The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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June 19, 2024

Recent local antisemitic incidents lead to increased tensions in MCPS

Ava Ohana
In March 2023, five reports of antisemitic incidents in MCPS occurred in a week and four reports of antisemitic vandalism on campus caused the indefinite closure of all outdoor facilities at Northwood High School.

Board of Education President Karla Silvestre testified on MCPS’ handling of antisemitism before a U.S. House Education and Workforce subcommittee, May 8. The hearing, titled “Confronting Pervasive Antisemitism in K-12 Schools”, was the first to center around antisemitism in K-12 schools and followed previous hearings that focused on universities.

During the hearing, Silvestre outlined several steps MCPS is taking to address antisemitism in schools. The steps include creating a hate-bias training program for all staff this summer, expanding the K-12 curriculum to include more topics related to the Jewish experience, and strengthening policies to combat antisemitism, hate and racism.

MCPS and the school board commit themselves to addressing antisemitism in the school system, Silvestre said.

“I can’t tell you we’ve gotten it right every single time,” she said during the hearing. “But as a board, we are committed to working with our administrators and our community to constantly improve our processes and outcomes.”

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David Banks, the New York City Public Schools Chancellor, and Enikia Ford Morthel, the Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent also testified. All three school officials rejected allegations that they tolerate antisemitism in their districts.

The committee members repeatedly accused the officials of not doing enough to confront antisemitism in their districts, and their intense questioning led to several heated exchanges with Banks. Later in the hearing, he urged Congress to find solutions beyond just holding hearings.

“This convening, for too many Americans in education, feels like the ultimate ‘gotcha’ moment,” Banks said. “It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve for something that, I believe, we should be doing everything we can solve for.”

Silvestre, along with Banks and Ford Morthel, testified “yes” when asked by Rep. Aaron Bean if the controversial phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was antisemitic. However, Ford Morthel said she recognized that it has different meanings. Many pro-Palestinian activists argue the phrase is a call for peace, but others interpret it as a call to eradicate Israel and its Jewish population.

As Jewish students said they wanted more assurances from MCPS about addressing antisemitism in the hearing, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement that said they were “troubled by the one-sided, biased interrogation of school administrators.”

Approximately six months ago, the same House subcommittee held a hearing contributing to the resignations of Harvard President Claudine Gay and the University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill after they faced intense pressure over their testimonies regarding antisemitism on college campuses. Specifically, they declined to affirmatively state that a call for the genocide of Jews would violate their university’s code of conduct.

Jewish activists have used the legal strategy of claiming that certain schools have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to push for investigations concerning alleged antisemitism at campuses. That law prohibits discrimination across various categories, including harassment based on a person’s shared ancestry, in programs receiving federal funds. MCPS is currently facing a federal Title VI investigation from the Department of Education regarding its alleged failure to address antisemitic incidents. Another Title VI complaint against MCPS from the Zionist Organization of America alleges that MCPS officials have ignored and tolerated antisemitism for years.

Montgomery County has a Jewish population of about 10%, with 45% of Maryland’s Jewish residents living in Montgomery County. Last school year, MCPS experienced an array of antisemitic incidents. Throughout 2022, antisemitic incidents in Maryland reported to the Anti-Defamation League increased by 98% compared to the previous year — with over half of the incidents occurring in Montgomery County.

Whitman itself has faced numerous antisemitic incidents in the past years. Two years ago, Whitman students encountered anti-Israel protesters in the school’s parking lot. The five men had a poster with the Israeli sign next to the Nazi flag with an equal sign between them. The poster claimed Israel is a terrorist state and contained the words “FREE PALESTINE.”

In December 2022, a vandal painted “Jews Not Welcome” on the Whitman school sign. In response to the graffiti, more than 300 Whitman students walked out of their first-period classes to demand action against rising antisemitism. The Jews4Change organization arranged the event, during which Jewish students and guest speakers shared their personal experiences and frustrations with the recent antisemitic incidents.

Also in December 2022, two students on Whitman’s debate team allegedly made antisemitic comments about their Jewish teammates during an off-campus team trip. The students allegedly joked about luring and burning Jewish people, including specific Debate team members. School administrators suspended the two debaters accused of making the comments from participating in the Debate team for one month and required them to complete Restorative Justice sessions before lifting the suspension.

Spanish teacher Rebecca Zatz, who is Jewish, has been teaching for 15 years at Whitman and said the recent antisemitic incidents have been upsetting.

“In the past few years, it seems that hate in general has increased and now it has increased toward antisemitism,” Zatz said.

In January 2023, officials from at least four schools reported finding drawings of swastikas on classroom desks. In February 2023, Montgomery County officials implemented stronger penalties for students who commit hateful acts in light of the recent antisemitic incidents in the county.

