NEWTON — Newton teachers say they’ve never taught students anti-Semitic material, despite years-long criticism from outside groups that have accused the school system of anti-Israel bias in its high school world-history curriculum.
On Tuesday night, the dispute erupted anew, as hundreds of teachers came out to support the administration and its curriculum during a hearing at Newton South High School that was called to consider a petition to overhaul the curriculum and oust Superintendent David Fleishman.
The committee voted 9-0 to reject the request to fire Fleishman. On the curriculum-related requests, the board either cast unanimous votes against the proposals, or voted to take no action on the grounds that the issues were outside the panel’s authority.
Committee members said the history curriculum was developed from guidelines set by the state, and the learning program isn’t biased.
David Bedar, a history teacher at Newton North High School who has been singled out for criticism, said the campaign against the curriculum is “an attack on free thought.”
“The allegations of anti-Semitism — they are a personal affront to me as a professional educator, as a Newton resident, and as a Jewish person myself, and a lot of people feel this way,” he said.
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At the conclusion of his remarks, Bedar asked people who supported the teachers to rise. A majority of the crowd rose and then left the auditorium, drawing jeers from people on the other side of the dispute.
Education Without Indoctrination, a nonprofit group led by residents of Brookline and Concord, said on its website that it organized the petition.
The hearing lasted four hours as the School Committee heard testimony from people on both sides of the debate and then deliberated.
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Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which backed the petition, said his group isn’t backing down.
“It’s bureaucrats circling the wagons,” he said. “I think they don’t get it. I think they really don’t get that when you treat Israel differently than you would treat any other state, that’s the new anti-Semitism.”
The School Committee scheduled the public hearing after about 200 city residents signed the petition. Such hearings are triggered by petitions signed by at least 50 certified voters, the city said.
Teachers and their supporters wore red stickers that read “Support Newton Values.” On the other side of the debate, demonstrators displayed signs that read “Educate Yes. Indoctrinate No.”
Margot Einstein, a Newton resident who signed the petition, said she became concerned seven years ago when she learned a student received a pamphlet that claimed Israelis were jailing and killing Palestinian women.
The student’s father brought his concerns to school officials, she said, but he was rebuffed.
“There’s propaganda and bias in the schools. It’s anti-Christian, anti-American. It whitewashes Islam. It’s anti-Semitic material,” she said.
The curriculum dispute goes back to 2011 and has been marked by a series of actions by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a nonprofit in Watertown, which has demonstrated against the district and placed ads accusing the system of using materials that “demonize Israel” and glorify Islam.
In August, one of the organization’s leaders, Ilya Feoktistov, wrote a story for “The Federalist,” a right-wing online magazine, in which he accused two Newton North High School history teachers of bias against President Trump.
The story relied on e-mails written by Bedar and another teacher, Isongesit Ibokette, after Trump’s inauguration last year and obtained by Feoktistov under a public records request. The Fox News program “Fox & Friends” later aired a segment about the story.
The petition asked the School Committee to fire both teachers, but the panel said it won’t address the request because it doesn’t have the authority to fire faculty members.
The teachers have been defended by the Newton Teachers Association and Fleishman, who assailed claims about the history curriculum as “misleading” and decried tactics that singled out individual educators.
“This is a wake-up call for people. It’s chilling when individual teachers are targeted and harassed for what they’re doing,” Fleishman said Tuesday evening. “Teachers have told me that they’re actually worried about what they’re doing now and thinking more about. I worry that they won’t teach controversial topics and they’ll shy away.”
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More than 400 graduates of Newton North High School signed a letter signaling their support for the “curriculum that promotes critical thinking” and asserting their opposition to Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
The curriculum “has not taught us what to think, but how to think critically and cross-reference with independent sources,” the letter said. “In today’s increasingly polarized and sensationalized discourse, such skills are particularly empowering and simply necessary.”
In 2013, a Newton parent complained to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about Newton’s high school history curriculum. The parent alleged that the curriculum violated the separation of church and state by spending an “inordinate” amount of time on Islam, and at too high a level of detail.
It also alleged that class materials contained anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, racist, and false information, and pointed specifically to passages from “A Muslim Primer,” “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” and a website called Flashpoints.
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State education officials disagreed. In a letter to the parent, the agency said it found that “no violation of education law, regulation or policy has occurred with regard to the specific concern(s) you have raised.”
Some revisions have been made to the history curriculum.
The “Arab World Studies Notebook” was removed from the curriculum in 2012 after a parent complained in 2011 of bias and the district decided the material was outdated, school officials said. Flashpoints had been linked to the Newton North High School library website and was removed after parents complained, officials said in 2013.
The district is in the process of revising its high school history curriculum to conform with state guidelines, which were recently updated, Fleishman said.
That effort has nothing to do with the concerns raised by the outside groups, he said.
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.