Chicago-area school district withdraws ‘Teaching Palestine’ course and apologizes for ‘sense of exclusion’ it created

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Just eight days after an administrator offered public high school teachers in Skokie, Illinois, the opportunity to take a summer professional development course called “Teaching Palestine,” the school district retracted the offer in a statement from top administrators apologizing for the hurtful, “one-sided nature of this course.” They wrote:

We then heard from teachers and members of our community who were concerned about the one-sided nature of this course that addresses a very complex topic.  We recognize that without multiple perspectives surrounding this topic, we created a sense of exclusion by including this offering.  We should have noted this before including the course and apologize for this mistake.  Therefore, we are retracting the course from the list of offerings that were shared.

The district’s decision to silence any discourse about Palestinian history–with pressure from Zionist groups–isn’t surprising or new. But it’s important to call attention to public schools that continue to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, especially when the opportunity to take the course was shut down by two district administrators along with the Director of Equity–an administrative position whose job description includes providing opportunities of social justice for its teachers.

That this retraction occurred in Niles Township, District 219 is significant, given the diversity of the student body–over 67 languages are spoken in the hallways of two schools that serve about 4,500 students from Skokie, Lincolnwood, and Morton Grove.

On May 22, 2019, Director of Equity La Wanna Wells sent an email to all faculty who teach in the district listing “equity offerings that occur over Summer 2019.”  In addition to a racial equity training facilitated by the organization Courageous Conversations, several opportunities were also sponsored by Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ).  According to its website, TSJ is an organization made up of educators who are deeply committed to social justice, and work “toward classrooms and schools that are anti-racist, multicultural / multilingual, and grounded in the experiences of our students.”  TSJ believes all “that all children should have an academically rigorous education that is both caring and critical,” the website states, “an education that helps students pose critical questions about society and ‘talk back’ to the world.”

The course offerings included in Well’s email to teachers cover a range of topics such as: “If We Don’t Who Will: Tools in Surviving and Thriving for Black Pre-Service Educators”; “US Imperialism Impact on Honduras”; “White Educators/Activists: Toward Anti-Racist Teaching-Learning-Organizing”; and “Teaching Palestine.”

Wells pasted the information from TSJ directly into the message she sent to faculty. The “Teaching Palestine” course “brings together critical educators who want to teach about Palestine and the Palestine liberation struggle.” The course objectives are to:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of the history and current political context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Palestine liberation struggle.
  • Examine and analyze existing curriculum on Palestine, the Palestinian liberation struggle, and Israel.
  • Discuss concrete strategies for how to respond to Zionist Professional Developments and curricula or when parents/staff/others object to anti-Zionist curriculum.
  • Collectively develop grade appropriate scope and sequence for teaching Palestine.
  • Generate grade appropriate and critical curriculum for teaching Palestine.
  • Make curriculum connections between Palestine and issues affecting our students, such as: state/police violence, the struggle for racial justice in the U.S., settler colonialism in Palestine and the U.S., access to education for historically marginalized youth.

The course “will draw particularly on the resources and knowledge of the US Palestine Community Network and Jewish Voice for Peace.”

Wells also stated that professional development credits would be offered by the organizations that are providing the courses.  Since teachers need to earn Continuing Professional Development Units (CPDU) or Continuing Education Units (CEU) to keep their teaching licenses active, they often take courses during the summer. Wells wrote that teachers can contact the organization for information on obtaining credit:

Read each description below as these are offering offered outside of D219. The organizations will have cost, Professional Development CPDU/CEU hour information, date/time information etc. in which to provide you if you have questions.

Wells then signed her email, “Have an Equitable Summer!”

A week later, after pressure from pro-Israel organizations, the District 219 did a Zionist switcharoo.  The May 30, 2019, statement from the district came from Wells and two other district administrators, Superintendent Steven Isoye and Director of Community Relations and Strategic Partnerships Jim Szczepaniak, and noted that people were worried about the “one-sided” nature of the course and apologized for not providing a more balanced view.

The statement denied that teachers could receive credit for taking the course on Palestine, though Wells had stated this in her original email.

On May 2, the district informed staff of several training opportunities outside of the district related to racial equity and social justice, including sessions offered by a group called Teachers for Social Justice.  These Summer Inquiry to Action Groups (ItAGs) meet on various topics identified and developed by educators throughout the Chicago area.  One of the listed ItAG sessions is titled “Teaching Palestine.”  The course was not developed by the district, and the district was never going to provide continuing education credits or lane advancement credit for the course.

To an outside observer–and certainly to the Zionist organizations who called out the district–the lack of “multiple perspectives surrounding this topic” that “created a sense of exclusion” might seem obvious.  It’s true that the “Teaching Palestine” class was not offered alongside a “Teaching Israel” class, for example.  But Zionist history is already taught in schools while Palestinian history is consistently and pointedly, left out.

This course specifically is designed to provide teachers with the skills to teach Palestinian history in schools where Israeli Zionist history remains the default.  The objective to discuss “concrete strategies for how to respond to Zionist Professional Developments and curricula or when parents/staff/others object to anti-Zionist curriculum” speaks to the pushback that often occurs when teachers teach about Palestine and designed to empower teachers. TSJ recognizes the imbalance that already exists in schools–Zionism remains the dominant standard. And it offered this course to provide a non-Zionist space for teachers to develop strategies for teaching Palestinian history.

The uproar from Zionist organizations also helps perpetuate the idea that the mere mention of Palestine is a threat to Israel’s existence–any discourse must be squashed.

On May 30, for example, the Jewish News Syndicate attacked the “Teaching Palestine” class. Simon Wiesenthal Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper criticized it by using the typical Zionist rhetoric that portrays Palestinians as terrorists and murderers:

It is to justify the anti-Semitic rhetoric from terrorist Hamas and the veneration of mass murderers of Jews by the Palestinian Authority. It is to demonize and delegitimize Zionism and supporters of the lone Jewish state, many of whose families reside in your school district.

Roz Rothstein, StandWithUs CEO, also condemned the school district for “one-sided propaganda.”

School districts should encourage critical thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, rather than promoting indoctrination like this course does. The Niles Township High School District 219 should replace Teaching Palestine with professional development that will offer genuine educational tools that encourage co-existence and allow student inquiry into the issue, rather than one-sided propaganda.

Of course, none of these organizations acknowledge the imbalance of Zionist history that already exists in public schools. Any mention of Palestine is considered “Indoctrination” that does not “encourage co-existence.”

Asaf Romirowsky, a historian at the University of Haifa and executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, also criticized the school for spreading bias:

We have long seen a Palestinianization of the academy this bias has been steadily spreading into high-schools and teacher trainings like the one in the Niles Township High School District 219.

Rather than acknowledging the “Zionizing” of curriculum that already happens, Romirowsky cleverly uses the term “Palestinianization of the academy” that spreads bias in schools.

Several Zionist organizations have also praised District 219’s decision to withdraw the course from its offerings, conflating criticism of Israel antisemitism.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center released a statement on May 31, commending the district for withdrawing the course from its original offerings:

Yesterday under pressure from the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), the Niles High School District cancelled the ‘Teaching Palestine’ course offered for teachers in the Niles Township High School District 219 that serves Lincolnwood and parts of Morton Grove, Niles, and Skokie in Cook County, Illinois…

Superintendent Isoye will be meeting with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Chicago-based office to discuss bringing the educational resources of the Center and their Museum of Tolerance to District 219. ‘We plan to offer the School District educational materials, films, and exhibitions that will help teachers and students alike better understand the complexities of the Middle East’, Ms. Pur-Slovin added.

Not only has the district canceled the course, but District 219 Superintendent Isoye has agreed to meet with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to “discuss bringing the educational resources of the Center and their Museum of Tolerance to District 219.”

(The Simon Wiesenthal Center, of course, is also the sponsor of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem that sits on the historic 600-year old Muslim Mamilla cemetery, yet its website states that the organization is a “global human rights organization” that “promotes human rights and dignity.”  Many of the tombs on the land have been destroyed.  In 2010, architect Frank Gehry withdrew from the project because it included destroying Muslim graves, yet the Wiesenthal Center maintains the importance of “building in Jerusalem because the Museum’s principal themes of universal respect, Jewish unity and coexistence are absolutely vital to Israel’s future.”)

