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Tensions Over Teaching About the Middle East Resonate in Lawsuit

Residents in Newton, Mass., with the support of several nonprofit advocacy groups, have filed a lawsuit against the district and even individual teachers, claiming their high school social studies curriculum is anti-Semitic and "anti-Israel," a charge the district hotly denies.

The move seems certain to pour more fuel on the fire of an already years-long debate in Newton over the appropriate presentation of geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East. The district serves about 13,000 students, and the city is known for having a sizable Jewish population.

In the lawsuit, filed March 11 in the state superior court, the plaintiffs contend that educators in two Newton high schools have deliberately refused to comply with Massachusetts laws and regulations requiring school curricula to "encourage respect for the human and civil rights of all individuals regardless of race, identity, religion, color, sex, and national origin." 

The complaint claims that those teachers have taught using flawed, biased materials. It goes so far as to identify specific texts, passages, maps, and other resources teachers have used—including a New York Times video and mainstream magazine articles—that, it alleges, favor a Palestinian point of view over a Zionist one, misconstrue the impact of the Holocaust on the establishment of Israel, and elevate Muslim spiritual texts above Jewish and Christian ones. It further says that administrators were not responsive to the Jewish residents' complaints and continued to teach certain topics even after promising to drop them until they were revised.

"Anti-Semitism is a deadly hatred. Defendants either disagree with this statement or share in this hatred because, for years, they have stubbornly refused to remove anti-Semitic and anti-Israel materials from the history lessons that they teach in the high schools of the City of Newton," the complaint reads.

The lawsuit names the superintendent, the chairwoman of the school board, two principals, and four teachers. It doesn't seek damages but does, in effect, seek to force the schools to revise the curriculum.

Curriculum Accuracy or Censorship?

The lawsuit is the latest evolution of a situation that's been brewing in Newton for seven years, according to the local news station WBUR. It began with a parent complaint about a textbook that purported to provide the Palestinian perspective on world affairs. Although a state official later ruled that the district hadn't violated any rules in using that textbook, the situation attracted the attention of Charles Jacobs, who heads up the controversial nonprofit Americans for Peace and Tolerance. The group tries to counter anti-Semitism in schools and universities, the radio station reported.

Jacobs has since aggressively sought to change the curriculum in Newton schools. According to the filing, in 2013, APT began filing public-records requests for history teachers' email communications and copies of Newton's high school curriculum. A second nonprofit pro-Israel group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, issued a critical monograph in 2017 based on the materials obtained by APT. Both Boston-based groups have also promoted their findings in various conservative publications. 

District officials have repeatedly contested those portrayals, saying the curriculum accurately reflects multiple perspectives on the conflict and the value of having students think critically about them. "These baseless claims, often reliant upon materials and documents taken out of context, are misleading and only serve to denigrate the hard work and professionalism of our skilled and dedicated faculty," Superintendent David Fleishman wrote in a letter to the community last September.

The teachers in the district have also been defended by the Newton affiliate of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. In a September 2018 letter, the union accused the APT of having "weaponized" open records requests with the goal of censoring other perspectives—not improving curriculum.

"APT's supporters charge that by raising any legitimate question about specific government policies, we are anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-American, or even 'anti-Western civilization,'" the union wrote in that letter. "It is in fact APT that would have Newton indoctrinate its students by teaching a politicized, sanitized, and overly simplistic history."

Things came to a head in November, after the residents filed an unsuccessful petition to fire Newton Supt. David Fleishman and to require the district to halt its teaching of these subjects until an unbiased curriculum could be found. At a public hearing, teachers walked out en masse and administrators refused to adopt a plan to reform the curriculum, infuriating the petition's supporters.

In an unusual public statement in December, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller backed the school system.

"... I categorically reject the allegation that Newton Public Schools' curriculum is anti-Semitic or that there is an anti-Semitic bias inherent in our schools," she said then. "I support our Newton Public Schools teachers. I am particularly disturbed by the targeting of individual teachers, and am deeply concerned about the effect these attacks on individual teachers have on the way class discussions are led and emails are written."

Context for a Debate

The Newton district sent along a statement in response to a query about the lawsuit, signed by Fuller, the school board, and Supt. Fleishman.

"While the approach is new, the allegation is the same," they wrote. "We strongly disagree with the allegations and stand by the message we shared with the [Newton Public Schools] community last fall."  

It's also important to note that the APT has been criticized by other Jewish groups. The New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League has also met with the district on other occasions to review curriculum materials, and has apparently approved of many of them, although it did criticize the programming of a "Middle East Day" in the school district last year.

The executive director of the ADL New England didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on the Newton lawsuit. 

One of the reasons this situation warrants attention now is because of current events. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in the United States and in Europe—as are anti-Muslim attacks. Both appear to be at least in part tied to a global resurgence of white nationalism. 

State guidelines are not much help. In the United States, curriculum requirements on teaching the Holocaust and on genocide more generally are all over the place. Complicating matters, there's also been a push to increase the teaching of the Bible in public schools, and President Trump has supported those efforts. (Legislation to that end has been introduced in six states.)

All of this suggests that it is incredibly difficult for teachers, curriculum writers, and students to address things like this conflict—especially at this particular moment in time, when geopolitical and religious issues are deeply intertwined with the incredibly polarized, fractious political environment in Congress.

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar's widely reported critical comments about Israel last month, for example, received both vociferous criticism and defenses from her Democratic colleagues. Her comments have been viewed as anti-Semitic by some and part of a legitimate criticism of how lobbying groups shape foreign policy by others. They have also reawakened a widespread debate about whether criticism of Israel's current policies is intrinsically anti-Semitic or not. 

Just how do you teach all that in a classroom? 

Here's another wrinkle: When it comes to a situation as complicated as the political, religious, and social history of the Middle East, advocacy can cut in more than one direction. In Fairfax County, Va., a number of Muslim women have been testifying to the school board that textbooks there are biased in the other way—emphasizing Arab culpability for conflict in the region. They want the school to—you guessed it—supplement or replace the curriculum.

A word that often seems to come up in these debates, both with the Newton curriculum and in Virginia, is "objective," and the pursuit of objectivity in curriculum. But when you have a situation in which basic facts, scholarship, and even the language and terms used are contested, who gets to decide what is and isn't objective? 

Increased Scrutiny for Curriculum Nationwide?

It's unclear whether the ongoing situation in Newton is an outlier, or whether it presages more of these tensions showing up in American K-12 classrooms—especially if individual text choices become a battleground, as they are in Newton.

At the very least, it has echoes of curriculum debates in other fields. In those cases, as in Newton, the curriculum reformers say they are seeking to expunge bias and ensure accuracy, while their opponents say the groups' efforts are really a guise for censoring perspectives they don't like.

An ascendant Texas group that trains local reviewers to examine textbooks claims in many of its summaries that the United States is a "Christian nation" and that history textbooks suffer from anti-Israel, pro-Muslim viewpoints. And in Florida, a group has successfully pushed for revisions to  science textbooks because they include evolution and climate change. That group currently has its sights on removing supposedly pornographic literature.  

Are you a teacher who is struggling to talk about world religions or the Arab-Israeli conflict? Education Week would love to hear from you about your experiences. Please email [email protected] 

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