After two emotionally charged meetings that drew over 100 community members and two public letters, the Berkeley school district’s leaders have made their stance clear — they want to protect all students, but won’t take a side in the Israel-Hamas war.
“I say again, and unequivocally, that BUSD — that we, together — stand against all forms of hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia,” Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said at a board meeting Wednesday to a tense audience largely split among supporters of Israel and Palestine.
Few were satisfied.
Public schools across the country are struggling with how to support their students during a conflict that has fiercely divided their communities. The Oakland school district has also opted to condemn hate everywhere, resisting calls to take a side in the war. In contrast, Richmond City Council recently became the first city in the country to pass a resolution in support of Palestine, accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing.
Over the past three weeks, Israeli forces have been carrying out military actions in the Gaza Strip, killing over 9,000 people and allowing little food, water, medicine and other supplies into the occupied territory that’s home to about two million Palestinians. These actions have come in response to an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel that killed over 1,400 people, with about 240 taken as hostages.
In the last two BUSD board meetings, local residents, many with family members affected by the conflict, have expressed their feelings and called for action. Initially, some asked district leaders to condemn the attacks by Hamas or express solidarity for Palestine. Others were focused on the district’s ethnic studies curriculum, hoping to enshrine teaching about Palestine in lessons or to include Israel’s perspective in the war.
Of their worries, calls to protect students from antisemitism and Islamophobia topped the list. Hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and Arabs have spiked in recent weeks.
Some Jewish students at BUSD reported experiencing antisemitism at school and were met with disbelief or antagonism, according to a petition organized by a group of Jewish parents that has gathered more than 1,200 signatures. (Stacey Zolt Hara, who posted the petition online, is a board member at Cityside, Berkeleyside’s nonprofit parent organization, and contacted a Berkeleyside reporter about the petition. Her statements are her own and made independently of her Cityside board membership.)
The petition gives multiple examples of antisemitic behavior at Berkeley schools, including students saying “kill the Jews” in the hallways or asking “what their number is,” in reference to Holocaust tattoos. Some students fear getting “jumped” in school for being Jewish, the petition says, and others are downplaying their identity by not wearing Stars of David to school. The petition called on BUSD to condemn all forms of hate and make it easier for students to report harassment.
Superintendent Ford Morthel said the district has received a few anonymous reports regarding hate speech on campus this week that lacked sufficient detail to investigate. There have been no direct reports of most of the incidents described in the petition, the district said.
“Those reporting the alleged incidents would not provide their name, or student name, or any details about when or where these incidents occurred, making it really hard for us to follow up,” Ford Morthel said at the meeting Wednesday. “Chasing unverifiable incidents takes away from the time and resources of our staff.”
Muslim parents and students have also expressed fear over safety.
Christina Harb, a Palestinian American school teacher at BUSD, has been outspoken in her support for Palestine and described a culture of fear in local Muslim and Arab communities. “I do feel like being outspoken puts a target on my back or puts me in a certain spotlight. I’m a lot more worried for my safety than I really had to think about before,” Harb said.
After the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois, some Muslim parents in Berkeley reportedly kept their students home from school out of concern for their safety. Harb said a man pulled off her friend’s hijab in Richmond and another friend wearing a checkered black and white Palestinian keffiyeh was chased by a man on her way to the school board meeting.
At the school board meeting Wednesday, Celine Rouabah, a former BUSD student who now attends Berkeley City College, spoke tearfully about the target her mother’s hijab puts on her back.
At UC Berkeley and other college campuses, students have been doxxed for criticizing Israel or for belonging to pro-Palestinian groups, their faces plastered on a truck driving around campus and their personal information published on Canary Mission, a website that publishes identifying information about college students who it deems antisemitic or anti-Israel. Students planning a vigil Oct. 13 for Palestinians rescheduled multiple times and changed its location due to threats.
Liz Jackson, a volunteer for Palestine Legal, said the group has seen more cases in the last month than it saw in the last year. The organization represents students advocating for Palestinian freedom in civil rights cases, like a Bay Area student who was made to take off her “Free Palestine” shirt several years ago and employees who were fired for expressing pro-Palestinian views.
“This is an absolute tsunami of threats, false accusations and censorship, and people being fired for simply saying, ‘Stop the genocide.’ People who are expressing that Palestinians just deserve to live are being, across the board, severely harassed and punished for expressing that view,” Jackson said. She is also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Berkeley teachers have expressed concern about being able to teach about Palestine out of fear of backlash from the community. Harb, the Palestinian teacher, started a petition asking the school district to make a statement in solidarity with Palestine and pass a resolution protecting teachers’ right to include Palestine in their curriculum.