The Times of Israel also reported on District 219’s decision to withdraw the course, again claiming that it was one-sided:

‘The course presented an extremely one-sided view of a very complex situation,’ said Rabbi Ari Hart of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue. By using the phrase ‘occupation of Palestine,’ he said, the course’s language implied ‘that a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland is illegitimate.’

Not surprisingly, none of these organizations mention the power imbalance that already exists in public schools–indeed, in the Israel/Palestine conflict itself.

But this isn’t new.  Retracting the course offering is also one more example of how Zionism remains the dominant standard in public schools while it simultaneously cries victim in order to justify ignoring Palestinian history.

Palestinians have long been writing about the disparity that exists when it comes to talking about Israel/Palestine.  Take, for example, author Mourid Barghouti, who’s become more well known since novelist Chimamanda Adichie mentioned him in her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, a video about multiple perspectives and power imbalances that has been viewed more than 18 million times, and–a funny irony–is used often in  public schools with students and teachers.  A few years ago, I was at a racial equity training with some teachers, earning my CPDUs in the summer, and the facilitator showed the video.  During our discussion afterwards, I asked if we could talk about Adichie’s mention of Barghouti.  “That’s not why we watched it,” the facilitator promptly told me, as she went on to discuss power imbalances that exist in public schools.

Adichie quotes Barghouti, who writes in his 2003 autobiography, I Saw Ramallah, of a linguistic trick to “turn the world upside down” in terms of who is the oppressed and who the oppressor:

It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly.’ Yes, this is what [Yitzhak] Rabin did. He simply neglected to speak of what happened first. Start your story with ‘Secondly,’ and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with ‘Secondly,’ and the arrows of the Red Indians are the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victims. It is enough to start with ‘Secondly,’ for the anger of the black man against the white to be barbarous. Start with ‘Secondly,’ and Gandhi becomes responsible for the tragedies of the British.’

And so it is the same–once again–this time with District 219’s decision to backpedal under pressure and retract the course on Palestine.  Start with “Secondly,” and Teachers for Social Justice becomes responsible for offending Zionists.  Start with “Secondly,” and District 219 apologizes to Zionists for not providing balance.

Start with “Secondly,” and public schools become bullied into ignoring Palestinian history.  Start with “Secondly,” and Palestinian students at public schools shouldn’t feel marginalized or silenced.

Simply neglect to speak of what happened first: That in 1948 Palestine was colonized and ethnically cleansed and it continues today.  Start with “Secondly,” and be sure to, as Director of Equity Wells wrote in her original email offering the course on Palestine, “Have an Equitable Summer!”

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It’s funny how quickly and vociferously defensive (pro-)Jewish supremacists (Zionists) become whenever they and/or their deliberately and unapologetically colonialist, (war) criminal and religion-supremacist “Jewish State” construct are shown to be as hateful and immoral as they actually are. … ‘The course presented an extremely one-sided view of a very complex situation,’ said Rabbi Ari Hart of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue. By using the phrase ‘occupation of Palestine,’ he said, the course’s language implied ‘that… Read more »

I can report on two suburbs of Rochester NY, having close connections to Israel in their school systems, Brighton and Pittsford, with an assembly of web references, to follow. As near as I can tell, these associations are going smoothly, without complaint from the staff or townspeople: 3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=53610&PageID=9

Pittsford Central School District has a connection to Modi’in, Israel:

School District is a public one, might be worth a lawsuit.

Ronald Johnson, thanks for the information and JoeSmack, I agree.

My question is why did they cave in? By all they said in advance of the program, they would have held their position without batting an eyelash. I don’t understand this kind of weakness from a group such as the one proposing such a program. A mystery that’s baffling to me. Not only did they give in, they apologized. WHY? What’s wrong here?

I think it’s important to understand the mentality in Skokie – not only does Skokie have a large Jewish population, it has a lot of Holocaust survivors –

“If Skokie was an escape from urban decay for a kid from Chicago, it was something close to paradise for my parents and an estimated 8,000 Holocaust survivors like them who poured into the Chicago suburb in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. “