Manny Behar

The stakes are high at Hillcrest High School

Last week, a large group of students vandalized their own school trying to attack a Jewish teacher who attended the rally for Israel in Washington DC. Some public officials like Mayor Eric Adams and Attorney General Tish James condemned the rampage as clearly ani-Semitic. Others, while saying the incident was “unacceptable”, maintained that the students involved were simply “14 and 15-year-olds doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do” and that we need to understand what caused the mayhem.

While I was appalled to hear about the incident, I was not surprised by it. When I was Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, a teacher at Hillcrest High School called our attention to a quote from a student in the school yearbook saying, “I will fight them until Islam becomes dominant or until they kill me.” We complained to the administration of the school, which replied that they had to print it because it is “free speech.”

Assembly Member Michael Cohen and I went to meet with the then President of the Board of Education, an African American and a great friend of the Jewish community, who would go on to serve as New York City Comptroller, and his legal advisor. Predictably, the legal advisor claimed that the school had to print the quote because of free speech. Assemblyman Cohen cited the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District decision which allows schools to censor a school-sponsored publication if the material is “biased or prejudiced.”

The legal advisor replied that he was familiar with the decision but that the policy of the Board of Education was to give students wide latitude to express themselves and that they only censor items that are highly offensive. I replied, “So what you are saying is that the quote was offensive but not offensive enough.” He dismissingly said, “well if you want to nitpick about it.” I then asked how offensive does something have to be to be offensive. Would you allow ‘kill the Jews? I asked. “Of course not,” he replied. “How about, ‘I will fight them till the white race becomes dominant or until they kill me?’” was my next question. At this point the legal advisor became flustered. President Thompson turned to him and said “You messed up. This will never happen again.”

This attitude, that some forms of bigotry are denounced as “racism,” while others are deemed acceptable as “free speech,” has festered at Hillcrest High School and elsewhere for years. It has given cover to those who condemn Jews who have returned to our historic homeland as “colonialist settlers” and who claim that our parents and grandparents who came here to flee from the pogroms, lived in the tenements and worked in the sweatshops were scions of “privilege.” It gives license to professors who are “exhilarated” by the rape, murder and kidnapping of Jews. It enables people to proclaim that calls for the annihilation of Israel are calls for freedom and justice. And it tells 14- and 15-year-olds that a teacher attending a rally in support of Israel is a valid reason for “doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do.”

If students trashed their own school while trying to attack an African American teacher who attended a Black Lives Matter rally no one would have dismissed it as “14- and 15-year-olds, doing what 14- and 15-year-olds do.” When people of good faith rationalize clear acts of anti-Semitism, they are unwittingly sending a subliminal message that anti-Semitism is an acceptable form of bigotry.

While we are appalled by the incident at Hillcrest High School, it would be unfair to label the entire school as anti-Semitic. In a school of close to 3,000 students, the vast majority did not participate in the violence. They are victims deprived of their right to a quality education in a safe environment.

A senior Muslim student organized a group of his peers to protect and support the teacher. Efforts are being made in Hillcrest High School and elsewhere to teach history in a serious way and to promote dialogue rather than confrontation.

These are hopeful signs. But the form that education will take is critical. Some of the most virulent anti-Semitism in the country is coming from the bastions of supposedly enlightened education. The idea that Jews are among the white male, colonialist, power structure who have enriched themselves by oppressing their victims has filtered down from the colleges to the high schools and even elementary schools. That kind of education is part of the problem not the solution.

For many years, America has been the gateway to opportunity for millions of American Jews. There have been other countries where Jews prospered for a time. But the Golden Age of Spain ended in the Inquisition and expulsion. The Enlightenment in Germany gave way to the Holocaust. We have believed that America is different. It is a fact that Jews in America have achieved success and acceptance by the wider society as never before. As we hear anti-Semitism being espoused or rationalized by some of the most respected people in society, we are beginning to doubt whether that promise still holds true.

Was the incident at Hillcrest High School a wake-up call to say that we have a serious problem, and we need to address it in a serious, meaningful, and effective way? Or was it a harbinger of the future? Our very future is at stake in the answer.

About the Author
Manny Behar is the Former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He currently lives in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem