School Committee Should Provide Facts, Not Attacks

by CHARLES JACOBS December 4, 2012

Ever since Tony Paliuso's daughter, a student at Newton South, asked her father if Jews really torture and murder Palestinian women in Israeli jails - as she learned in class - Jewish parents and community members have been trying to find out just what is being taught in the Newton schools. It's not been easy. For almost a year now, concerned taxpayers have met with teachers and officials and have come to speak at School Board meetings asking to see curricular materials on the Middle East, Jews, and Israel. They have been stonewalled, and attacked.

Matt Hills, the vice chairman of the Newton School Committee, provides a taste of this treatment in his article published in both the TAB ["Defending the curriculum in our schools," Newton TAB, Nov. 14, p. B2] and the Jewish Advocate, criticizing those who raise legitimate questions as "McCarthyites." Yet, just as he has done at the school board meetings I attended, his writings offer no facts to accompany his criticism.

But there are facts. Indeed the most worrisome fact has been agreed to by all sides: Newton students were taught that Jews in Israel torture and murder Arab women in jails. This was presented in a handout from the Arab World Studies Notebook.

The Arab World Studies Notebook has been rejected by school boards, and condemned by the American Jewish Committee in 2007 as both political propaganda against Israel and religious proselytization for Islam. The AJC noted its concern that "over 12,000 copies have been distributed and over 16,000 educators have attended workshops in which it is being used." The "Notebook" is published jointly by the Middle East Policy Council and AWAIR, both funded by Saudi Arabia, whose anti-Western, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian, anti-women, anti-gay "educational" publications are spreading throughout America.

Saudi funded propaganda never should have gotten into Newton schools. But when Newton parents complained, they were told that the Notebook had been vetted, and what's more, that the head of the School's History Department got it at a workshop for teachers conducted by Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies. Therefore it would be kept in the classroom. Period. Instead of properly vetting materials, our school committee seems simply to accept whatever Harvard offers. Meanwhile, Harvard's CMES is directed by Northeastern graduate Paul Beran who has been prominent in agitation for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Matt Hills, pointing his finger at the concerned parents, says he must "reject politically motivated attempts to compromise or hijack our curriculum." But it was hijacked, and on his watch.

After months of concerted parental and citizen protest the School Committee finally removed the Notebook. Still, the board resists an honest assessment: Chairwoman Claire Sokoloff rejects the characterization of the material as "poisonous." "It was just, she said, "opinions you don't agree with." School Superintendent David Fleishman told parents the handout was removed because it "didn't meet the learning goals of the class." George Orwell, call your office. We understand: Institutions tend to circle the wagons when confronted. Truth is the first casualty. But this "edu-speak" only harms the board's credibility: Who can really believe that  "Jews murderer Arab women" was presented as an "opinion" to our students? Newton schools would never present the KKK's hateful "opinions" about blacks, or Islamist opinions about gays or women. And Matt Hills would never, ever call concerned black parents, or gay or women's groups "McCarthyites."

So it's understandable if many Jewish parents and other concerned citizens no longer trust the school committee. They want to see what's being taught in the schools. Not just what's in the textbooks but also the handouts and the teacher training workshops - these are of most concern. Many of these teacher workshops are offered for free and in the case of the Arab World Studies Notebook are subsidized.

But thus far - it's been over a year -- the school committee has ignored its own guidelines and refused to grant parents and taxpayers access to the all of the curricular materials being taught Newton students. At a time when universities like MIT offer access to their courses for free, Newton taxpayers and parents should expect the school committee to promote openness and transparency and share all texts, study guides, handouts and class curriculum online

This entire matter could have been resolved quickly. School Superintendent Fleishman could have complied with the parent's wishes - and his board's own guidelines -- made the materials public and explained to the students that they were misinformed about the behavior of Jews in Israel. He could still do that --and regain the trust of many Newton parents and tax payers.

Contributor Charles Jacobs is a political activist who co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Group and also the David Project, and also the organization Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

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