'Jewish parents are outraged, and they should be'

Most likely to antagonize US Jewish students this spring: High school yearbooks

With some pupils already experiencing antisemitism due to the Israel-Hamas war, the student-produced journals can add fuel to the fire as political activism goes unchecked

(Clockwise from top left) High school yearbooks in East Brunswick, New Jersey; Bellaire, Texas; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Glenview, Illinois went to press during the 2023-24 school year with material that Jews said was antisemitic or insensitive, ranging from the swapping out of a Jewish student group photo with a Muslim group, to descriptions of the Israel-Hamas war that avoided the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Collage by JTA)
(Clockwise from top left) High school yearbooks in East Brunswick, New Jersey; Bellaire, Texas; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Glenview, Illinois went to press during the 2023-24 school year with material that Jews said was antisemitic or insensitive, ranging from the swapping out of a Jewish student group photo with a Muslim group, to descriptions of the Israel-Hamas war that avoided the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Collage by JTA)

JTA — A New Jersey district recalled its yearbooks after a photo of a Jewish student group was mysteriously swapped out for a Muslim student group.

A suburban Chicago high school launched an investigation after its yearbook went to print with a quote from a student who said the October 7 Hamas atrocities made her “happy.”

A Texas school tightened its policy on reviewing student publications after its yearbook published a page titled “Times of Palestine.”

And Jewish groups in California and Minnesota have taken local districts to task for how their own yearbooks have described the events of the Israel-Hamas war.

This year, US high school yearbooks — which typically are produced by students working with a staff adviser — were tasked with summarizing a tumultuous year, in which the long shadow of the Israel-Hamas war fell over political activism and caused some Jewish students to experience antisemitism in their schools. Some of the yearbooks, their critics say, embodied the year’s themes perhaps too well.

“It made everybody assume from the beginning that this is antisemitism,” Brad Cohen, the Jewish mayor of East Brunswick, New Jersey, told the local news this week after the high school yearbook was distributed with a photo of the “Jewish Student Association” replaced with one of a Muslim student group. The names of the Jewish students were also removed.

The photo swap went viral after New Jersey rabbi David Schlusselberg shared it on Instagram. “The Jewish parents at the high school are outraged, as they should be,” Schlusselberg wrote. “This is beyond unacceptable, and the staff members who oversee the yearbook should be punished.”

Cohen called the photo swap a “blatant antisemitic” act and suggested it could amount to a hate crime. The local Jewish federation described the incident in a statement Tuesday as “seemingly deliberate and malicious alterations of photos and names of Jewish students.” No one in the district has yet taken responsibility for the photo swap.

Muslim parents said their students were being targeted despite saying they had nothing to do with the incident. The district recalled its yearbooks and will reprint them for students over the summer; superintendent Victor Valeski apologized to both the school’s Jewish and Muslim populations. The district is launching an investigation and has contacted representatives from the county, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kansas-based yearbook publisher.

East Brunswick Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski speaks with AFP at his office on February 22, 2018, in East Brunswick, New Jersey. (DOMINICK REUTER / AFP)

In late May, a yearbook entry on the October 7 attack at Glenbrook South High School, in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, quoted a student who expressed happiness at the Hamas-led terror onslaught on Israel, in which 1,200 people were butchered and 251 kidnapped to the Gaza Strip.

“The first day, I woke up and I saw what Palestine did, and I was happy because they’re finally defending themselves,” the sophomore was quoted in the yearbook as saying. The student went on to add that the war “makes me sad because it’s my home country” and “thousands of people are dying every day. Just be aware and educate yourself.”

Outraged Jewish parents, who also objected to the yearbook’s description of Hamas as a “militant” rather than a “terrorist” group, packed a school board meeting demanding an explanation. The board condemned the comments and, as in East Brunswick, launched an investigation; some parents reportedly demanded further consequences, though a local rabbi also cautioned against attacking the student and said the school should have better educated and protected her.

An attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, said at the meeting that the student had been “mischaracterized” and added, “The family affirms that she was not happy about any act that a certain terrorist group did.”

Elsewhere, schools apologized after versions of the contentious phrase “From the river to the sea,” which pro-Palestinian groups say is a nonviolent call for liberation but which many Jews consider to be a call for Israel’s destruction, popped up in their yearbooks. Another Chicago-area high school paused distribution of its yearbook after publishing a photo of pro-Palestinian students holding a sign with the phrase; students at Bartlett High School in Elgin defended the sign at a school board meeting, saying there was no malicious intent.

And the principal of Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, DC, apologized to the community for publishing what he said was “a senior quote which is considered antisemitic,” which he did not identify but which a Jewish community member told JTA was a variation of the phrase. The principal said the school would “review our approval procedures for senior quotes”; representatives for the district did not return immediate requests for comment.

Illustrative: A Palestinian elementary student holds a placard reading ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ in Beirut, Lebanon, December 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A more intensive administrative response came at Bellaire High School, outside Houston, whose principal said it was instituting “significant changes” after the school’s yearbook published a page titled “Times of Palestine” that discussed the war from an Arab student perspective.

On a page illustrated with the Palestinian flag and an image of a watermelon, a growing symbol of Palestinian resistance, students recounted their feelings after October 7. Local Jewish parents took particular objection to one student’s account, which read, “Would Palestine have ended up differently if October 7 didn’t happen? Everybody would want to change the past, but what happened happened. We had to move forward no matter what the consequences were.”

Parents told the Jewish Herald-Voice, Houston’s Jewish newspaper, that they were “angry and disappointed.” In response, the principal apologized and announced that student-run publications at the school would be required to go through more rigorous staff vetting prior to publication.

In other districts across the country, students attempting to summarize the events of the war in their yearbooks met with the kind of pushback from pro-Israel groups typically directed at news organizations.

The district of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Twin Cities suburb with a large number of Jews, last month apologized and issued a corrective sticker after its yearbooks were printed without an explanation of the October 7 massacre.

“On October 8, 2023, Israel formally declared war on Hamas. The death toll reached about 1,100 on both sides, and Israel increased airstrikes on Gaza,” the yearbooks read, with no mention of the October 7 atrocities that launched the war.

 

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Following outrage, and after meeting with representatives from the local Jewish Community Relations Council, the district’s interim superintendent said the yearbook “contained misinformation, and it should have contained what happened on October 7,” adding, “I am deeply sorry for the harm this has caused to our community.”

The new stickers, according to local Jewish news site TC Jewfolk, will read, “On October 7, Hamas launched an attack on Israeli civilians, killing over 1,200 and taking over 253 hostages. In response, Israel declared war on Hamas on October 8.”

Last week Jewish parents in the district of Temecula Valley, in southern California, tried to get the ball rolling on a similar retributive process. They objected to a yearbook passage reading, “On October 9, 2023, Israel declared war on Hamas after a surprise attack on October 7th from the Gaza Strip.”

In an Instagram post, two pro-Israel K-12 activism accounts (jewsinschool and notetokids) said the passage was “antisemitic,” “hateful and problematic non-factual and propaganda material.” Nir Regev, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona, launched an online petition demanding the yearbook’s recall that has amassed 1,100 signatures to date, writing that the text was “erasure of the state of Israel” and a “distortion of timeline and events.”

A request for comment on the yearbooks to a school district representative was not immediately returned. The Temecula Valley school board is in the midst of a narrow recall vote led by a PAC opposed to board members’ conservative-aligned policies including a ban on critical race theory and censoring of instruction about the state’s LGBTQ rights movement.

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