Harlem public school in New York City (illustrative)
Harlem public school in New York City (illustrative)iStock

(New York Jewish Week) – After grilling a series of university presidents, House Republicans are going to grade school — and questioning public school leaders about how they’re addressing antisemitism.

At a hearing on Wednesday, David Banks, chancellor of New York City’s public school system, will testify at the Capitol. Joining him will be the chiefs of public school districts in Montgomery County, Maryland and Berkeley, California.

New York City’s public schools — which educate nearly a million students across the five boroughs — have been roiled by allegations of antisemitism since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, and are already under investigation by the US Department of Education.

In response, New York City schools have ramped up faculty training on antisemitism and Islamophobia and clarified their disciplinary rules. Last week, they announced an initiative to “uplift the stories of Jewish Americans who have impacted our country and world.”

“There is nothing more important than ensuring a culture of respect, empathy, and safety in our classrooms, for both students and staff,” Banks said in a May 1 statement. “Hate or bigotry of any kind have no home in our city’s schools.”

Previous hearings held by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce have sparked transformations in the national campus landscape. A December hearing in which three elite university presidents declined to say whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated school rules led two of them to resign. Last month, a tent protest timed to the testimony of Columbia University’s president launched a controversial nationwide movement, widespread unrest and arrests on dozens of campuses.

Rep. Aaron Bean, a Florida Republican, will chair the hearing, in a change from the university hearings, which were chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.

“Antisemitic incidents have exploded in K-12 schools following Hamas’ horrific Oct. 7 attack. Jewish teachers, students, and faculty have been denied a safe learning environment and forced to contend with antisemitic agitators due to district leaders’ inaction,” Bean said in a statement Tuesday. “This pervasive and extreme antisemitism in K-12 schools is not only alarming — it is absolutely unacceptable.”

Tova Plaut, the head of the New York City Public School Alliance, a group formed in the wake of Oct. 7 to combat antisemitism, said she hopes Banks will use the forum to make a clear statement embracing Jewish students — and outline that there’s more work to do.

The alliance would like the schools to create a system to vet and monitor curriculum to make sure lessons are free of bias, Plaut said.

“We’re looking for the chancellor to unequivocally condemn antisemitism and Jewish erasure in all forms,” and vow to “create a culture of acceptance and understanding for Jewish families, students and staff,” Plaut told the New York Jewish Week.

“We want true recognition of the scale of the issue, that it’s systemic, and with that a proportionate and immediate and actionable response,” said Plaut, who helps train teachers and plan curricula in a Manhattan school district.

Hard data on antisemitic incidents at New York City public schools is not available, but several high-profile incidents have drawn attention to antisemitism in the school system since Oct. 7.

In mid-November, a pro-Palestinian student walkout saw young people shouting epithets against Jews and Israel, and chanting in support of an intifada. Weeks later, an unruly protest targeting a Jewish teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens sparked an uproar.

In January, Jewish lawmakers lashed the school system after a map in a Brooklyn elementary school did not list Israel as a country, instead labeling the region “Palestine.” And days ago, employees at a Brooklyn high school sued the city’s education department for not adequately addressing antisemitism at the school.

Jewish students have also reported swastika graffiti in schools, hate messages on social media and antisemitic jokes from classmates.

Sharon Jacker, the former director of the New York Education Initiative at the Jewish Education Project, said she expects Banks to summarize some of the actions that the school system has already taken to address antisemitism. Those measures include the teacher training and rule clarifications announced in January. They also cover a collaboration with City Hall’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, along with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit Holocaust education group, that was announced late last month and is focused on hate crimes.

For years, Holocaust education has been the centerpiece of the education department’s effort to combat antisemitism among New York City youth. In 2020, the public school system piloted a program that brought groups of 8th and 10th graders on tours of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust museum in Lower Manhattan.

That program is ongoing, with approximately 5,000 students visiting the museum every month, the museum told the New York Jewish Week in December. Educators from the museum also visit classes in 20 schools and accompany them on their visits, the museum said.

Jacker expects Banks to say that whenever there are incidents of hatred, the incidents are fully investigated, but that he cannot divulge specific details, Jacker said.

One key question will be “how is oversight over curriculum being structured in the future,” she said, including “curricular content that teachers are offering about Jews, Judaism, Jewish history and Israel.”

Banks has discussed antisemitism with a series of Jewish organizations and public officials since Oct. 7, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Jewish Education Project, Plaut’s group, and the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus, a group of conservative city lawmakers.

Last week, he told Chalkbeat that teaching students about Jewish and Muslim communities was especially important in light of the Israel-Hamas war.

“​​It’s really important for more of our kids to have a deeper understanding about Jewish history and the Holocaust, because I think when you understand that and you appreciate what the Jewish community has gone through, you have a different level of respect and understanding,” he said. “Similarly, those of, Muslim background and the Palestinian cause, it’s important to understand what their history is and what their contributions have been to the world and to this nation.”