As Chancellor Banks heads to Washington for antisemitism hearing, NYC is on the offensive

A man in glasses and a dark jacket stands at a podium.
Chancellor David Banks addresses faith leaders at the International Holocaust Remembrance day event at Tweed Courthouse on Jan. 26, 2024. Banks is expected to testify Wednesday before a congressional committee for a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 schools. (Courtesy of New York Public Schools)

All eyes will be on New York City schools Chancellor David Banks on Wednesday as he is set to testify before a Republican-led congressional committee about antisemitism in K-12 schools.

It’s the same committee that has skewered college presidents of elite universities— high-profile hearings that led to the resignation of presidents from Harvard and University of Pennsylvania, and marked the start of Columbia University’s encampment.

New York City schools appear to be on the offensive as Banks heads to Washington, D.C., joined by school officials from Maryland’s Montgomery County and Berkeley, California. All three are liberal-leaning districts with sizable Jewish populations that have faced alleged antisemitic incidents since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, and their leaders are likely to face heated questioning from the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Some New York City teachers have made national headlines after being targeted by students with antisemitic speech and other threats. Meanwhile some educators who have expressed pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel sentiments have said they’ve faced harsh discipline from school administrators and have been threatened by parents.

In recent days, Banks has emphasized that the Education Department has assembled an interfaith council and developed curricula on Jewish and Muslim history. This fall, the Education Department will launch a Holocaust teaching guide created in partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Next spring, city schools are expected to expand its “Hidden Voices” series — which celebrates the stories of diverse people often left of history books — to include Jewish and Muslim Americans.

The city has also held training for middle and high school leaders on how to navigate “difficult conversations” and met with all principals to review the disciplinary code, the city’s anti-bullying program, and crisis de-escalation techniques.

Those efforts have won mixed reactions from principals. One Brooklyn high school leader said he appreciated the “difficult conversations” training.

“We talked a lot about norms and community values, taking an inquiry stance, doing a lot of listening,” said the principal, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak. But he also wondered whether the training would be effective if it isn’t sustained over time.

“There are just so many competing priorities,” he said. “It just depends on what’s in the public eye at the moment.”

Many teens have complained that they’re hungry for information and critical dialogue on the crisis in the Middle East, but their schools are struggling to respond. Earlier this school year, students and staff from some schools in the nation’s largest school system staged a walkout calling for a ceasefire. More than 34,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli bombardments began after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, according to reports.

Some NYC teachers feel unsafe at their schools

At Origins High School in Brooklyn, a teacher, who is Jewish, alleged that her school was rife with antisemitism, with little response from administrators. After Education Department officials refuted the claims, the teacher, Danielle Kaminsky, filed a federal lawsuit last week claiming that students marched through the campus chanting “F— the Jews,” drawing swastikas on a Jewish student’s property, and exclaiming to a Jewish teacher that they “want to kill all jews.”

Kaminsky has since transferred to another school, according to the New York Post, which reported that she spoke last week at a congressional briefing in advance of Wednesday’s hearing.

“Students and staff deserve to be safe and respected in their school and Origins High School is no different. We will review this lawsuit,” Education Department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said in a statement.

In another incident that garnered national media attention, a raucous student demonstration erupted at Hillcrest in November after students saw a Jewish teacher’s social media picture with her holding a sign saying “I Stand With Israel.” Karen Marder posted it shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The students tried to get into her classroom as they called for her to be fired. Marder was elsewhere in the building when that happened, but dealing with the trauma and press coverage around the incident will still take time to heal, she recently wrote in a USA Today piece she penned with American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten.

Although she was given the option to transfer to another school, Marder decided to return to Hillcrest.

“I stayed to use the experience to connect, to listen, learn, debunk misinformation and combat intolerance,” she wrote. “I had to understand what messages they were absorbing and where they were coming from. I had to answer their questions, address their fears and confusions and simply be there.”

On Tuesday, ahead of the hearing, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to school districts around the country reiterating their obligation to protect Jewish and Muslim students from harassment and hostile school environments while also respecting students’ free speech rights. The letter laid out examples and described when political speech might cross the line into attacks targeted at national origin or shared ancestry.

Worries the hearing will focus on ‘viral moments’

Michael Mulgrew, head of New York City’s teachers union, praised the chancellor’s response to the various incidents here, saying any time there’s been an issue, “we have jumped on it very seriously and quickly.”

Ultimately, Mulgurew said, it was up to the adults to step up.

“How do we use this horrendous, horrible situation that’s going on, with all the adults yelling at each other with everything going on in Palestine and in Israel? And how do we try to use this as an educational opportunity to say, we can have a better world,” he said.

Banks told reporters last week he believed that Wednesday’s hearing would focus more on “viral moments and empty soundbites and cheap political talk” than substantive solutions.

“Trying to create gotcha moments is not how you ultimately solve problems that you really, deeply care about,” he said. “I would ask for Congress to figure out a way to bring people together from across the nation to help to solve for this insidious level of hate.”

Erica Meltzer contributed.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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