(New York Jewish Week) – Students and city officials are pushing back against accusations of antisemitism at Hillcrest High School in Queens after a Jewish teacher was targeted in a protest, even as local Jewish leaders are demanding accountability after the incident.
Video of the unruly protest, which took place Nov. 20 and exploded into public view over the weekend, drew widespread criticism of the school and charges of antisemitism, including from New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
But speaking at a press conference at the school on Monday, Schools Chancellor David Banks, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and student leaders rejected the charges, even as they denounced the incident, said some students would be suspended over it and
“So many of the students who were running or jumping had no idea what was even going on. They were doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do,” Banks said. “The notion that this place is radical, these kids are radicalized and antisemitic, is the height of irresponsibility.”
Banks said he had sought to understand what triggered the mayhem at the school in conversations with students and found out that social media played a central role.
“Young people today, they’re not watching, with all due respect, New York 1 or NBC or ABC,” Banks said. “They consume their information through social media, specifically TikTok and others, and what they are seeing on a daily basis are children and young people in Palestine, Palestinian families being blown up.”
As a result, “they feel a kindred spirit with the folks in the Palestinian community,” Banks said.
“When they all of a sudden saw this image of the teacher that says, ‘I Stand With Israel,’ the students articulated to me they took that as a message that I’m affirming whatever is happening to the Palestinian family and community,” Banks said. “That made sense to me,” Banks said.
After initially tweeting that the incident was a “vile show of antisemitism,” Adams took a softer tone at a press conference at City Hall Tuesday, where he said Banks had done the “right thing” by visiting the school and echoed Banks’ blaming of social media, saying online algorithms were “destroying our children and this is one of the examples.”
Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg said at the City Hall press conference that public perception of the incident was wrong. “It is unfair the way aspersions have been cast and broad brush criticism has been made of students,” he said.
The city’s response to the incident points to the challenges inherent in responding to a wave of pro-Palestinian student advocacy in response to Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, which began Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 and taking about 250 people hostage. Earlier this month, hundreds of students staged a walkout to protest against Israel, convening in Bryant Park for a rally chanting “Intifada,” calling for a ceasefire, accusing Israel of genocide and praising Palestinian “resistance.” The Hillcrest incident signals that the tensions are playing out inside individual schools, as well.
The events leading to the incident began several weeks ago, when a Jewish health teacher at Hillcrest changed her Facebook profile photo to herself at a pro-Israel rally carrying a sign in support of the Jewish state. Students at the school noticed the photo online and shared it with classmates, Banks said.
Students planned a protest against the teacher last Monday that quickly got out of hand as hundreds of students, in the hallway between classes, joined in and ran amok. Videos showed the students running through the hallways, waving Palestinian flags and damage to the school’s property. The celebratory videos of the incident included a photo of the teacher at the rally.
“It was meant to be a peaceful protest from the very beginning, but some of these students lack maturity,” said the school’s senior class president, Muhammad Ghazali. “These students have the right to go out there and protest, but it’s just the way they protested was wrong.”
Khadija Ahmed, a Hillcrest student, said, “The message that we really wanted to get out there was that we wanted Palestine to be free but the message got lost and lots of people were hurt mentally.”
Around 400 students, out of 2,500 at the school, had “acted disruptively” during the incident, Banks said. He said it was not acceptable and that the education department would take steps to respond to it.
“Violence, hate and disorder have no place in our schools,” Banks said. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry are simply unacceptable.”
Banks said he would convene all of New York City’s school principals by the end of the week for a discussion about the Middle East conflict. He also said he spent Monday afternoon discussing the situation with Hillcrest students and staff and said an external partner would work with schools in response to the incident, tailoring the resources offered to individual schools.
Banks also said some students would be suspended at Hillcrest. But officials declined to elaborate about the number of students or other details of the punishment, citing privacy laws, and rejected calls to suspend hundreds of students.
“The message we sent to these students is it’s OK to protest,” Richards said. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you do it and how you say it.”
Banks, himself a graduate of Hillcrest, said the teacher was singled out due to her support for Israel and “Jewish identity” but said that contrary to media reports, she was sequestered safely on a different floor from the students who were protesting against her.
