More than 150 people gathered in Newton Tuesday evening to hear Mayor Setti Warren take another step in coming to terms with anti-Semitic events at the Day Middle School over the just finishing academic year. But in the long conversation that followed the relatively short opening remarks, the crowd seemed more concerned with issues of transparency regarding curriculum than with rehashing the handling of the anti-Semitic graffiti at Day. While questions and comments were very direct and often critical of the Mayor, the tone was respectful.
Joining Mayor Warren on the three person panel seated at the front of the crowd at the Israeli American Council offices on Center Street were Ilan Segev, co-chair of IAC Boston, and Robert Trestan, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for New England.
Following the opening remarks of Segev and Trestan, Mayor Setti Warren took the mic. “Why would an African American catholic, whose church is across the street, by the way, care so much about the scourge of anti-Semitism and our relationship with Israel?” he asked. Warren told a story of moving to Newton at two years old, growing up in a household with parents who taught him that anti-Semitism was not only an attack against Jewish people, but to consider it from a personal perspective.
“When Jewish people are being attacked by anti-Semitism you should think about it through the lens of being attacked by racism. And if you’re not thinking that way you’re not living up to the values of this household,” said Warren.
As an Iraq war veteran, Warren claims this experience has shown him why the state of Israel is so important to the U.S. and the world. A year and a half ago at the U.K. consulate with Rob Leikind, the regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Boston (AJC), Warren came up with the idea that mayors across the country could make a joint statement against anti-Semitism. That document has now been signed by 500 mayors across the world.
This week’s meeting could be viewed as a mea culpa for Warren, who had been widely seen as having tried to downplay anti-Semitism in favor of a fight against all forms of bigotry at a raucous community meeting on April 7. Not now. Warren described learning of the anti-Semitic events of Day Middle School, saying that he had been kept in the dark. “Needless to say I was angry because of the lack of reporting,” said the Mayor. “Second I was very disappointed, here I am asking mayors from around the world to sign a pledge against anti-Semitism and here’s all this stuff going on in my own city.”
The first thing Warren says he did in response was to take a look at why the school administrators weren’t responding and reporting appropriately. Second was making sure the incidents were reported to Newton police. Warren explained that he hired attorney Robert Cole to put protocols in place and then train school administrators on how to respond and record anti-Semitic hate crimes. The training was carried out in May. The protocols remain unfinished, with the mayor saying the summer will be used to complete them.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my military Intel career, if you want to know what’s going on talk to the people on the ground,” said Warren. He describes his research in speaking to teachers, parents, and students and has decided to bring back a curriculum called Facing History & Ourselves.
When a local man, originally from Israel, explained that a classmate at school told his son that he “hopes all the Jews will burn,” he said that the cornerstone of pluralistic democratic society is transparency. “I believe that the best way to make sure that we eliminate ignorance is to have a transparent curriculum,” said the man.
Mayor Warren’s response, after an apology, was that many of the community members knew about the inappropriate material found and identified in the school curriculum a few years ago. “If there is anyone here that has materials that are offensive, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, I want to see them. I want you to bring them in. We will look at them, evaluate them, and if we need to we will make sure they are out.”
Another community member asked “Why can’t we have the curriculum posted for everyone to see?” All members of the crowd applauded and another woman yelled “Like Brookline does!”
Charlie Jacobs, head of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, stood to address the issue of anti-Semitic materials in the schools, some of which he says are financed by Saudi Arabia. “I am less worried about swastikas and graffiti because that happens in the dark of night by cowards. What really scares me is what happens in broad daylight in the schoolroom.” The crowd again applauded. “You have systems where racism can’t be taught in the schools and homophobia can’t be taught in the schools. There should be a system where anti-Israelism, which is the new anti-Semitism, can’t be taught in the schools.” Again Jacobs was applauded.
Warren deferred to Dr. David Fleishman. “That curriculum question has to be made by the superintendent, that is not something that I have the power to say.”
A community member described a school committee meeting he attended, during which he asked the superintendent, “Why do you say in the textbooks that Israeli soldiers rape Palestinian women?” He said the superintendent looked at him and told him they are teaching the kids critical thinking.
A man who grew up in the Soviet Union said that from living there he has learned to recognize propaganda. “When I am looking at my daughter’s text books at Newton North, when its talking about Israel it’s even worse, but even when it’s not talking about Israel I can smell propaganda all over the place and it’s sad.” He also stated that the superintendent has failed so many times that there is a decision that can be made justifiable. The crowd applauded in agreement and some shouted, “fire him!”
Segev then directed the questions to topics beyond the school system. A local community member expressed his concern for a hierarchy of victimhood. “Anti-Semitism has been degraded as a problem as Jews have been viewed as privileged whites for whom discrimination is no longer relevant.”