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US Education Department to probe antisemitism complaints from Virginia schools

ZOA praises department’s civil rights office, which says it will investigate if school district failed to respond to claims students made Nazi salutes, Holocaust jokes

File: The Fairfax County Public Schools building stands in Merrifield, Virginia., on March 4, 2019 (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File)
File: The Fairfax County Public Schools building stands in Merrifield, Virginia., on March 4, 2019 (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File)

JTA — The US Education Department says it will investigate allegations of antisemitism within a Northern Virginia public school district brought by the Zionist Organization of America, in a case the ZOA has pursued for more than a year.

The federal department’s Office of Civil Rights wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to ZOA that it would investigate whether Fairfax County Public Schools, in the Washington, DC suburbs, failed to act on alleged incidents of harassment including students making “Heil Hitler” salutes, and Holocaust jokes. The department said the opening of the investigation does not mean that ZOA’s claim has merit, only that they determined that it fell within their purview.

The department also declined to investigate a key allegation made by ZOA: that a school board member’s tweets about Israel in 2021 fell under the rubric of antisemitic discrimination. The department said this was because too much time had passed since the tweets, but the decision was a notable loss for pro-Israel legal groups, who have successfully used Department of Education civil rights complaints as a way to challenge what they describe as anti-Israel speech in schools and universities.

ZOA leaders still celebrated the opening of the investigation. The group’s President Morton Klein said in a statement: “We are pleased that OCR is investigating FCPS for failing to respond effectively to longstanding problems of antisemitism in the district.”

The conservative group’s past activities in Fairfax hinted that it had planned to make the board member’s Israel tweets a central component of its legal strategy. ZOA had been beating the drum about a Muslim Fairfax board member’s tweet about Israel for more than a year, sending letters to the district’s superintendent and school board accusing board member Abrar Omeish of antisemitism. Omeish had tweeted in May 2021 in support of Palestinians during Israel’s deadly conflict with Hamas, wishing her followers a happy Eid while adding: “Hurts my heart to celebrate while Israel kills Palestinians & desecrates the Holy Land right now. Apartheid & colonization were wrong yesterday and will be today, here and there.”

After criticism, Omeish later followed it up with a message pledging “robust and empathetic engagement with Jewish leaders,” as some speakers at a Fairfax school board meeting called for her resignation. At that same meeting, the board read out a statement acknowledging both antisemitism and Islamophobia, and standing “against any acts of violence and hatred committed against any person or group within our community.”

A month later, Fairfax County board members were targeted with antisemitic flyers that appeared to originate from a white supremacist group, calling the board “Jew-inspired, communist, queer-loving sex fiends.” The flyers, which would not have fallen under the Department of Education’s purview, were not mentioned in the civil rights complaint and did not appear to have any connection to the Israel controversy.

The details of the other parts of the complaint were nearly identical to a Washington Post op-ed by Anna Stolley Persky, a Jewish parent of three Fairfax students. Persky, a former staffer at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, wrote that “it is ridiculously hard to raise a Jewish child in Fairfax County Public Schools,” detailing alleged incidents of student Nazi salutes and the district’s scheduling of tests and other events on the High Holidays.

Persky’s Washington Post piece was published in March 2021, pre-dating Israel’s outbreak of violence and Omeish’s tweets.

The Department of Education also rejected a third allegation in the complaint, saying it would not investigate the district’s alleged scheduling of events on Jewish holidays because such an incident fell outside the department’s civil rights purview. The local Jewish community had allied with Omeish in an effort to add Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu holidays to the school year and Jewish officials said at the time of her tweet that her words were especially painful because of the alliance. The local Jewish Community Relations Council rescinded an honor it planned to confer on Omeish.

The Fairfax case echoes a previous one in which an Arizona school district was found to have failed to respond to multiple instances of alleged antisemitic harassment of a student. The district reached an agreement with the office of civil rights to update its harassment reporting policies, require discrimination and investigation training for its staff, post a district-wide anti-harassment statement, and conduct further audits of its harassment handling procedures.

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