Setting the Record Straight: Jewish Communal Response to Middle East Curriculum in Newton Schools

July 23, 2019

By Robert Trestan and Jeremy Burton

“Teaching High School Students to Demonize Israel” (Tablet, July 18) falsely portrays the Boston area’s two major mainstream Jewish community organizations’ role in a seven-year-old controversy regarding the Newton public school district’s use of the Arab World Studies Notebook and other materials in Newton North High School’s World History classes.

Our organizations, ADL and JCRC, are in fact deeply involved in supporting the local Jewish community and ensuring discussions about Israel are fair. We have been working proactively with numerous other Jewish community organizations to address this issue over many years.

The crux of the case is about four and a half hours of teaching on the Middle East during an entire year of World History. We have reviewed the curriculum in question at least twice and made recommendations to the school district on how to address the problematic curriculum.

District officials have been more than receptive to our concerns at every turn, but, admittedly, they have not been consistently forthcoming when asked to address legitimate concerns on specific topics over the years. But that does not mean that the organized Jewish community has failed to help address the problems head-on, or that we somehow had the wool pulled over our eyes by district officials.

ADL and JCRC reviewed the curriculum that was in use in 2012 and we identified problems, mainly from materials that were pulled from the internet, and the Arab World Studies Notebook, which we consider anti-Semitic. The school district had assured us that these materials were no longer in use.

In May 2013, a complaint was filed with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and it was dismissed when they concluded that the school was acting within curriculum guidelines.

In 2014, JCRC publicly asked parents to confidentially come forward to assist in this work, and until summer 2018, no parent came forward. We have identified specific issues with course materials and remain in ongoing discussions with the school district to resolve them.

In 2017, following a curriculum review, ADL met with Newton district officials and they agreed to make changes based on a number of basic principles that we outlined. We agreed that materials should be current, from credible sources, and there should be a vetting process to prevent teachers from randomly downloading classroom content from the internet, which was part of the problem. Newton officials also agreed to maintain transparency regarding access to the curriculum. Unfortunately, we later learned that despite the district’s assurances that the Middle East bloc was no longer being taught, one teacher was still using the problematic curriculum. Although the bloc has now been removed, we still have concerns with an elective course, and we continue to pursue those issues.

The article also mentions the Understanding and Celebrating Middle East Day in 2018, but it fails to mention that it was ADL and JCRC that publicly raised concerns about the one-sided nature of the program. This past spring, thanks to our advocacy, combined with the Israel American Council organizing parents and working directly with teachers, the school changed the program and Israel was prominently and positively featured throughout the day.

It is unfortunate that one fringe group wants to tear down all of our work and the actual progress we have made, especially in the past year. We expect much of this to play out in court later this summer as a motion to dismiss their lawsuit is pending.

Despite the suit, our work with Newton remains ongoing. At Newton’s request, the Schusterman Center at Brandeis University has been meeting with school officials and has found them to be open and amenable to learning. In fact, the Center hosted 20 teachers in the spring for an in-service day to learn about Israel and anti-Semitism. Additionally, ADL is actively implementing anti-bias training programs in Newton schools.

ADL, JCRC and others have very strong relationships with the local elected and appointed leadership that we've developed over time and we have been working closely with other organizations to drive the necessary changes.

The bottom line is that we're deeply engaged with this situation. We will not shrink from calling out anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it happens, whether it's a private school or a public school or a college campus or a political stage. And we will push back hard on those who delegitimize Israel.

Robert Trestan is the New England Regional Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). Jeremy Burton is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.