Case study: Biased curriculum on Israel and Islam in a Massachusetts school system

A Review of “Indoctrinating Our Youth: How a U.S. Public School Curriculum Skews the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Islam”
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Anti-Israel propaganda is common on America’s college and university campuses. But as we’ve highlighted in a number of recent posts, this biased messaging appears to be filtering down into the U.S. public school system.

In 2015, we documented an effort to indoctrinate children in an Ithaca, NY 3rd grade classroom into becoming “freedom fighters for Palestine”. Then last February we reported how the NY State Education Department and the Board of Regents became embroiled in a controversy over the insertion of an offensive anti-Israel cartoon into a global studies Regents exam administered to 10th graders. These cases are important to document and record because they provide accumulating evidence of the expansion of the anti-Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement’s propaganda campaign.

Now a new study by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) offers another sobering example of biased anti-Israel curricular materials working their way out of higher education and down the chain into several U.S. public schools.

 

Focused on the suburban Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts, the report carefully traces how a small group of determined residents recently fought a multi-year battle against their school district to remove “biased materials promoting politically-charged agendas”.

The 108 page paperback book, Indoctrinating Our Youth: How a U.S. Public School Curriculum Skews the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Islam, is available for purchase from Amazon for $9.95.

Below, I review this new CAMERA monograph and highlight the important contributions it makes. A statement from CAMERA’s Executive Director and the study’s author exclusive for LI appears at the end of the post. [Note: all images in this post are from Indoctrinating Our Youth and are reproduced here with permission; page numbers in the post refer to those in the monograph].

The post is organized as follows:

  • Overview of CAMERA’s New Study
  • Backstory of the Newton, MA Curriculum Controversy
  • The Battle and the School District’s Defense
  • The Current Status of the High School History Curriculum in Newton, MA
  • Curriculum Analysis: Arab-Israeli Conflict
  • Curriculum Analysis: Islam
  • Unique Aspects of the Newton, MA Curriculum Conflict
  • A Central Lesson for Other U.S. Public School Systems
  • Statement from CAMERA Exclusive for LI
  • Conclusion

Overview of CAMERA’s New Study

Founded in 1982 as a non-profit 501 (c)(3), CAMERA is a national media-monitoring organization that works to promote more accurate, balanced and complete coverage of Israel and the Middle East. It’s a watchdog group that exposes instances of bias and skewed reporting in the mainstream media in the U.S. and abroad.

Occasionally it also publishes monographs that offer more in-depth analysis of trends in the representation of Israel and the Middle East in the media, on the American campus, in U.S. mainline churches, and in other arenas.

Indoctrinating Our Youth is its latest monograph in this series.

Basically the report is a “scholarly and frightening account” of how an astonishingly large amount of “inaccurate and partisan materials” made their way into the Newton Public School curricula.

As CAMERA researcher and author Steven Stotsky describes it (p. 8):

This monograph presents a case study of a nationally prominent public school system whose curriculum was compromised by inaccurate accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and simplistic expositions of Islamic culture. As school systems continue to introduce contemporary politically contentious topics into their curricula, there are valid concerns that students may be exposed to indoctrination rather than factual, objective accounts.”

Divided into an introduction and 5 parts, it includes 15 attachments and an impressive total of 271 footnotes containing citations to literally hundreds of sources—scholarly books, journal articles, school committee meetings, media coverage of the case and more.

The book begins by tracing the origins of the Newton curriculum controversy. It recounts key events based on numerous interviews that Stotsky conducted over the last two years (pp. 10-24 and Attachments 4-10).

Several chapters are also devoted to a meticulous analysis of the problematic course materials, including textbook chapters, handouts from online sources, in-class group exercises and other assignments, and videos screened during the classes (pp. 25-57 and Attachments 1-3, 11-15).

Specifically, the study focuses on the Newton 10th grade World History course unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 9th grade World History course unit about Islamic history and culture. An additional analysis of an elective course on Terrorism is also included (p. 50).

In a careful analysis of all these teaching materials, Stotsky shows that many of the textbooks written by supposed experts were “riddled with factual errors”, and omitted key historical and contextual information, or “glossed over” controversial topics.

But as Stotsky highlights, the problem isn’t just with anti-Israel textbooks or simplistic textbook passages about the history of Islam.

Another drawback to the Newton classroom lessons is that so much of the teaching is given over to sources from the Internet with (often sketchy) journalistic reporting and opinion-editorials substituting for historical, factually-accurate scholarship.

Backstory of the Newton, MA Curriculum Controversy

Last April we wrote about the systematic introduction of anti-Israel materials into the high school curriculum in Newton, Anti-Israel Propaganda Reaches Public Schools.

As we noted, the controversy erupted in 2011 when a freshman at Newton South High School became worried over a particular sentence in her history textbook and brought it home for her father to see.

Specifically, the student—Shiri Pagliuso—asked her dad if it’s true that the Israeli government and military torture and murder Palestinian women.

Turns out Pagliuso had ‘learned’ the information from a 540-page Saudi-funded textbook—the Arab World Studies Notebook.

