Classroom criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic

By Glenn Sacks
January 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

Smoke rises to the sky after an explosion in Gaza Strip as seen from Southern Israel, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Smoke rises to the sky after an explosion in Gaza Strip as seen from Southern Israel, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

I asked Brandon, a Filipino student, “In the past decade the Philippine government has carried out thousands of extrajudicial executions, and I condemn this — does this mean that I am prejudiced against Filipinos? Am I creating a hostile classroom for you as a Filipino?”

My students immediately understood the absurdity of this, that racial prejudice and criticism of a particular government’s policies are two very different things. Why is it that 17-year-olds can understand something that some modern critics of public education apparently cannot?

Jews are among the most persecuted groups in human history, culminating in the Holocaust, and charges of antisemitism carry great weight. However, Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and other opponents of public education and teachers unions are branding legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies “antisemitic.” Jewish educators have a special responsibility to combat these pernicious allegations, and to lead the fight to defend teachers’ academic freedom.

Led by the PDE, dozens of groups claiming to represent the parents of America’s K-12 students recently wrote to United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona warning of “a crisis in our schools” over a “raging antisemitism…pervasive…and baked into teacher training programs. Teachers’ unions…have become beholden to this toxic ideology. K-12 school districts…teach appalling material…”

What PDE and its allies condemn as “antisemitism” are some characterizations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict included in public school K-12 curricula. Yet the characterizations they cite are also being made by organizations and journalists in Israel and around the world, and are of Israeli policies, not of Jews.

For example, the PDE and its allies object to a lesson from the Jefferson Union High School District near San Francisco which speaks of “Palestinian dispossession of lands/identity/culture through Zionist settler colonialism.”

However, for decades Zionists themselves used the word “colonization” to refer to their attempts to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and it is apt. In 1922, Muslims represented 78% of Palestine’s population, and Jews only 11%. In the ensuing 25 years — while the U.S. and others largely refused to take in those fleeing the Holocaust — the Jewish population grew 750%. By 1948, Jewish settlers were in control of Palestine.

In fairness to Israel, it is also true that, unlike settler colonies such as the U.S., Canada, and others, many Israelis were refugees who had little choice but to become settlers.

PDE’s letter also cites Palestinian-American journalist Dr. Ramzy Baroud’s work as an example of antisemitism, taking issue in particular with his accusations of Israeli “ethnic cleansing” included in readings from ethnic studies courses in the Santa Ana Unified School District in Southern California. Baroud also likens Israeli policies to “those imposed on black South Africa during the Apartheid regime era.”

One can debate these characterizations, but Israel has been accused of “ethnic cleansing” by both Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy recently wrote in the Israeli publication Haaretz “ethnic cleansing is happening…it’s a policy…One can no longer ignore it or remain silent. It looks like ethnic cleansing, acts [like] ethnic cleansing and that’s what it is.” Israeli historian Ilan Pappé authored a book supporting the allegation called “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.” Israeli lawmaker Ofer Cassif condemns Israeli “ethnic cleansing being carried out in the West Bank.”

The degree to which the “apartheid” analogy is apt is also debatable, but this accusation has been made by the Israeli human rights groups B’tselem and Yesh Din, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others.

Our students are asking us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are looking for information and answers — what legitimacy can teachers have if we only offer students a prettified, artificial view of Israel, or if we refuse to discuss these issues at all? How can an American educator be branded “antisemitic” if, during these discussions, a teacher shares views which are also being espoused by prominent Israeli authorities?

Growing up Jewish in the U.S., neither in Hebrew school and temple nor in public school did we learn the truth about how Israel, both in its founding and in later decades, mistreated the indigenous Palestinians.

Jews are a small percentage of the American population, but make up a considerable percentage of America’s four million K-12 teachers, particularly in New York City and Los Angeles, America’s two largest school districts. America’s Jewish teachers must take the lead in asserting educators’ right to question Israeli policy — and the hundreds of billions of dollars the U.S. has given to support it — without being accused of bigotry.

Sacks teaches high school social studies in the Los Angeles Unified School District. His columns on education and politics have been published in dozens of America’s largest publications.

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