Berkeley schools chief grilled by Congress on claims of rampant antisemitism in K-12 classrooms

The superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District on Wednesday rejected accusations that the district’s K-12 classrooms have become breeding grounds for antisemitism during a congressional hearing where she and other school leaders were grilled about perceived bias against Jewish students.

Berkeley Supt. Enikia Ford Morthel joined Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland, and David Banks, chancellor of New York City public schools — two other left-leaning jurisdictions — to field targeted questions from a Republican-led subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The hearing was titled “Confronting Pervasive Antisemitism in K-12 Schools.”

Ford Morthel said her district had received formal complaints of antisemitism stemming from nine incidents and stressed that district leaders have responded quickly to the accusations and launched investigations.

“Our babies sometimes say hurtful things. We are mindful that all kids make mistakes. We know that our staff are not immune to missteps either, and we don’t ignore them when they occur,” Ford Morthel said. “However, antisemitism is not pervasive in Berkeley Unified School District.”

The hearing comes after months of emotional national division spawned by Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israeli border towns and Israel’s war on Gaza that has followed. Pro-Palestinian protesters have roiled college campuses including Columbia and UCLA, shut down highways and bridges and launched campaigns calling on President Biden to halt financial and military aid for Israel.

But in K-12 public schools, where teachers are subject to stricter limits on free speech than college professors, disagreement over how — and whether — the conflict should be addressed in classrooms has progressed into searing claims from some Jewish parents that their children no longer feel safe in class.

A federal civil rights complaint filed in February by the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law alleges that students in Berkeley schools have faced “severe and persistent harassment and discrimination.” The complaint accuses Berkeley leaders of failing to prevent “viciously hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students.”

The U.S. Department of Education has opened a federal investigation into the complaint.

“You’ve been accused of doing nothing and turning a blind eye,” Rep. Aaron Bean, a Florida Republican and chair of the subcommittee, told the three K-12 leaders in his opening statement.

Bean quickly fired off questions asking whether they believe that Israel has a right to exist and that the Oct. 7 attacks were an act of terrorism. He asked whether they believe the phrase “from the river to the sea,” a slogan widely chanted during pro-Palestinian protests that many Jewish people consider a call for the expulsion and genocide of Israeli Jews, is antisemitic.

The school leaders repeated their support for Jewish students and reiterated that hate and antisemitism would not be tolerated.

The hearing was similar to one in December, where the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT were accused of mounting a tepid response to antisemitism on their campuses. The presidents of Penn and Harvard later stepped down.

Berkeley is not the only San Francisco Bay Area district to face accusations of allowing antisemitism to fester in classrooms.

The union representing Oakland teachers endorsed a pro-Palestinian “teach in” in December and provided educators with lesson plans that some Jewish families perceive as anti-Israel and discriminatory. Dozens of Jewish families have filed requests to transfer out of the district.

In San Francisco schools, families have raised concerns about anti-Israel content being shared in classrooms and student walkouts promoted by a pro-Palestinian organization working in the district.

During her testimony, Ford Morthel said Berkeley teachers and administrators work to ensure “each and every child is seen, valued and educated,” and recognize that some members of their school community have been personally affected by the violence.

“As educators, too often we are called upon to address heart-wrenching events that occur far beyond the walls of our classrooms,” she said. “Our young students with ties to either Israel or Gaza, some deeply traumatized by the horror they see and hear, sit side by side in our Berkeley classrooms. They are friends.”

Tyler Gregory, chief executive of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, said he hoped the hearing helped shed light on the “shortcomings” of the district’s response to antisemitism.

“There’s a clear red line when Jewish students and families don’t feel safe going to school because they are being targeted for their identity and their beliefs,” Gregory said. “And we do not feel that the district is taking that situation seriously.”

Gregory said Jewish families in the Bay Area have grown increasingly concerned with lesson plans, student walkouts, pro-Palestinian speakers being brought into the classroom and other incidents that they say show a bias against Israel.

“We’re seeing one narrative taught and not the other. That’s neither healthy nor conducive to a safe environment for Jewish students, just like a pro-Israel lens that erases Palestinians wouldn’t be safe for Arab and Palestinian students,” he said.

Ilana Pearlman, a Jewish mom of a Berkeley high school student, said her family had a mostly pleasant experience in the district before Oct. 7. But after the Hamas attack, “everything just turned on its head,” Pearlman said.

“Everything became political. Every classroom, flags went up, signs went up,” Pearlman said. “The only acceptable way to be Jewish in Berkeley schools right now is to be an anti-Zionist.”

Students and parents who support a cease-fire in Gaza and Palestinian liberation note that their coalition includes many Jewish families.

“These claims are meant to undermine our anti-war movement as a whole,” said Muhammad Delgado, a Berkeley High School senior and co-president of the Muslim Student Assn. “And they’re also being launched by a handful of parents that don’t really seem to represent the whole of Berkeley.”

Molly Sampson, whose Palestinian children attend Berkeley schools, said she’s alarmed that teachers are being censored for teaching the history of the conflict. She said that the Jewish families raising concerns represent “such a micro-element of opinion in our community.”

Sampson said the community stands behind Ford Morthel.

“I know that she is going to be fine, because she has the truth on her side,” Sampson said. “She certainly has the support of Berkeley behind her.”

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