The teacher was already concerned about social media posts about her and in touch with police, who said they had responded to a 911 call at the school at around 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, about a teacher who had “received a threat from an unknown person on social media.”
“There was no one barricaded or protests and/or riots at the location. There have been no arrests, and the investigation remains ongoing,” police said.
Banks said the student body at Hillcrest is around 30% Muslim and the faculty includes both Jewish and Muslim teachers. The chancellor said that in addition to the protest last Monday, a student warned the principal on Wednesday that demonstrations would continue as long as the teacher remained employed, with another rally planned for later that day. The school went into lockdown to head off that protest.
The teacher, who has not commented publicly beyond a statement to the New York Post over the weekend, will return to the school this week, Banks said, adding that the school was concerned about a rally against antisemitism planned outside the school on Thursday by the pro-Israel and Jewish self defense group Yad Yamin. The group said the rally had been canceled.
The incident has elicited criticism from a range of Jewish leaders and has inspired the formation of a new group, New York City Public School Alliance, that is pressing the city education department to do more to combat antisemitism in schools. The group announced itself during a press conference Tuesday afternoon on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters.
“Chancellor Banks has failed our students, families and educators. He has failed at building safe and inclusive classrooms and schools for Jewish students, families and employees,” said founder Tova Plaut, an instructional coordinator for District 2 in Manhattan.
The group decried what it said was Banks’ “weak response” to the Hillcrest incident and demanded that he acknowledge the “extent of Jewish hate and anti-Jewish culture” in public schools; adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism; adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward antisemitism; restructure how schools address diversity to include Jews; and include Jewish heritage identity in curriculum and diversity and inclusion goals.
In Queens, local Jewish leaders said they wanted to see stronger action taken in response to the Hillcrest incident.
“Heads need to roll. The administrations need to be held accountable. It is no longer acceptable to hear, ‘Yes, we don’t want any antisemitism,’” said Sorolle Idels, who leads the Queens Jewish Alliance, a local Orthodox community group. “Your words are not enough.”
Her group was aware of videos of the incident last week and was awaiting a response from city officials, Idels said. After news broke of the riot during Shabbat, the group scrambled to put together a press conference for Monday morning that was attended by Eric Dinowitz, the chair of the city council’s Jewish Caucus.
Idels alleged that the school had sought to keep the incident quiet, since there was no public response until after the New York Post report nearly a week after the incident. Banks rejected the allegation, insisting the city operated with full transparency. He also said other recent violent incidents in the school had been misrepresented in the media and were unconnected to the anti-Israel protest.
The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union, issued a statement indicating the union was aware of the riot on the day it happened.
“The UFT has been working with the individual teacher, school safety, the DOE, and the NYPD since last Monday,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement sent to the New York Jewish Week. “The union will continue to send staff to the building and to work with the administration, DOE safety personnel, school safety, and the NYPD to restore and maintain a safe environment for faculty, students, and staff.”
Contacted for comment, the American Federation of Teachers, the union’s parent organization, also sent Mulgrew’s statement. The head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, is a vocal supporter of Israel who is there now with her rabbi wife. She called the riot a “vile act of antisemitism” on X over the weekend and said “many stepped up to deal with this” before it broke into public view.
The executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, Mayer Waxman, said the group had a positive relationship with the broader community, was not aware of any previous antisemitism at local high schools, and was caught off-guard by the Hillcrest incident.
“We thought that Queens was better than this,” Waxman said, adding that he was frustrated by the fact that the incident remained out of public view for close to a week. “It should have been front and center and it should have been publicized and nipped in the bud.”
The borough’s main public university, Queens College, which is mainly attended by commuters, has also seen antisemitic incidents and tensions between Jewish and Muslim students.
Similar to the mayor and the chancellor, Jewish community leaders said social media and social trends played a central role in instigating the protest.
“I don’t think that the kids even understand what they’re even doing. They are riding this fun train. It’s the new ‘in thing’ to do now, is to hate on Jews,” Idels said.