As described in the CAMERA monograph in Attachment 7 (p. 85), it’s a binder of information about Islam and Arab culture that was used in the Newton schools, and in many other public school districts around the country since the 1990s.

Back in 2004, the book was condemned by the American Jewish Committee in a 30-page scathing analysis (pp. 13-14). A number of school authorities withdrew the book on the basis of the AJC report. According to the AJC, the Notebook was full of:

overt bias and unabashed propagandizing, such as depicting Israel as the aggressor in every Arab-Israeli war and praising Muslim conquerors throughout the ages for their ‘gentle treatment of civilian populations’.”

Some sections of the Arab World Studies Notebook inaccurately stated that Palestinians could trace their ancestry to the Canaanites; that Jerusalem was an “Arab City” usurped by Israel; and that “Islam’s religious ties to the holy city are equally long and much deeper” than either Judaism’s or Christianity’s. The book also suggests that a “Hollywood Jewish conspiracy” exists to promote a “negative image of Arabs in cinema” (pp. 13-14).

The particular sentences that bothered Newton’s Shiri Pagliuso and her father were:

Over the past four decades, women have been active in the Palestinian resistance movement. Several hundred have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Israeli occupation forces.”

Correctly viewing the passage as “outright propaganda”, Pagliuso voiced his concerns to the history teacher who assigned the material, to the History Department Head, and to the school principal (p. 16).

What ensued was a bitter battle that for some years pitted Pagliuso, soon joined by other concerned Newton residents, against the city’s school officials. The disagreement wasn’t just over the problematic Arab World Studies Notebook but widened out to a whole range of classroom teaching materials related to the teaching of Islamic history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (pp. 16-22).

The Battle And the School District’s Defense

At first Newton school officials didn’t even want to remove the offensive Arab World Studies Notebook, defending the text as essential for providing an “Arab point of view” and “sharpening the students’ critical thinking skills” (p. 17).

That is, the position of the school officials was that even though some of the materials that the students were learning from were “inaccurate”, it was nevertheless worth using them (pp. 16-17).

So they didn’t dispute Pagliuso’s allegations about the poor scholarly content of the Arab World Studies Notebook.

Instead, the school district defended teaching the factually-flawed textbook because it’s “important to provide students with a ‘balanced perspective’.” According to Stotsky, this became a phrase that Newton school officials would repeat time and again in various meetings (p. 17).

Pagliuso and other concerned parents and Newton citizens disagreed, countering that high school students lacked sufficient knowledge about the subject matter to be able to clearly distinguish between facts and falsehoods. At various school committee meetings they persisted in questioning the value of assigning error-ridden reading materials to young, impressionable students (pp. 17-18).

As Stotsky recounts, school officials reacted negatively to these comments, expressing concern with parental involvement in the school curricula. Newton School Committee Vice-Chair Matt Hills, minimizing the problem, reportedly also told a local newspaper that “academic freedom was at stake” (p. 18).

In July 2012, Newton School’s Deputy Superintendent reportedly told a group representing the parents that “it is acceptable for students to use materials with factual inaccuracies” in order to help them become better critical thinkers, and that “there is no need to review materials used in controversial or sensitive subjects because ‘we trust our teachers’.” Like Matt Hills, the deputy superintendent reportedly also stated that “neither parents nor anyone else was permitted to view any materials used by students”(pp. 18-19).

So the school district resisted for over a year, eventually relenting. It pulled the Arab World Studies Notebook.

In a 2-page statement released in Fall 2012, the Superintendent of Schools David Fleishman explained that the text was being removed because it was “outdated.” Notably, the statement didn’t take issue at all with the textbook’s many factual errors, virulently anti-Israel or racist antisemitic passages. But Fleishman did use space to praise it’s “primary sources” for being of “value to some faculty” (p. 17; see also Attachment 4, pp. 81-82).

However, despite its official removal from the curriculum, passages from the Arab World Studies Notebook were reportedly still being used in downloadable lesson plans for a Newton South High School 9th grade class in subsequent semesters (Attachment 9, p. 91).

Several years later, a 2014 commissioned review of an additional 26 teaching materials that the ad-hoc group of parents and concerned Newton residents managed to get a hold of up to that point indicated a much wider problem in the teaching units devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Islam.

Prepared by Verity Educate, the 153-page report showed that a sound, scholarly curriculum still wasn’t being presented (p. 21). The Executive Director of Verity Educate reportedly tried to discuss the report with Newton school officials on multiple occasions but received no response. According to Stotsky:

As far as is known, the comprehensive Verity Educate report was not reviewed by Newton school faculty or the school committee.”

The Current Status of the High School History Curriculum in Newton, MA

The ad-hoc group of parents and concerned Newton citizens filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the school district in late 2014 in order to gain access to the curriculum materials.

The school system began to comply with the FOIA request in the spring of 2015, providing materials from the 9th grade World History unit on Islam and the 10th grade unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Stotsky notes, by the time he undertook his study of these curriculum materials provided by the district, some of the more egregious materials in use back in 2011(reviewed in the Verity Educate 2014 report) had already been removed.

