Public Schools Struggle to Say the Right Thing About the Israel-Hamas War

In Atlanta, Jewish parents criticized the school district’s statement on “the violence facing children and families in the Middle East” for never using the word “terrorism.”

In Los Angeles, a Muslim organization condemned public school officials for “not acknowledging the dispossession of the Palestinian people,” after a “We Stand With Israel” message was posted on the district’s official website.

And in New York, public school leaders have released a wide-ranging patchwork of memos that have often prompted the same response from different factions of parents and teachers: outrage.

Over the past two weeks, American public school districts have wrestled with the dilemma of how — and whether — to respond to the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which together have killed thousands of civilians. A restrained email with a list of counseling resources? A lengthier letter that denounces the attackers or delves into the region’s history? Or, say nothing at all?

For ethnically and religiously diverse districts, it can be a daunting calculation. But as the war continues and a rise in threats against both Jewish and Muslim Americans stirs fear, addressing the crisis could become unavoidable — and more complicated — for schools.

“This is such a tough one,” said Cheryl Logan, a former superintendent in Omaha and expert in educational leadership. “It’s really difficult to lead right now.”

The same questionshave roiled universities like Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania since the brutal assault on Israel, sparking complex debates about free speech. Families often look to institutions like public schools for guidance in challenging times. And after districts spoke out over other issues that affect students — like George Floyd’s murder or the massacre in Uvalde, Texas — many have again been expected to weigh in.

On one hand, many parents see condemning terrorism as a simple step. Others denounce the violence, but argue that the fraught history of the region must also be reckoned with.

For public school leaders, who often carefully avoid straying near third-rail issues, responding in a balanced way can feel like an especially difficult conundrum, experts said.

Some districts have taken unapologetic stances backing one side in the war: In Oklahoma, the state superintendent encouraged all schools to observe a moment of silence “to show our support for Israel.” A memo to teachers and administrators included a three-line sample prayer.

But many have struggled over how much to say and what language to use.

In New York, state officials faced a backlash for a statement some said was too weak in its condemnation of Hamas. City officials were criticized for a statement that did not acknowledge Palestinian losses.Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

New York City is home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel and one of the nation’s biggest Muslim communities. In a message sent in the days after the attacks, state leaders mourned the “inhumane atrocities” and emphasized “opportunities for open discussions about managing the trauma of the war.” Some Jewish families and groups criticized it as too weak.

But when the New York City schools chancellor sent out a statement on the “devastating impact of terrorism,” three Muslim and Arab teachers at city public schools, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said in interviews they were hurt and distressed that it did not acknowledge Palestinians, or extend concern to educators and families with relatives in Gaza.

In other districts, officials have sent follow-up messages or apologies to try and tamp down fury from families and other groups.

In Atlanta, the public school district said it was “no stranger to the universal struggle for justice and equality,” referring to the nonviolent protests of local students during the Civil Rights Movement, in its initial response.

“I was honestly so deeply disappointed,” said Emily Kaiman, a Jewish parent with two children in Atlanta public schools. “Calling out terrorism should not be controversial.”

One of her daughters in eighth grade has struggled to focus in her classes as her mind wanders to the war, she added. “I wish the district had put something out there that made her feel seen, and like she had someone for support,” Ms. Kaiman said. Officials later released a second statement with additional resources.

From Cambridge, Mass., to Fairfax, Va., the frustrations have at times boiled over. Many parents and high school students who have publicly spoken out have faced doxxing, harassment or threats. Other families have launched petitions to expel school board members.

Some districts have encountered problems even as they largely attempt to stay out of the fray publicly. At a school board meeting last week in Cherry Hill, N.J., outside of Philadelphia, more than a dozen Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim students described conflicts breaking out in school classrooms and cafeterias.

One Jewish teenager said his peers who are supportive of Israel were accosted during a lunch period, and another said she felt anxious. Several Muslim students said they were labeled “animals” or told they “all deserve to die.” One said that after he wore a checkered scarf known as a kaffiyeh with a Palestinian flag, his teacher called him a “terrorist” in math class.

The school’s Muslim, Jewish, and Middle Eastern-North African student groups recently took things into their own hands: In a statement, they urged their peers to treat each other “not as adversaries but as the individuals we’ve grown up alongside since kindergarten.”

Still, at the meeting, nearly every student said their school had done far too little to address the war, leaving the burden to fall on them. The lack of immediate action allowed tensions to escalate, said one teenager, Kyle, whose last name is being withheld because of his age.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school district, was already dealing with a rise in antisemitism after swastikas were drawn on classroom desks and “Jews Not Welcome” was painted on a school entrance sign. Adam Zimmerman, a holocaust educator and Jewish parent of two children in the district, said officials were “caught flat-footed” at the time.

After the Hamas attack, families again heard nothing for several days, which he called “deeply upsetting.”

“We’re not asking school districts to solve the Middle East conflict,” Mr. Zimmerman said, adding that students are often encouraged to “stand up and speak out” for those in need. “If we’re expecting the kids to do it, the grown-ups should be able to do it too.”

Julia and Adam Zimmerman at their home. Mr. Zimmerman criticized his school district’s lack of response immediately following the Hamas attack.Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Other families believe their school leaders have said too much. Sumaya Bezrati, a Muslim parent of two children in Los Angeles, said she worried that statements that seem one-sided could inflame tensions further.

“Why did you choose this one conflict to make a public stance about?” she asked. “The main thing for me is the safety of my own kids. These kinds of statements, they really affect us.”

The district often promotes inclusivity, Ms. Bezrati said. But now, students with relatives in Gaza have been left out of the dialogue, she said, and many feel afraid to speak out. “We expect them to be held to those values — for all children,” she said.

In some places, parents and students have managed to find common ground.

In a suburban Chicago district, two parents on the school board — one Jewish with an Israeli spouse, and the other Palestinian — opted to craft a joint statement, asking “everyone to prioritize the well-being of the children.”

Omar Salem, whose father became a refugee during the Six-Day War in 1967, felt it was important that the statement use the term Palestine. For his counterpart, Joey Hailpern, explicitly denouncing Hamas and terrorism was crucial.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” Mr. Salem said. But, he added that “this was part of our healing process. There are staff, students and community members hurting — and we hope it helped them too.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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