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Public Schools Struggle to Say the Right Thing About the Israel-Hamas War

Public Schools Struggle to Say the Right Thing About the Israel-Hamas War

New York City is home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel and one of the nation’s biggest Muslim communities. In a message sent in the days after the attacks, state leaders mourned the “inhumane atrocities” and emphasized “opportunities for open discussions about managing the trauma of the war.” Some Jewish families and groups criticized it as too weak.

But when the New York City schools chancellor sent out a statement on the “devastating impact of terrorism,” three Muslim and Arab teachers at city public schools, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said in interviews they were hurt and distressed that it did not acknowledge Palestinians, or extend concern to educators and families with relatives in Gaza.

In other districts, officials have sent follow-up messages or apologies to try and tamp down fury from families and other groups.

In Atlanta, the public school district said it was “no stranger to the universal struggle for justice and equality,” referring to the nonviolent protests of local students during the Civil Rights Movement, in its initial response.

“I was honestly so deeply disappointed,” said Emily Kaiman, a Jewish parent with two children in Atlanta public schools. “Calling out terrorism should not be controversial.”

One of her daughters in eighth grade has struggled to focus in her classes as her mind wanders to the war, she added. “I wish the district had put something out there that made her feel seen, and like she had someone for support,” Ms. Kaiman said. Officials later released a second statement with additional resources.

From Cambridge, Mass., to Fairfax, Va., the frustrations have at times boiled over. Many parents and high school students who have publicly spoken out have faced doxxing, harassment or threats. Other families have launched petitions to expel school board members.

Some districts have encountered problems even as they largely attempt to stay out of the fray publicly. At a school board meeting last week in Cherry Hill, N.J., outside of Philadelphia, more than a dozen Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim students described conflicts breaking out in school classrooms and cafeterias.

One Jewish teenager said his peers who are supportive of Israel were accosted during a lunch period, and another said she felt anxious. Several Muslim students said they were labeled “animals” or told they “all deserve to die.” One said that after he wore a checkered scarf known as a kaffiyeh with a Palestinian flag, his teacher called him a “terrorist” in math class.

The school’s Muslim, Jewish, and Middle Eastern-North African student groups recently took things into their own hands: In a statement, they urged their peers to treat each other “not as adversaries but as the individuals we’ve grown up alongside since kindergarten.”

Still, at the meeting, nearly every student said their school had done far too little to address the war, leaving the burden to fall on them. The lack of immediate action allowed tensions to escalate, said one teenager, Kyle, whose last name is being withheld because of his age.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school district, was already dealing with a rise in antisemitism after swastikas were drawn on classroom desks and “Jews Not Welcome” was painted on a school entrance sign. Adam Zimmerman, a holocaust educator and Jewish parent of two children in the district, said officials were “caught flat-footed” at the time.

After the Hamas attack, families again heard nothing for several days, which he called “deeply upsetting.”

“We’re not asking school districts to solve the Middle East conflict,” Mr. Zimmerman said, adding that students are often encouraged to “stand up and speak out” for those in need. “If we’re expecting the kids to do it, the grown-ups should be able to do it too.”

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