Rabbi Yossi Schwartz, the director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Student Union in New York, a youth group that works in public high schools, said the organization had seen some antisemitism since Oct. 7, but that the Hillcrest riot still came as a shock. He said the school’s lack of Jewish students may have played into the outburst, since the students were probably less exposed to Israeli and Jewish perspectives.
After the press briefing, he said he expected a harsher response from administrators, and also attributed much of the rise in anti-Israel sentiment to social trends and social media.
“It’s cool to stand up and it’s cool to support what’s seen to be the underdog,” he said. “But when it becomes cool to be violent or becomes cool to be part of a mob against a teacher or against anyone, that’s where it’s just sad that that’s happening with teens.”
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Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas
A group of ten Harvard University alumni filed a lawsuit against the institution on Wednesday, accusing it of “devaluing” their degrees through permitting and fostering an environment of antisemitism, support for terrorism, and anti-Israel sentiment.
Filed in a Massachusetts federal court, the alumni claims that Harvard has breached an implicit contract with its graduates, promising to maintain the institution’s prestige, which they allege has been compromised due to a toxic campus environment. This, they argue, has led potential employers and prestigious law firms to distance themselves from Harvard alumni.
“Harvard has directly caused the value and prestige of plaintiffs’ Harvard degrees to be diminished and made a mockery out of Harvard graduates in the employment world and beyond,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit argues that the university’s administration has failed to combat campus anti-semitism, and has consistently overlooked assaults on Jewish students and calls by students and faculty for the annihilation of Israel. It highlighted, among other things, an open letter signed by more than thirty student organizations blaming Israel for the October 7 Hamas-led attack, and campus protests which included chants like “Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: intifada revolution!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!”
The suit also points to then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she stated that calls for genocide against Jews would only violate bullying and harassment policies “depending on the context,” as indicative of the school’s tolerance of antisemitism.
The lawsuit is part of a growing dissatisfaction among graduates over what they perceive as rampant antisemitism on U.S. campuses, according to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of legal aid group, Shurat HaDin, who is representing the alumni alongside New York-based lawyer, Robert Tolchin.
Darshan-Leitner criticized the colleges for becoming “hate centers” under the guise of academic freedom.
The lawsuit, Darshan-Leitner said, reveals the “growing outrage and contempt that graduates all across the US are feeling over the wild antisemitism and hate speech being encouraged and explained away on the American campuses.”
“This dangerous weaponization of higher education by radical faculty and students as well as the impotent administration response, all justified under the guise of academic freedom, has turned the colleges into hate centers which has greatly devalued their reputation and diplomas,” she said, adding that the suit could prompt similar actions from graduates of other institutions.
Tolchin accused the university of succumbing to “the flavor of the month, the lowest level of discourse.”
“Harvard’s seal proclaims “Light and Truth” in Latin and Hebrew–yes, Hebrew, the language spoken by the indigenous Israelites. Yet light and truth have been hard to find at Harvard. The darkness of antisemitism and the dishonesty, hate, and discrimination have cast a pall over Harvard so embarrassing that people do not wish to be associated with Harvard,” Tolchin said.
Harvard has been accused of facilitating an educational environment that is unwelcoming to Israelis and Jews for years, with the lawsuit citing annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week” and incidents targeting Jewish students and symbols on campus.
Antisemitism expert Dara Horn, a Harvard alumnus who was asked to join Gay’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, authored a damning essay published this week in The Atlantic in which she detailed the Jew hatred on campus predating October 7.
She noted that staff members “who grade Jewish students used university-issued class lists to share information about events organized by pro-Palestine groups;” In one instance, a professor continued teaching after rejecting the findings of an investigation by Harvard after he was found discriminating against several Israeli students. Last spring, a student was asked to leave because her identity as an Israeli was making her classmates “uncomfortable.”
She also pointed to courses themselves “premised on anti-Semitic lies”, pointing to one called “The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health”, and noted that lecturers invited to speak at the campus included some who peddled in blood libels that Israelis harvest Palestinians’ organs or that the IDF uses Palestinian children for weapons testing.
