In Newton, the liberal suburb of Boston where I live, parents of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim children gather weekly to discuss our concerns about how schools are responding to events in Israel/Palestine. We come together to find community and safety amid escalating hostility toward us because of a crisis we did not create and do not condone.
Schools should support the well-being of all students equally. They should help children develop a healthy sense of identity and belonging, encourage curiosity about divergent perspectives and teach the skills needed to constructively address conflict. Unfortunately, we feel that Newton schools, like others throughout the United States, not only fall short, but are complicit in perpetuating divisive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment — and their complicity is not new.
When 9/11 happened, my oldest daughter was in school in Newton. The principal took great pains to tell the children that they and their families were safe. But it felt like she was only considering the white kids, oblivious to how others, especially Muslims, would increasingly be subject to suspicion. My daughter, just 5 at the time, got the message at school that being a Muslim Arab was something “different” and to be ashamed of.
Schools should support the well-being of all students. They should help children develop a healthy sense of identity and belonging, encourage curiosity about divergent perspectives and teach the skills needed to constructively address conflict.
Seeing the writing on the wall, our mixed American Jewish-Palestinian Muslim family relocated to Jerusalem so the kids could find pride in their culture. When we returned to Newton 13 years later, our youngest daughter found friends here, most of whom were Jewish. But the kids worried they would be ostracized if they spoke about Palestine at school, and when my daughter raised concerns about censorship with school staff, they dismissed it as a simple misunderstanding. She decided to leave the district and graduate from a school where kids from marginalized backgrounds were believed when they talked about their own life experiences.
One year later, during the 2021 Israeli attack on Gaza, a teacher was dismissed from that same Newton school for writing a pro-Palestinian (not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish) statement on a white board. While we do not know enough about what happened in the classroom to determine if the termination was justified, the principal’s explanation to the community was definitely not appropriate. He wrote that “our students” had been put in an emotionally vulnerable position – but he certainly wasn’t talking about the district’s Palestinian students. My daughter read the letter and said it felt like being told that “others need to heal from your existence.”
Now, in 2023, everything is exponentially worse.
In the last three weeks in Newton, as in other cities, the superintendent, school principals, PTO groups and a local antiracism group issued statements about the current violence. A few expressed compassion for all those affected by events in the Middle East. But those messages were quickly walked back under pressure and revised to clarify solidarity only with Israelis. To us, it felt as if our city was condoning the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.
If teachers and students are too frightened to learn about Arabs and Muslims and too uncomfortable to discuss the role the U.S. plays in international affairs, how can schools help kids become informed, global citizens?
References to the historical context, including 75 years of Israeli expulsion, colonization and occupation of Palestine, were absent. Uninformed people were left to misunderstand that the deplorable violence against Israeli civilians on October 7th was motivated solely by some kind of innate or religious hatred of Jews.
False accusations of antisemitism make Arabs and Muslims targets, threatening their children’s safety, both inside and outside of schools. A six-year-old Palestinian boy was murdered, and his mother seriously injured, by their Chicago landlord who was motivated by anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim hate, fueled in part by media bias that relies on inflammatory words like “brutal” “and “violent” in relation to Palestinians. In Newton, a Palestinian American mother, who was fearful that flyers of Israeli hostages posted around the city would increase division between Muslims and Jews, removed them with the approval of city hall. She was subsequently doxxed, lost her job and now has police protection because of threats against her family.
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I understand why educators are scared to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. A few years ago, the Newton school district and several individuals were sued by the pro-Israel group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which falsely asserted that the district’s instruction on Islam, the Middle East and Palestinians was antisemitic. Teaching accurate, nuanced history and providing unbiased context about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has become dangerous for educators, not unlike the dangers they face from anti-critical race theory forces who seek to limit learning about the role of colonialism and slavery in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, that fear has led schools to avoid teaching about Palestinian experiences and narratives. To us, this censorship feels very much like blatant anti-Palestinian racism.
But it is not only Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students who suffer when fear and anti-Palestinian racism are normalized. All students do. If teachers and students are too frightened to learn about Arabs and Muslims and too uncomfortable to discuss the role the U.S. plays in international affairs, how can schools help kids become informed, global citizens?
The consequences of having an uninformed citizenry are dire. Without quality, unbiased information and antiracist education, U.S. citizens are less likely to support rational, humane policies and more likely to acquiesce to violent ones. As I write right now, Palestinian children are being killed in Gaza and Israeli hostages remain captive.
For all these reasons, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and allied parents will continue to meet to support one another and the rights of all children. We will continue the important but often exhausting work of advocating for the recognition of Palestinian humanity in our schools and in Gaza and the West Bank. Only when U.S. educators stand bravely to uplift everyone – including Palestinians – can our schools ethically and credibly teach the next generation how to pursue justice and peace.
Nora Lester Murad is the author of “Ida in the Middle,” which won the 2023 Arab American Book Award in the young adult category and the Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as “I Found Myself in Palestine: Stories of Love and Renewal from Around the Globe” (2020) and “Rest in My Shade: A Poem About Roots” (2018). While living in Palestine, Nora co-founded the community foundation Dalia Association and the group Aid Watch Palestine. From a Jewish family, Nora lives with her husband in Massachusetts and blogs at www.NoraLesterMurad.com.
This story about Palestinian American students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.