group member encouraged people to donate to the group which had provided the truck, the right-wing media attack site Accuracy In Media. The organization has published articles defending attacks on trans rights and “critical race theory,” and has doxxed organizers by displaying their names and faces on trucks to encourage harassment.

Ben Lorber is a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank which monitors right-wing movements. Recently, he has written about how defenders of the apartheid regime in Israel have allied themselves with right-wing movements, a phenomenon he sees playing out in the repression of pro-Palestine voices in schools.

“Right-wing and even centrist, establishment Jewish organizations seem like they’re fully on board with this push, and in doing so, they’re allying with the political right,” Lorber told Truthout. “The right has been gunning after basically any shade of progressivism in education for a long time, and I really worry that large parts of the American Jewish community are being conscripted into that fight.”

Ro, meanwhile, warned that the harassment is already affecting teachers she has spoken with across the country, from New York, to Ohio, to Texas. They are all experiencing “the same thing,” she said.

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