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A Test Of Tolerance In Newton, As Teachers Are Pressed On Israel Curriculum05:41
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Newton North High School, in a 2010 file photo (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Newton North High School, in a 2010 file photo (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

A seven-year fight over allegations of anti-Israel bias in Newton's high school curriculum has flared up again.

But those allegations were met with stiff resistance by members of the community this week, who say that the supposedly "biased" material is an attempt to build students' capacity for critical thinking, a core value in the city's schools.

Since 2011, a nonprofit group called Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) has used a variety of tactics to argue that teachers in Newton — home to one of Greater Boston's most robust Jewish communities — are sharing inaccurate or skewed information about the Israel-Palestine conflict and its history, even "indoctrinating" students against Israel.

This fight began over a textbook which was intended to show "the Arab point of view" on the Middle East's history and culture.

In 2011, a Newton resident complained that book made false statements alleging Israeli war crimes. Shortly thereafter, the book was removed from classrooms, but the district never conceded that it was because of factual errors.

That wasn't good enough for Charles Jacobs, APT's president.

“Why didn’t you go back and tell the students that this was a mistake on your part?" Jacobs asked.

Jacobs is a longtime pro-Israel activist who lives in Newton. He started APT to combat perceived anti-Semitism he felt was being incubated in American schools and universities.

He said that the textbook incident revealed a systematic skew against what he calls "the Jewish state" in Newton Public Schools: “There is no, really, pro-Israel point of view" in their supposedly broad teaching on that subject, he said.

In 2013, state officials said they found no violation of education law or policies in Newton's curriculum.

"The goal is not to advocate for any particular position, but rather to get students to move past simplistic arguments and one-sided narratives."

David Bedar, a history teacher at Newton North defending his curriculum.

But Jacobs and a small band of allies have been fighting the district ever since.

Using public records requests, APT has obtained piles of teacher emails and lesson plans to comb over in search of bias, and has published some of those emails online.

The chairwoman of Newton's School Committee, Ruth Goldman, says the district has been hit with an "avalanche" of such requests, saying it has "created a climate of tension and fear amongst teachers."

Ruth Goldman chairs the Newton School Committee. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Ruth Goldman chairs the Newton School Committee. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Another related group, called Education Without Indoctrination, sued the School Committee earlier this year over a purported violation of open meeting law. They settled that suit in August, in what the organization called a "huge victory."

APT's latest effort was the petition under consideration by the Newton School Committee Tuesday night. It demanded a transparent overhaul of the town's Middle East curriculum and the firing of its superintendent, David Fleishman.

The Newton South High School auditorium filled to capacity before the hearing began. Most attendees wore red stickers that said “Support Newton Values.” Hundreds of current and former students had signed a letter in defense of their teachers and most parents spoke against the petition.

Paul Hartnett echoed a number of speakers in calling the claims "nonsense, and a waste of time," saying APT's arguments were distorted, even defamatory.

Finn Flaherty, who graduated from Newton North last year, said he was disappointed the hearing was even taking place. "We are a de facto segregated city with real problems, and here we are indulging in attempts to punish our teachers for taking a risk to provide a quality education to their students."

One of those teachers is David Bedar. He's taught history at Newton North High School for 12 years, and now finds himself at the center of the controversy. Jacobs's group published some of Bedar's emails this summer in The Federalist, a right-wing blog.

One of Bedar's classes is an elective focused on global politics in recent history. One unit examines the Israel-Palestine conflict and includes arguments about the Palestinian claims to land.

At the meeting Tuesday, Bedar said that all of his teaching is designed to establish a complete political context. "The goal is not to advocate for any particular position, but rather to get students to move past simplistic arguments and one-sided narratives," he said.

Newton community members stood in support of teachers at this week's meeting. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Newton community members stood in support of teachers at this week's meeting. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

As Bedar wrapped up, he asked his supporters to stand and said: "We teachers — we have lessons to prep, we have students to teach tomorrow. It's time to get ready for that job — our real job. Let's go get ready for class."

The teachers began to file out. As the group — including many of the meeting's attendees — left the auditorium, the petition's supporters shouted back.

Tom Mountain, chairman of the Newton Republican Committee, yelled "coward!" as Bedar left the room. Ilya Feoktistov, an APT staffer, confronted Bedar and warned of forthcoming "legal jeopardy."

Others saw the walkout — so early in the hearing — as proof of mainstream intolerance: an unwillingness to sit for a balanced discussion.

Like Judy Greenberg, whose own children went to Newton South: “One teacher said 'get up and leave' and they all got up and left. ... That’s the indoctrination we’re talking about here," Greenberg said, incredulous. "That's really frightening to me!”

Meanwhile in the lobby, Bedar was embraced by dozens of supportive students and parents. He said it was proof that APT just doesn't speak for most Newton families: "These are outside groups." (Greenberg added in her remarks that she resented being told that she was part of an outside "hate group.")

Bedar also questioned the group's motives: "Let people judge for themselves based on what they read. It's all available online. As I teach my students, consider the source — and do your own research."

Teacher David Bedar talks to Mike Zilles, president of Newton's teachers' union, outside the hearing. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Teacher David Bedar talks to Mike Zilles, president of Newton's teachers' union, outside the hearing. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

It's true that Jacobs has a track record you can find online.

Ten years ago, he was the leading voice trying to block the opening of the Islamic Cultural Center of Boston in Roxbury, in what became New England's largest mosque. And earlier this year, a group of Greater Boston rabbis denounced Jacobs and APT as "purveyors of hatred and division" and "the true face of extremism in our community."

Rabbi Eric Gurvis has clashed with Jacobs publicly and has lived and served in Newton for 20 years.

He said the district's track record on Israel and Jewish issues isn't perfect: "Mistakes have been made. Sometimes they have stepped forward in a timely fashion to address it. Sometimes, unfortunately, they have not."

Gurvis added: "With that said, I don't believe there is systematic bias in the curriculum."

“One teacher said 'get up and leave' and they all got up and left. ... That’s the indoctrination we’re talking about!"

Judith Greenberg, Newton parent

Gurvis says he is concerned about anti-Semitism, but he sees it elsewhere: in the swastikas that have been drawn in Newton buildings, including Newton North High School, as well as the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue late last month.

When Tuesday night's hearing adjourned, four hours after it began, the committee voted unanimously to deny the petitioners' demands, while pledging to improve the way they inform the community about their curriculum.

Goldman said she was glad to have the meeting, and she hoped that it showed how a democracy can deal with disagreement: "You can create a space — like your classroom — where every voice is heard and respected. And everybody follows the rules. And you can hear a diversity of opinion." Then, she said, elected officials made a decision that reflected the popular will.

But Charles Jacobs said he's not done fighting. He pointed to evidence that he's winning over other area Jewish groups to his cause.

This summer, the Boston chapter of Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote Superintendent Fleishman about the content of a "Middle East Day" at Newton North High School in the spring, citing concerns about the "quality and credibility" of films and resources.

The Anti-Defamation League could not be reached for comment.

After the hearing Tuesday, Jacobs said: "It took the Jews seven years to get Henry Ford to stop publishing 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' " — a hoax text that promoted many anti-Semitic tropes. When it comes to Newton, "we're in year seven," he said.

He and other allies said they believe they've exhausted their chances of getting help from Newton's elected officials, and suggested that their next steps may well take them back to court.

This segment aired on November 30, 2018.

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Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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