Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Screenshot.
Six years ago, a teenager in Newton, Massachusetts — Shiri Pagliuso — asked her father if it was true that Israel tortures and murders women activists in the Palestinian resistance movement.
Then a high school freshman, Shiri had learned the information from her textbook — the Arab World Studies Notebook, a 540-page volume so riddled with unabashed bias that it had garnered a scathing 30-page report from the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Back in 2011, Shiri’s father — Tony Pagliuso — wasn’t yet aware of the AJC’s report. But he knew outright propaganda when he saw it.
He contacted his daughter’s teacher, the head of the high school’s history department, the principal, and eventually the superintendents — who all defended the Arab World Studies Notebook as essential for sharpening critical thinking skills. They also praised the book for providing a “balanced perspective” and an “Arab point of view.”
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Pagliuso realized that he was being stonewalled, which got him thinking: If he looked at Shiri’s other course materials, what other dreadful stuff would he find?
Determined to expose the extent of the problem, a bitter multi-year battle ensued that pitted Pagliuso — who was soon joined by a group of other parents and Newton residents — against a shockingly hostile school district.
Together, the parents and residents fought to get school officials to acknowledge their legitimate concerns, provide access to all the curriculum materials as required by law, and to pull the Arab World Studies Notebook and other academically unsuitable materials.
Now, in a new study by CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), researcher Steven Stotsky carefully traces how these partisan materials — many with scant scholarly value — seeped into a nationally prominent public school system.
The 108 page monograph, Indoctrinating Our Youth: How a U.S. Public School Curriculum Skews the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Islam, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the Newton curriculum controversy.
Piecing together local media coverage, transcripts of school committee meetings and multiple interviews, Stotsky recounts the key events, including the run-around that Pagliuso and the ad-hoc group of concerned parents and residents got from school administrators.
Several chapters are also devoted to a thorough analysis of World History course materials, which the school district was ultimately forced to disclose in 2014 via a court order.
As Stotsky describes, the curriculum included materials rife with erroneous information, such as a radically doctored translation of the Hamas charter, and a handout identifying Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel — and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
Photocopies of PLO-produced propaganda maps downloaded from the Internet — and used by the school district — provided falsehoods about Israel’s “theft” of “Palestinian land.” Other textbook chapters and outdated Internet timelines omitted key historical and contextual information, like Israel’s many far-reaching offers of peace, and the hate-filled rhetoric and incitement that saturates Palestinian discourse.
And a lot of the materials glossed over controversial topics.
Stotsky’s report demonstrates how the religious components of the Israeli-Arab conflict were concealed from students, including the fact that for many Arabs, the conflict is a holy war — with Jews seen as infidel interlopers on sacred Islamic lands.
Course materials about Islamic history also downplayed negative societal practices. Woefully simplistic expositions and misleadingly rosy texts portrayed Muslim conquerors as tolerant toward their subjects, and presented embellished descriptions of the status of women in many Muslim-majority societies. The inferior status and often precarious situation of non-Muslims under Islamic rule wasn’t presented at all.
Stotsky relates how one textbook (Early Islam) even preposterously asserted that Muslim rulers were “especially liberal with the Jews and Christians” — as if they had equal rights and opportunities, and were free from discrimination.
In short, Indoctrinating Our Youth is a deep-dive into what went so very wrong in Newton, and Stotsky is right to come down hard on headstrong school administrators and an uncooperative elected school body.
These individuals created a bewildering degree of obstruction that exacerbated the controversy and made a timely removal of the problematic materials difficult. There’s some indication that local Jewish organizations –including the JCRC and, at least initially, the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League — were also less than helpful to the parents than they might otherwise have been.
Still, the teachers shouldn’t be let off the hook.
After all, they chose the curricula materials in the first place, and were inexcusably dismissive of the parents. (In an interview, Pagliuso admits that had Shiri’s 9th grade history teacher been more responsive to his concerns about the Arab World Studies Notebook passage, he probably wouldn’t have pursued the curriculum issue any further).
School officials repeatedly intoned that “we trust our teachers.” Yet they were unable to properly evaluate the noticeable biases contained in the course materials, especially those downloaded from sketchy, non-authoritative Internet sources and provided to them free of charge by virulently anti-Israel, BDS-affiliated faculty members at Harvard University’s Middle East Outreach Center.
This brings me to the CAMERA monograph’s most sobering insight about how anti-Israel and pro-Islamist propaganda is working its way out of higher education, and into US public schools.
The process often starts with federally-funded university centers for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, many of which have also been generously supported for years by multi-million dollar gifts from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, and are top-heavy with faculty at the forefront of the anti-Israel movement, and who favor anti-Western perspectives.
In Newton, as Stotsky documents, Harvard’s center had an outsized influence on high school educators. But these gown-to-town collaborations are well-established in other places, and in some cases, they’re likely having a similar disastrous impact on the public school curriculum.
How many people are aware that pushing vehemently anti-Israel and pro-Islamist materials into K-12 educational programming is now the BDS movement’s new frontier? It’s hard to say, but most Jewish American organizations have yet to take up the issue as a matter of major concern.
Indoctrinating Our Youth is a warning that this problem can no longer be ignored. What happened in Newton was especially appalling, but it’s really just another instance of a trend that’s already well underway in public schools, where students are increasingly “learning” from textbooks and supplemental readings that are horribly slanted against Israel, and in some instances, even by classroom lectures and lesson plans that traffic in blatant antisemitic tropes.
For years high schoolers in Newton, Massachusetts, were taught a tale of Jewish-inflicted misery. But then they got lucky. A discerning classmate flagged a troubling reading assignment, and her stalwart dad was willing to raise hell. Will the rest of America’s school kids be as fortunate?
Note: an earlier, separate version of this article was featured in Legal Insurrection on July 23, 2017. To access it, click here.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman.