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Israel-Gaza War rallies and divides community

As the conflict in the Middle East escalates, the school deals with unprecedented internal turmoil, including allegations of censorship and complaints about curriculum changes
Wesley Hoy

Jackson-Reed students and staff are dealing with controversy surrounding discussion of the current Israel-Gaza War with accusations of censorship, threats of litigation, and complaints about curriculum.

In all of Assistant Principal Marc Minsker’s time as an educator, this level of schoolwide political tension is unprecedented. “Never before has an international conflict had this much of an impact on the day-to-day operations of the school,” he said.

The Arab Student Union (ASU) alleged that decisions made by the administration are censoring their attempts to celebrate Palestinian culture and discuss the conflict. In the past two months, the JR administration declined requests from the ASU to host two events at JR. 

The first was a proposed showing of the documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind” in December, which the administration canceled. The ASU wanted to show the movie to encourage conversation around the conflict, but critics said it plays into anti-Semitic tropes.

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“DCPS provided educators with a list of resources and instructional supports to use when they seek to engage students around the conflict and war in the Middle East,” Principal Sah Brown said. Brown canceled the showing because “the film is not included on the DCPS resource list.”

According to Anthony Hiller, Senior Director of Humanities and Literacy at DCPS, school administration can expand the list if students or teachers want to examine additional sources. Administration can engage “with the DCPS Social Studies Team to ensure district and school policies are followed … [and] that the use/screening and facilitated discussion of those materials are appropriate and foster spaces that uphold respect and safety for all students.”

However, Rami Elamine, father of senior and ASU co-leader Hala Elamine, said Brown’s reasoning changed between initial conversations with ASU parents and his official statement regarding the cancellation of the showing. “When he first canceled, it was that it was going to cause divisiveness,” Rami Elamine said.

Rami Elamine also said that the ASU is seeking legal help in response to the administration’s treatment. “It was clear no other club was facing this same sort of scrutiny and process for getting events approved,” he said. 

Many teachers thought that the DCPS resource list was just a recommended starting point and justify that they can use outside sources. 

“The resource list is not a limiting list,” Social Studies Teacher Eduardo Canedo said. Canedo said administration defined the list as the sole resource for teachers to facilitate conversation regarding the conflict, but others claimed DCPS never explicitly asserted this guideline.

According to an article in the Washington Jewish Week, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) took partial credit for the film’s cancellation, stating that they had a conversation with Brown. Brown did not comment on any specifics of the conversation the JCRC said they had. 

The second proposed ASU event was Palestinian Culture Night, which the ASU wanted to host at JR. Still, the administration rejected the proposal and said that the ASU could either have a Palestinian exhibit at the school-wide culture night, typically held in May, or host an event during Arab American Heritage Month in April. Busboys and Poets ended up hosting the event in Takoma on January 18.

“I support Palestinian Culture Night. They’ll have an opportunity to celebrate and are approved to have the night during that time or a series of events during lunch or throughout the month as we’ve done with Hispanic Heritage Month and other heritage months,” Brown said. He said JR is “an inclusive school and wants to make sure that continues.” Brown did not provide a specific rule in school or DCPS policy identifying why the event couldn’t be held when the ASU intended to hold it.

Hala Elamine stressed the importance of a timely event. “You just kind of see [Palestinians] as numbers on your screen, and you only see them associated with war and conflict,” she said. “But they have such a beautiful culture outside of that, and I think it’s so important to have that seen.”

Social Studies teacher Michelle Bollinger said she was disappointed by the administration’s refusal to host the event at JR in January. “If anything, our school has always trumpeted its diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism. So, when a marginalized culture requests for some space to give people an opportunity to learn, like culture night, I would think we would make room for it right away,” she said. “I think it was a mistake by the school to not have it here.”

The JR English department postponed reading Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel, two books about the Holocaust, in English II classes. The department planned on beginning reading the books in mid-October as part of a unit called Honoring the Past. The classes are now reading Kite Runner, Honoring the Past will be taught in March. 

While not involved in this decision, Joseph Welch, English III teacher and chair of the department, said, “Teachers felt like we needed just a little bit of time to prepare so that we were ready to talk about it, ready to support our students, [and] to have accurate information, because we knew there were going to be questions.”

However, this decision upset some community members, who felt it necessary to facilitate discussion of the Holocaust.

“To me, postponing those units was a mistake, and a sign of anxiety and really heightened emotions, but if anything, those units needed to be taught more, not less,” said Dr. Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and parent of a JR freshman.

Friedberg offered to provide administration with resources to assist in teaching the books and helped coordinate a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum to coincide with the start of the Honoring the Past unit in March.

At the January 23 Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) meeting, LSAT Chair and JR parent Melody Molinoff said parents, teachers, and administration shared their views in a robust conversation, discussing how responses to the conflict are handled at school.

The LSAT offered suggestions for clarifying policy for holding and advertising school events, a direct response to a debate over the legitimacy of the administration’s removal of flyers advertising The Occupation of the American Mind and the event’s cancellation. 

Molinoff stressed that policies need to be visible to the community and enforced consistently. She also emphasized that this is a complicated issue and called for mutual understanding. 

The LSAT discussed ways to help foster student voices and help teachers facilitate discussions. Possible plans include establishing an ad hoc committee, additional resources for teachers, and student-created events where the ASU and Jewish Student Union (JSU) can coexist.

Already, students have made efforts to build community and collaborate. The ASU and JSU held a collective lunch with games and icebreakers. The hope is to facilitate conversation eventually.

“For the first meeting we just wanted to do some ice breakers to warm up to the topic and to each other without doing anything too loaded,” said JSU co-leader Lizzie Himmelfarb. 

“Once we establish a baseline of trust then we can move on and have those difficult conversations,” math teacher and JSU sponsor Elana Horowitz added. Science teacher and ASU sponsor Phillip Bechara said, “the students were really willing and wanting to meet each other.”

“I think administration needs to open up to understand that this isn’t going to be an ‘ok let’s find common ground’ situation,” Horowitz said. “Yes, there is common ground, [but] there will always be conflict and tension and we need to be able to face that and actually talk about it.”

This story was originally published on Tiger Beat on February 13, 2024.