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In Newton, a ‘difficult, but essential’ meeting

Newton Mayor Setti Warren spoke at the community forum Thursday night.Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

Newton Mayor Setti Warren on Friday praised high school students who spoke out at a community meeting he called “difficult, but essential,” and outlined a series of steps being taken to maintain the city’s “tradition as a welcoming, inclusive community.”

In a letter to the community, Warren said he is proud that Newton “did not shy away from a difficult conversation.”

The meeting Thursday night was called after two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered at the Day Middle School but was not conceived as a forum to discuss only those incidents. Instead, it was billed as a “community discussion on Newton as a welcoming community for all.”


A group of Jewish activists tried to take over to the meeting, saying it should have focused solely on anti-Semitism, but were quieted by students who stood and spoke about the need to fight against all intolerance.

“I do want to highlight how impressed I was with our young people who spoke out last night, emphasizing that building alliances among all groups is the most effective way to combat prejudice,” Warren’s statement said. “They displayed remarkable maturity and stayed to engage in further conversation with others after the meeting ended. They represent hope for the future.”

Warren said he has hired civil rights attorney Richard Cole to work with the school department to train faculty and administration to strengthen protocols for reporting hateful incidents, and on how to address these incidents with students.

“He will also be working with students to make sure our youth voices are leading important conversations and are represented in these processes,” Warren said.

“Burn the Jews” was found scrawled on a bathroom wall at Day in October, and again in March, and a swastika was found trampled into the snow just off school property in January. In addition, at Newton North High School, anti-Semitic graffiti was found, and racist questions were submitted to a black student group .


Charles Jacobs, a leader of the activists who attended Thursday’s forum, said community members who wanted to hear what city officials had to say about anti-Semitism were instead “forced for an hour to hear nonsense” from a panel of speakers.

“Love your enemies? Let’s all be nice? We are all potential victims of human hatred? This is just silly, contentless psychobabble. It was a filibuster so we had less time to talk,” Jacobs, founder of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, wrote in an e-mail responding to questions from the Globe.

In a telephone interview Friday, Jacobs said that because the meeting was called just days after the anti-Semitic graffiti incidents at Day were made public, it was not unreasonable to assume a night would be dedicated to discussing that issue alone.

Jacobs also said many in the crowd were frustrated over a longtime grievance with the city’s schools about what he says are pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic textbooks, a charge the school administration denies.

At one point during the meeting, the activists dismissed discussion of homophobia and other types of prejudice and discrimination, and an African-American mother who described her son’s experiences with racism in the Newton schools was heckled.

“I’m sure every Jewish person in the room would stand side by side with them,” Jacobs said of the mother and her son. But, he said, “we needed to hear answers last night to the serious death threats made against the Jewish community.”


Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement Friday it was unfortunate that “the student voices were drowned out by a vocal group whose concerns about the curriculum overshadowed a dialogue about all forms of bias.”

Trestan said, “It is not a competition to determine which type of hatred is the worst. The goal is to eliminate all forms of hate and bigotry from Newton schools.”

Warren said Quinn Etchie, the city’s director of youth services, will be following up with students and faculty, and said the city will continue to work with the Human Rights Commission and the Interfaith Clergy Association. The city will also track the progress that is made and report results.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.