'They were doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do'

NYC education officials defend school where student protest targeted pro-Israel teacher

A November 20 demonstration at a Queens high school descended into mayhem with an educator sequestered for her own safety, raising concerns of dangerous levels of antisemitism

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks, center, speaks at Hillcrest High School, where students rioted against a Jewish teacher who showed support for Israel, November 27, 2023. (Screenshot via JTA)
New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks, center, speaks at Hillcrest High School, where students rioted against a Jewish teacher who showed support for Israel, November 27, 2023. (Screenshot via JTA)

New York Jewish Week — Students and city officials are pushing back against accusations of antisemitism at Hillcrest High School in Queens after a Jewish teacher was targeted in a protest, even as local Jewish leaders are demanding accountability after the incident.

Video of the unruly protest, which took place November 20 and exploded into public view over the weekend, drew widespread criticism of the school and charges of antisemitism, including from New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

But speaking at a press conference at the school on November 27, Schools Chancellor David Banks, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and student leaders rejected the charges, even as they denounced the incident and said some students would be suspended over it.

“So many of the students who were running or jumping had no idea what was even going on. They were doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do,” Banks said. “The notion that this place is radical, these kids are radicalized and antisemitic, is the height of irresponsibility.”

Banks said he had sought to understand what triggered the mayhem at the school in conversations with students and found out that social media played a central role.

“Young people today, they’re not watching, with all due respect, New York 1 or NBC or ABC,” Banks said. “They consume their information through social media, specifically TikTok and others, and what they are seeing on a daily basis are children and young people in Palestine, Palestinian families being blown up.”

As a result, “they feel a kindred spirit with the folks in the Palestinian community,” Banks said.

“When they all of a sudden saw this image of the teacher that says, ‘I Stand With Israel,’ the students articulated to me they took that as a message that I’m affirming whatever is happening to the Palestinian family and community,” Banks said. “That made sense to me,” Banks said.

After initially tweeting that the incident was a “vile show of antisemitism,” Adams took a softer tone at a press conference at City Hall Tuesday, where he said Banks had done the “right thing” by visiting the school and echoed Banks’s blaming of social media, saying online algorithms were “destroying our children and this is one of the examples.”

Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg said at the City Hall press conference that public perception of the incident was wrong. “It is unfair the way aspersions have been cast and broad brush criticism has been made of students,” he said.

The city’s response to the incident points to the challenges inherent in responding to a wave of pro-Palestinian student advocacy in response to Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, which began October 7 when Hamas terrorists unleashed a massacre in Israel, killing 1,200 and taking about 240 people hostage. Earlier this month, hundreds of students staged a walkout to protest against Israel, convening in Bryant Park for a rally chanting “Intifada,” calling for a ceasefire, accusing Israel of genocide and praising Palestinian “resistance.” The Hillcrest incident signals that the tensions are playing out inside individual schools, as well.

The events leading to the incident began several weeks ago, when a Jewish health teacher at Hillcrest changed her Facebook profile photo to herself at a pro-Israel rally carrying a sign in support of the Jewish state. Students at the school noticed the photo online and shared it with classmates, Banks said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters near Bryant Park in New York City, November 9, 2023. (Luke Tress via JTA)

Students planned a protest against the teacher on November 20 that quickly got out of hand as hundreds of students, in the hallway between classes, joined in and ran amok. Videos showed the students running through the hallways, waving Palestinian flags and causing damage to the school’s property. The celebratory videos of the incident included a photo of the teacher at the rally.

“It was meant to be a peaceful protest from the very beginning, but some of these students lack maturity,” said the school’s senior class president, Muhammad Ghazali. “These students have the right to go out there and protest, but it’s just the way they protested was wrong.”

Khadija Ahmed, a Hillcrest student, said, “The message that we really wanted to get out there was that we wanted Palestine to be free but the message got lost and lots of people were hurt mentally.”

Around 400 students, out of 2,500 at the school, had “acted disruptively” during the incident, Banks said. He said it was not acceptable and that the education department would take steps to respond to it.

“Violence, hate and disorder have no place in our schools,” Banks said. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry are simply unacceptable.”

Banks said he would convene all of New York City’s school principals by the end of the week for a discussion about the Middle East conflict. He also said he spent this past Monday afternoon discussing the situation with Hillcrest students and staff and said an external partner would work with schools in response to the incident, tailoring the resources offered to individual schools.

Hillcrest High School, at Parsons Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Jamaica Hills, Queens. (Creative Commons via JTA)

Banks also said some students would be suspended at Hillcrest. But officials declined to elaborate about the number of students or other details of the punishment, citing privacy laws, and rejected calls to suspend hundreds of students.

“The message we sent to these students is it’s OK to protest,” Richards said. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you do it and how you say it.”

Banks, himself a graduate of Hillcrest, said the teacher was singled out due to her support for Israel and “Jewish identity” but said that contrary to media reports, she was sequestered safely on a different floor from the students who were protesting against her.