Despite these penalties, data from the Montgomery County Police Department shows that more than a third of Montgomery County bias-related crimes in 2023 had anti-Jewish motives. In March 2023, five reports of antisemitic incidents in MCPS occurred in a week and four reports of antisemitic vandalism on campus caused the indefinite closure of all outdoor facilities at Northwood High School.

In the 2023-2024 school year, antisemitic incidents have persisted at Whitman and Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, Whitman’s sole feeder school. In October, students found antisemitic graffiti at Pyle and Chevy Chase Elementary School. In December at Whitman, a student discovered a drawing of a swastika on a school desk, and three days earlier, a student found antisemitic graffiti on a restroom wall at Quince Orchard High School. In April at Pyle, a drawing of a swastika was found on a classroom table.

Sophomore Sam Clement, a two-year member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, expressed his disappointment with the large amount of recent antisemitism.

“It’s really saddening and disheartening to know that that stuff goes on in our community,” Clement said.

Zatz and Clement also believe there has recently been a rise in Islamophobia. In a statement in March, a group of United Nations independent experts warned of rising Islamophobia worldwide.

On Oct. 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an attack on Israel from Gaza killing approximately 1,200 people and taking 252 hostage, according to the Israeli government. Two Jewish organizations released a statement expressing dissatisfaction with the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. school systems’ responses to the conflict. They specifically criticized MCPS and former Superintendent Monifa McKnight for an “inadequate” statement on the attack. Less than two hours later, MCPS posted a new signed statement from McKnight.

Since Oct. 7, the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 35,000 and injured over 80,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The Israel-Hamas war has led to many pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses nationwide. As Congress continues its investigations into the alleged enabling of antisemitism on campuses, student arrests have prompted debates over whether the First Amendment protects the students’ rights to protest.

In February, CAIR filed a lawsuit against MCPS and the Board of Education challenging the administrative leave and investigation of three MCPS teachers for expressing pro-Palestinian views. Some Jewish communities considered the teachers’ actions to be antisemitic, but CAIR argued that MCPS’s actions violated the teacher’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. MCPS reinstated the teachers in April, and the lawsuit is ongoing.

On May 8, the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. reached a settlement with Jackson-Reed High School, the largest public high school in D.C., to avoid legal proceedings after suing the school over the alleged censorship of pro-Palestinian activity. The D.C. Public Schools system and the school agreed to end its ban on the Arab Student Union’s attempt to show a pro-Palestinian documentary and host events about Palestinian culture.

Renia Ahmed and Naz Bolukbasi are Co-Presidents of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), a club that works to build a community among Muslims at Whitman.

Ahmed believes that there is a huge underreporting of Islamophobia because many Muslims are afraid of the consequences they could face for speaking out.

“There have definitely been some instances of chilled speech where we just don’t feel comfortable sharing our views because of the rise in Islamophobia,” Ahmed said. “As a minority in this school, it’s hard to share our views and feel like we’d be in a safe environment.”

In the 2019-2020 school year, Whitman instituted OneWhitman to promote diversity and inclusion through classroom discussion. Zatz said the program has grown to have much more student involvement over time.

Bolukbasi and Ahmed shared that they are planning a OneWhitman lesson next school year focusing on Islam and highlighting Muslim experiences of Islamophobia.

“OneWhitman alone can’t fix an entire issue,” Bolukbasi said, “but I think it can be a really good starting point.”

Zatz said OneWhitman is an effective way that Whitman can teach more about antisemitism and Islamophobia, and she believes that there also needs to be changes in curriculums to reflect a changing world.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues, students across the country have felt the impact of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia. In MCPS, the recent increase in hateful incidents has led to debates over how and the extent to which officials should take action to ensure students feel welcomed in their communities.

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Ava Ohana
Ava Ohana, Photographer
Grade 12 Why did you join The B&W? To share my love of photography with others :) If you were a candle, what scent would you be? Vanilla lime

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    Robert BlakeJun 18, 2024 at 4:32 am

    What is clear is that the alleged Islamophobia presence is not real as to size and impact . There are no constant demonstrations in support of Israel and vilifications of the Islamic side of the equation . There is a total ignorance of the fact that what is being prevented is constant propaganda for terrorism and Hamas support by most of the Pro Palestinian camp and harassment of people for simply being Jews . The ACLU itself is infested with such pro terror persons creating an equivalency between a prevailing massively present antisemitism and a very limited so called Islamophobia that mostly does not exist as demonstrated by the sheer number of unhinged disturbances created by the distorting if facts pro Islamic terror groups .