School & District Management

Rising Tensions From Israel-Hamas War Are Seeping Into Schools

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 29, 2023 5 min read
People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said.
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The Israel-Hamas war, which to date has taken the lives of more than 13,000 soldiers and citizens, may be happening thousands of miles away. But deepening tensions and their associated conflicts are reverberating throughout the United States and occasionally seeping into or near school campuses, affecting both students and staff members.

In a dramatic display of those tensions earlier this week, high school students in the Queens borough of New York City took to the halls in what’s been referred to as “an unruly protest” of a teacher’s pro-Israel stance—sending the educator into hiding in a locked office within the school for hours, according to news outlets. The New York Times reported that the teacher, who is Jewish, was targeted after she updated her Facebook profile with a photo showing her holding up a sign that read, “I Stand With Israel.”

The protests took place days after three young Palestinian college students were shot near the University of Vermont’s campus after attending the birthday party of one of the student’s relatives at a nearby bowling alley, according to news reports.

And in October, a verbal fight broke out between Jewish and Muslim students at New Jersey’s Cherry Hill High School East.

Although statistics aren’t available, nationwide, parents of Jewish and Muslim school-age students report that their children have been the targets of bullying at school.

Perhaps these incidents, which appear to be reported far more frequently on college campuses and communities than at the K-12 level, should not come as a surprise; schools are, in a sense, microcosms of their broader environments. And many communities, particularly those with high concentrations of residents of Palestinian or Israeli descent, are experiencing a surge of anti-Islamic and antisemitic attacks, from rhetoric to violence.

A recent New York State review reported that both anti-Islamic and antisemitic rhetoric on social media rose by more than 400 percent since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and that country’s subsequent retaliation. The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish advocacy group, has documented 832 antisemitic incidents between October 7 and November 7, a 315 percent increase over the same period last year. Similarly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported an “unprecedented surge in bigotry” since the war started, with complaints of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias surging more than 200 percent compared to an average 29-day period last year.

How people treat one another in a school setting may reflect values of those within a broader community, but schools must maintain standards for comportment, as they’ve been recently reminded.

On Nov. 16, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights released a list of schools (both higher education and K-12 institutions) that it’s currently investigating for “alleged shared ancestry violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race, color, or national origin discrimination, including harassment based on a person’s shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”

A “Dear Colleague” letter written earlier in November by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon reminded colleges, universities, and schools that receive federal financial assistance of their legal responsibilities “to provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”

Creating discrimination-free school environments

While these legal responsibilities may be clear, what’s less so is how individual school districts attempt to create discrimination-free environments.

South Paterson, N.J., is home to at least 10,000 people of Palestinian descent and the largest Palestinian American enclave in the country, according to Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh. The Paterson school district acknowledged in a public letter on its website the distress and tensions over the Israel-Hamas war that affect its community. It offered resources for mental health support.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter, signed by district superintendent Laurie W. Newell: “As neighbors that share this beautiful city, I know that we can find the strength to show the empathy and concern for one another that can lead to understanding and healing … It is our responsibility to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or beliefs, has the opportunity to learn and thrive in an environment that promotes respect and acceptance.”

Jeffrey M. Young, who served as a school superintendent for 27 years before becoming the director of the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies program at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, advised school leaders facing these kinds of tensions to create a structure around listening to others, especially among community members whose opinions may be sharply divided.

“I don’t think we’re that good at listening,” he said. He pointed to social media, a forum that allows people to self-express without having to hear another’s perspective, as contributing to this deficit.

To counter the one-sidedness, Young proposes that school leaders create a structure for having challenging conversations among community members with differing views—staff members or students—that includes a facilitator who can ensure that agreed-upon norms are followed and enforced, and allow for turn-taking and a brief period for questioning.

“You can say something like: ‘OK, we’re going to take turns. You’re not going to interrupt me, I’m going to be given an agreed amount of time,” he said. “Then the other person goes through the process. It’s really important that no one side gets to dominate.”

Identifying shared interests rather than emphasizing differences, then brainstorming on how to foster these common goals, is also key to the process of these conversations, Young said.

“If well managed, these structured conversations offer opportunities for learning,” Young said.

Young said that school officials sometimes choose not to say anything to students or staff, believing, perhaps, that avoidance will prevent confrontation or conflict.

“Trying to play ostrich doesn’t really work,” he added. “Nor do I think it reflects leadership.”

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