This includes handouts from the horrible Islamicweb.com which contains “numerous diatribes against Jews, Christians, and non-Sunni Muslims” (pp. 51, 69, fn. 8) and a photocopied page (Attachment 1, p. 70) called “Flashpoints: Country Briefing Israel-Palestine” which was chock full of erroneous information (like identifying Tel Aviv the capital of Israel and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine).

Stotsky writes:

The importance of continued involvement by parents and community groups cannot be overstated…It seems likely that the publicity stimulated by the controversy has prompted more thoughtful selection of materials and more careful vetting of them than occurred previously. The materials provided in the FOIA requests did not include some of the most biased and academically unsuitable items examined in 2011 through 2014” (pp.67-68).

So Pagliuso and the ad-hoc citizens’ group, along with other community groups, like Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) and Parents for Excellence in Newton Schools (PENS), are the heroes of this saga.

If it wasn’t for their dogged pursuit of a quality education for their city’s young adults, the biases inherent in the curriculum most likely would have never come to light and Newton educators would probably still be relying on all of their “compromised sources” (p. 68).

You can watch below the recorded statements of Newton resident and APT President Charles Jacobs and Margot Einstein, founding member of the ad-hoc citizens’ group, at Newton Public School Committee meetings in 2012 and 2013. They give you a good sense of their many efforts on behalf of the students, and the run-around they got from school officials:

The controversy now seems to have died down. But it “remains unresolved.”

Charles Jacobs reportedly believes that anti-Israel material is still being taught to Newton’s students.

Stotsky thinks it’s really impossible to know because school authorities refuse to identify what Israel-related materials are being used by teachers (they won’t post curriculum materials on their websites as many other schools and school districts around the country do).

In an interview last week, Jacobs noted that APT was committed to “building support for a policy of transparency” for Newton’s Public Schools.

Curriculum Analysis: Arab-Israeli Conflict

Stotsky’s coverage of the 2011-2015 classroom materials about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes up 16 pages of his book (pp. 25-40).

In them, he undertakes a detailed analysis of a host of diverse items presented to the students:

  • videos explaining the conflict taken from Internet websites;
  • maps from Palestinian sources;
  • timelines for the conflict;
  • opinion editorials from various newspapers;
  • lesson plans and in-class exercises; and
  • chapters from textbooks.

As Stotsky shows, the bulk of the materials work to make Israel look bad.

One of the videos (a 5-part 35 minute NYT production), for example, fails to “mention the key fact that Israel has made numerous, far-reaching offers of peace that entailed creation of a Palestinian state” (p. 28).

The Palestinians’ repeated refusal of these offers is essential information for students, but such facts preventing peace are omitted.

Several of the textbooks utilized in the course also depict Israel as unwilling to compromise—while exonerating the Arabs.

For example, World History: The Human Odyssey published by the National Textbook Company in 1999 incorrectly claims that after the 1967 war Israel refused Arab entreaties to return the territories it had seized in exchange for peace (p. 35).

The reality is exactly the opposite: in the immediate aftermath of the war, it was Israel that offered to turn over the captured territories but the Arab states, meeting in Sudan in August 1967, issued what’s known as the “three ‘no’s”—no to recognition, no to negotiations, and no to peace.

Newton students were given a false PLO-produced anti-Israel propaganda map which provides erroneous information to teach about Israel’s “theft” of “Palestinian land” (another map that Stotsky flags also claimed that Palestinian cities are “walled in” by Israel).

But just as bad as the material that’s presented is everything that isn’t.

For example, in a textbook chapter covering the origins of the conflict (The Modern Middle East published by Oxford University Press in 2011) author James Gelvin depicts the Jews as “colonialists” who opposed the “indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.” Notably sidelined from his analysis or timeline though is any mention of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem who disseminated wild myths that Jews were a threat to Muslim holy sites, helping to instigate repeated bloody massacres against defenseless Jews.

Nor does the chapter note that Husseini was a devoted “admirer of European fascism” who spent the WWII years in Berlin helping to recruit Bosnian Muslims for the SS and to produce pro-Nazi propaganda (pp. 36-37).

As Stotsky argues, all of this is important information for students because Husseini wasn’t a “fringe zealot” but an influential political and religious figure who trafficked in antisemitism, rejected Jewish-Arab coexistence, set the direction for the Palestinian national movement, and has had a lasting impact on Palestinian culture.

If you’re trying to teach why peace and the two-state solution has proven so elusive, that’s good information to give students.

Especially appalling in terms of omissions was an 8-page “Point of View” outdated timeline of the conflict produced by American Documentary, Inc. in 2001 (pp. 29-31). Stotsky notes that it was written by Negar Katirai, a Council on Foreign Relations intern who credits Mark LeVine, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and a staunch advocate of the anti-Israel BDS movement, with helping her develop it (Levine once wrote in 2009 that Israelis have an “addiction to violence” and suffer from “collective mental illness”).

Case study: Biased curriculum on Israel and Islam in a Massachusetts school system

A Review of “Indoctrinating Our Youth: How a U.S. Public School Curriculum Skews the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Islam”
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