A Jewish community leader in Newton had a simple message for Mayor Setti Warren Tuesday night regarding anti-Semitism: “Never again.”
The message from Ilan Segev, a Newton resident and Boston co-chairman of the Israeli American Council, was part of his opening remarks at a forum organized by the council, the Anti-Defamation League of New England, and other Jewish organizations to give voice to community concerns that have simmered in the city since a middle school principal failed to report to authorities that hateful anti-Semitic graffiti had been written on the wall in a bathroom.
“We are concerned here in Newton, because this is not just a single event, not just a sporadic kid spraying graffiti in a bathroom. It happens on the basketball court, it happens in the classroom, it happens everywhere,” Segev said. “Anti-Semitism is rising its head again, and we can not let it rise.”
The forum, attended by about 150 people, was organized not only to discuss those incidents but also to devise a plan to address what many call the “ignorance and hate” behind the acts and what some say is an anti-Israel bias in the local public school curriculum.
Warren, who was introduced by Segev as “a true friend of Israel, and a true friend of our community,” told the group he has already taken steps, and was ready to do more after “the hard and painful lesson” that there were more problems in Newton than he had known.
He said he was proud to have been a catalyst in circulating a worldwide statement by mayors condemning anti-Semitism that recently reached its 500th signature.
“What I didn’t know a year and a half ago when I was starting that was the real, critical work we had to do in this community,” he said.
The episode that turned the spotlight on the issue in Newton was F. A. Day Middle School principal Brian Turner’s failure to report to police, school officials, or parents that “Burn the Jews” had been scrawled on a bathroom wall in October. Warren and other city officials learned about that incident, as well as another in which a swastika was trampled in snow just off the school’s property, only after receiving an anonymous letter with photographs of the hate speech.
“Burn the Jews” was again found scrawled on a bathroom wall in March, and swastikas were found in bathrooms at Newton North High School.
But, for many at the forum, school curriculum was a priority.
“I’m less worried about swastikas and graffiti because that happens in the dark of night -- it’s done by cowards. What really scares me is what happens in broad daylight, in school rooms,” Charles Jacobs, president of the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said to applause from many in the audience.
“Let’s see it, let’s see it all, let’s vet it,” Jacobs said about the curriculum. “Let’s have a system. You have systems where racism can’t be taught in the schools, and homophobia can’t be taught in the schools; there should be a system where anti-Israelism, which is the new anti-Semitism, can’t be taught in the schools,” he said.
Jacobs asked Warren to acknowledge there is a problem and “warn other mayors that this can happen, and is very dangerous.”
Warren told the audience that while he is one of nine members of the School Committee, it is Superintendent David Fleishman who is solely responsible for the curriculum, and his decision whether to make it public.
He said he will convey to Fleishman and the School Committee the forum’s desire to be able to see the curriculum, adding that anyone who sees a problem with a textbook, handout, reading assignment, or anything else in materials used by the city’s schools should bring it to his attention.
“Bring them directly to me, and I will take them to the superintendent,” he said.
School Committee chairman Matt Hills, who was in the audience, told the Globe after the forum that the schools make available what is mandated by state law.
“The mayor and the School Committee have been united for four years in keeping the curriculum in accordance with the educational needs of the students and state guidelines, and not letting it become a political football,” Hills said.
Fleishman has said in the past that Jacobs’s assertions about the Newton curriculum being biased against Israel were “issues from the past” that were resolved in 2012 when the “Arab World Studies Notebook” was removed from the curriculum.
The School Department has consistently denied any bias in its curriculum, and in November 2013 the state rejected a parent’s complaint that the history curriculum for ninth- and 10th-graders in the city’s high schools contained anti-Semitic material and Islamic dogma.
Warren outlined measures he has already taken to address anti-Semitism, including hiring a civil rights lawyer, Richard Cole, to train school administrators, teachers, and police; working with the Israeli American Council to locate a campus of an Israeli university in Newton; and setting up a steering committee to address issues of hate, among other initiatives.
He embraced a suggestion by Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, to establish a sister-city relationship with a community in Israel.
Trestan said his organization will also hold educational programs for students in all four middle schools in Newton.
“Obviously the curriculum was the number one topic here,” Trestan said. “There’s a mandate, there’s some momentum, on the issue of transparency, on the issue of concerns, on the issue of what the material is, what’s being taught, so I think we need to work together.”Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.