“Some of my colleagues have told me that they hesitate and avoid teaching Palestine from fear of pushback and being unsure of support if they experienced such pushback,” Alex Day, an ethnic studies teacher at Berkeley High, said at a school board meeting last month.
At the same time, some Jewish parents and students interviewed by Berkeleyside said that when teachers and students at Berkeley High are openly sympathetic to Palestine, it makes Jewish students feel uncomfortable or unwilling to express their views. It’s not unusual for Palestinian flags to hang on the walls of classrooms, they said, but recent actions have gone a step further.
The petition spearheaded by Jewish parents also says BUSD “has a history of not recognizing Jewish students as part of its equity and inclusion practices,” such as by scheduling events like graduation on Jewish holidays.
Ilana Pearlman’s son is one of multiple students who transferred out of an art class at Berkeley High after the teacher showed a fist with a Palestinian flag breaking through a Star of David that appears to be on an Israeli flag. The teacher also hung a poster calling out Israel as an apartheid state and shared information about a student walkout supporting Palestine, according to multiple students’ families.
“It made me feel unsafe because I thought the classroom was apolitical, and you’re not supposed to be able to do any of that,” said Pearlman’s son, who declined to give his name. He would prefer that his teachers also teach the Israeli perspective.
“I don’t feel like it’s an overreaction to say that is wildly inappropriate in a public school the week after over 1,000 people were brutally and savagely murdered,” said Aaron Katler, a Jewish parent who also penned the letter to the school board.
While some called the poster blatantly antisemitic because it implies that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist as a Jewish state, others saw the image as a call for self-determination for Palestine that criticizes Israel and shouldn’t be censored in a public school.
A pro-Palestinian rally by about 150 Berkeley High students also alarmed some Jewish families. Like at many of these marches across the globe, the students repeated, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Many interpret the chant to be calling for the violent destruction of Israel, though some use it to refer to civil freedom and human rights.
School board director Jennifer Shanoski said at the board meeting Wednesday that she condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia and felt it was important for teachers to be able to have “hard conversations” with students about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
“I also want to express my support for the academic freedom of our professional teachers, our wonderful teachers,” said Shanoski, whose comments were interrupted by a cry of protest from the audience.
The tension was palpable during the school board meeting. During the last two meetings, school board directors chided parents, who occasionally yelled or booed, to refrain from profanity and model the civil behavior they want to see in their students.
“I really can’t enforce a welcoming school environment if we as a community don’t live up to this,” School Board President Laura Babitt said.
Berkeley City Council has also declined to take a stance
Like the school board, the Berkeley City Council has not adopted any formal statement on the conflict and agendas for upcoming council meetings indicate the body as a whole does not plan to address either the Israeli bombardment of Gaza or the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
The school board has received the brunt of the community’s attention about the war, as the council has not met in three weeks.
“I don’t think anything good can come from a statement — I don’t see what the value of a statement from a local municipality is,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said.
“If the statement is about supporting everyone and making sure that everybody’s safe, that’s very different,” said Wengraf. “But pointing fingers and taking sides doesn’t seem, to me, to be a productive path.”
Still, several council members have issued individual statements about the conflict and Councilmembers Wengraf, Terry Taplin, Rashi Kesarwani and Mark Humbert signed the petition by Jewish parents calling on BUSD to protect students. Last year, Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s sponsored trip to Israel soon after the Israeli forces killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh sparked criticism from pro-Palestinian supporters.
The City Council has weighed in on overseas conflicts in the past, adopting multiple resolutions last year that pledged support to Ukraine. But Councilmember Sophie Hahn said the body typically avoids “taking positions on foreign policy that have the potential to divide and upset our own community,” and added that she supports that approach.
“We like to focus our efforts on … national or world events where we are confident that there is a broad consensus,” Hahn said, which was the case with condemning the invasion of Ukraine. “It is certainly my hope that we stick to that.”
Hahn said she believes institutions such as the school board and City Council can have a role to play in condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia — without wading into the broader conflict.
“If students are feeling unsafe at this time, I certainly think that’s something that our schools need to address,” Hahn said. “But that’s very different from making political pronouncements.”
Berkeleyside public safety reporter Alex N. Gecan contributed reporting to this story.
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