“The mountain of proof at Harvard revealed a reality in which Jewish students’ access to their own university (classes, teachers, libraries, dining halls, public spaces, shared student experiences) was directly compromised,” Horn writes. The alumni’s legal action comes alongside another lawsuit filed by six current Harvard students on January 10, claiming that the university has not done enough to combat antisemitism on campus which had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” It also comes a day after a professor at the university, Walter Johnson, resigned from two anti-Zionist campus groups after they posted antisemitic cartoons.
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Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7
Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar sent the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) a letter on Thursday urging them to approve Israel’s submission to the Eurovision song competition, after the EBU called it “too political.”
“As you know, the State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult and complex periods since its establishment. We lost our loved ones, and there are women, men and children who are still held captive by a terrorist organization,” Zohar said.
Israeli media reported that the broadcasting union would not approve the song, called “October Rain,” after a number of countries even issued threats to boycott the event if Israel participates. The EBU issued a statement saying “We are currently in the process of carefully examining the lyrics of the song – a process that is confidential between the EBU and the Public Broadcasting Corporation until a final decision is made. To all broadcasters, they have until March 11th to officially submit their songs. If a song does not meet the criteria for any reason, the corporation will be given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, according to the contest rules.”
“The song that Israel sent to the Eurovision Song Contest was chosen by a professional committee made up of well-known names in the local music and entertainment industry,” Zohar added. “It is a moving song, discussing renewal and revival from a very fragile reality of loss and destruction, and describes the current public mood in Israel these days. We see now most clearly because our lives – as one, united society – manage to overcome even the greatest suffering. This is not a political song.”
Despite the news that the song by Israeli singer Eden Golan would not be approved, The CEO of KAN, Israel’s national broadcasting service, and the body that approves the song, Golan Yokhpaz, said “We will not change the words or the song, even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year.” Adding “The Israel Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) is in dialogue with the EBU regarding the song that will represent Israel at Eurovision.”
Zohar said later in a television interview “The songwriters, KAN, and the singer will have to make the decisions at the end of the day… I do think that Israel should participate in Eurovision because it is important for us at this time to be represented there, and to express ourselves throughout Europe.”
Speaking to the EBU, he said, “We trust that you will continue in your important task of keeping the competition free from any attempt at political manipulation.”
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UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories referred to Israelis as “colonialists” who have “fake identities” while quoting another Twitter/X account on Wednesday, raising questions about the impartiality of the international body.
She highlighted the following quote from Mizrahi: “free Palestine scares them [Westerners] bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities.”
” free Palestine scares them bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities..” https://t.co/N1wkOPgKJs
— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) February 21, 2024
The original post claimed that “All colonial powers work together to guarantee the supremacy of made-up identities over genuine, native ones. Because if this model breaks anywhere, it will collapse everywhere.”
Mizrahi argued that “A Palestinian state would be a major, major moral blow to white, Western colonialism.”
The tweet was met with immediate condemnation.
David Friedman, who served as the US Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump wrote that her tweet was “Exhibit A why the UN is a failure and why we no longer belong in that bastion of hypocrisy and corruption.”
An account documenting Hamas’ October 7 atrocities asked, “If Israel is indeed a ‘colonialist project’ Where should all the Israelis go if this project should be dismantled?”
The perception of UN bias against Israel has also been boosted by the fact that, in 2023, Israel was condemned twice as often as all other countries combined.
It is not the first time Albanese has made comments that raise eyebrows. Earlier this month, in response to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron calling the October 7 attack “largest anti-Semitic massacre of the 21st century,” she said “No, Mr. Macron. The victims of October 7 were not killed because of their Judaism, but in response to Israel’s oppression.”
Following backlash, she wrote that she opposes “all racism, including anti-Semitism, a global threat. But explaining these crimes as anti-Semitism obscures their true cause.”
Hamas’ founding charter, in a section about the “universality” of its cause, reads: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Albanese has also argued that Israel should make peace with Hamas, saying that “It needs to make peace with Hamas in order to not be threatened by Hamas.”
When asked about what people do not understand about Hamas, she added, “If someone violates your right to self-determination, you are entitled to embrace resistance.”
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