The teacher was already concerned about social media posts about her and in touch with police, who said they had responded to a 911 call at the school at around 9:30 a.m. on November 20, about a teacher who had “received a threat from an unknown person on social media.”

“There was no one barricaded or protests and/or riots at the location. There have been no arrests, and the investigation remains ongoing,” police said.

Banks said the student body at Hillcrest is around 30% Muslim and the faculty includes both Jewish and Muslim teachers. The chancellor said that in addition to the November 20 protest, a student warned the principal two days later that demonstrations would continue as long as the teacher remained employed, with another rally planned for later that day. The school went into lockdown to head off that protest.

The teacher, who has not commented publicly beyond a statement to the New York Post over the weekend, will return to the school this week, Banks said, adding that the school was concerned about a rally against antisemitism planned outside the school on Thursday by the pro-Israel and Jewish self-defense group Yad Yamin. The group said the rally had been canceled.

The incident has elicited criticism from a range of Jewish leaders and has inspired the formation of a new group, New York City Public School Alliance, which is pressing the city education department to do more to combat antisemitism in schools. The group announced itself during a press conference Tuesday afternoon on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters.

“Chancellor Banks has failed our students, families and educators. He has failed at building safe and inclusive classrooms and schools for Jewish students, families and employees,” said founder Tova Plaut, an instructional coordinator for District 2 in Manhattan.

The group decried what it said was Banks’s “weak response” to the Hillcrest incident and demanded that he acknowledge the “extent of Jewish hate and anti-Jewish culture” in public schools; adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism; adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward antisemitism; restructure how schools address diversity to include Jews; and include Jewish heritage identity in curriculum and diversity and inclusion goals.

In Queens, local Jewish leaders said they wanted to see stronger action taken in response to the Hillcrest incident.

“Heads need to roll. The administrations need to be held accountable. It is no longer acceptable to hear, ‘Yes, we don’t want any antisemitism,’” said Sorolle Idels, who leads the Queens Jewish Alliance, a local Orthodox community group. “Your words are not enough.”

New York City public school educators hold photos of swastikas found on school grounds, at a rally demanding action against antisemitism from Chancellor David Banks in New York City, November 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/ JTA)

Her group was aware of videos of the incident last week and was awaiting a response from city officials, Idels said. After news broke of the riot this past weekend, the group scrambled to put together a press conference for the morning of November 27 that was attended by Eric Dinowitz, the chair of the city council’s Jewish Caucus.

Idels alleged that the school had sought to keep the incident quiet, since there was no public response until after the New York Post report nearly a week after the incident. Banks rejected the allegation, insisting the city operated with full transparency. He also said other recent violent incidents in the school had been misrepresented in the media and were unconnected to the anti-Israel protest.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers union, issued a statement indicating the union was aware of the riot on the day it happened.

“The UFT has been working with the individual teacher, school safety, the DOE, and the NYPD since last Monday,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement sent to the New York Jewish Week. “The union will continue to send staff to the building and to work with the administration, DOE safety personnel, school safety, and the NYPD to restore and maintain a safe environment for faculty, students, and staff.”

Contacted for comment, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union’s parent organization, also sent Mulgrew’s statement. The head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, is a vocal supporter of Israel who is there now with her rabbi wife. She called the riot a “vile act of antisemitism” on X over the weekend and said “many stepped up to deal with this” before it broke into public view.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. (Courtesy Professional Staff Congress/via JTA)

The Jewish Caucus, the city council’s Common Sense Caucus, New York State Attorney General Leticia James, the Anti-Defamation League and other local leaders have all condemned the incident.

The executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, Mayer Waxman, said the group had a positive relationship with the broader community, was not aware of any previous antisemitism at local high schools, and was caught off-guard by the Hillcrest incident.

“We thought that Queens was better than this,” Waxman said, adding that he was frustrated by the fact that the incident remained out of public view for close to a week. “It should have been front and center and it should have been publicized and nipped in the bud.”

The borough’s main public university, Queens College, which is mainly attended by commuters, has also seen antisemitic incidents and tensions between Jewish and Muslim students.

Similar to the mayor and the chancellor, Jewish community leaders said social media and social trends played a central role in instigating the protest.

“I don’t think that the kids even understand what they’re even doing. They are riding this fun train. It’s the new ‘in thing’ to do now, is to hate on Jews,” Idels said.

Rabbi Yossi Schwartz, the director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Student Union in New York, a youth group that works in public high schools, said the organization had seen some antisemitism since October 7 but the Hillcrest riot still came as a shock. He said the school’s lack of Jewish students may have played into the outburst, since the students were probably less exposed to Israeli and Jewish perspectives.

After the press briefing, he said he expected a harsher response from administrators, and also attributed much of the rise in anti-Israel sentiment to social trends and social media.

“It’s cool to stand up and it’s cool to support what’s seen to be the underdog,” he said. “But when it becomes cool to be violent or becomes cool to be part of a mob against a teacher or against anyone, that’s where it’s just sad that that’s happening with teens.”

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