Some Newton teachers will miss school to respond to critics’ records requests
Thirteen history teachers in the Newton Public Schools are expected to miss some class time this week in order to gather documents for a public records request filed by an advocacy organization that has accused the district of anti-Israel bias in its high-school world history curriculum.
The Watertown nonprofit Americans for Peace and Tolerance has submitted 16 public records requests to the school system so far in 2018, but this is the first time that teachers will need to step away from the classroom to assemble records, said Superintendent David Fleishman.
The documents sought by the group include materials used to teach students about the Holocaust and the rise of Nazi Germany at the city’s two high schools and all teaching materials used since the autumn of 2016 by David Bedar, a Newton North High School history teacher who has been singled out for criticism, school records show.
Bedar teaches a senior elective called “Middle East, Asia and Latin America,” US history, and American studies courses.
Fleishman said most teachers will need one 55- or 75-minute “block” to compile the requested materials, though Bedar is expected to miss three days of teaching beginning on Monday.
City high schools don’t use substitute teachers so most students will miss a history class and parents will be notified, Fleishman said. Most younger students will attend study hall and older ones will have free time.
The district plans to comply with the state public records law, he said, and provide the documents promptly.
“This is not the way our educators want to spend their time. They want to spend their time addressing the academic and emotional needs of the students in front of them,” Fleishman said Saturday.
Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said in an e-mail that the group seeks the records because Newton schools have “failed to vet hateful and false teaching materials.”
“It is unfortunate that the teachers have to spend time away from their students, but teachers wouldn’t have had to miss a minute teaching if Superintendent Fleishman had adopted a policy of transparency,” Jacobs said. “It’s his refusal to do so that is resulting in the teachers being away from the classroom; otherwise, we would not have had to waste time and money.”
Americans for Peace and Tolerance and another group, Education Without Indoctrination, have been engaged in a lengthy fight with the school system over allegations of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias in high-school history courses.
Among their complaints are accusations that the history curriculum includes a doctored version of the Hamas charter, maps produced by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and texts written by authors with anti-Israel views.
Newton school officials, who have the support of the School Committee and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, have strenuously denied the allegations, saying the groups distort the teaching materials and take them out of context. The dispute has endured for about seven years.
Last month, people on both sides of the debate assembled at Newton South High School for a public hearing during which the School Committee deliberated on a citizen petition to revamp the curriculum and fire Fleishman. The petition, organized by Education Without Indoctrination, failed as the panel voted either to reject the proposals or take no action. Fleishman kept his job.
Americans for Peace and Tolerance responded with an ad published in the Friday edition of The Jewish Advocate that accused the School Committee of keeping the curriculum secret, turning the public hearing into a “pep rally,” and using “anti-Semitic dog whistles about Zionism to dismiss Jewish community concerns.”
In his e-mail, Jacobs said school system supporters refused to address the issues that he and other critics raised. “We were simply ignored,” he said.
Last summer, the Anti-Defamation League in New England and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston raised concerns about the screening of a film from the Boston Palestine Film Festival at a Newton North High School event. The event didn’t include an “outside speaker” to present Israeli perspectives, the groups wrote in a July letter to Fleishman.
The organizations have offered to help Newton schools develop a bias-free Middle East curriculum, while keeping their distance from Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
In December 2017, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Massachusetts Board of Rabbis issued a statement calling Jacobs and his organization “purveyors of hatred and division” after they said Americans for Peace and Tolerance defamed a rabbi whose temple hosted an interfaith event where Muslims were invited to speak.
In 2013, state education officials investigated a complaint from a Newton parent who claimed the history curriculum included anti-Semitic and anti-Israel materials. The investigation found the curriculum complied with the law.
Still some changes have been made to the materials used to teach students about the Middle East.
The district stopped using the “Arab World Studies Notebook” in 2012 after a parent complained of bias and school officials concluded the material was outdated, the Globe has reported. An online resource was also removed after parents complained, officials said in 2013.
Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said responding to public records requests filed by Americans for Peace and Tolerance has become a burden for teachers.
“People are very conscientious when they do it and it takes time,” he said. “Kids are losing out. That’s what ends up happening here. Kids are losing out.”
In August, Ilya Feoktistov, the executive director of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, wrote a story for “The Federalist” that accused Bedar and another history teacher, Isongesit Ibokette, of bias against President Trump. The story relied on e-mails written by Bedar and Ibokette and obtained by Feoktistov through a public records request.
At last month’s hearing, Bedar defended his teaching and described the allegations of anti-Semitism as a “personal affront.”