Thursday, June 13, 2024

Violence in the Middle East has been a topic of public comment at Somerville School Committee meetings off and on for month. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Somerville teachers, parents, students and community members made it known during a School Committee meeting May 20 they are unhappy with the Somerville Public Schools’ response to pro-Palestine protests – but the strong public comment seemed to go further than any public statement it responded to.

Carlos Contreras, a social studies teacher at Somerville High, criticized the idea of penalizing students leaving school to protest by giving them an unexcused absence, among other things. “I ask that the School Committee demonstrate some courage and leadership by upholding the excused absence policy, stop disciplining students and staff for using the phrase ’from the river to the sea,’ publicly apologize for intimidating and comparing our students to white nationalists, openly condemn the ongoing genocide against Palestinians and call for a cease-fire now,” Contreras said.

No committee member or school official has punished students for using the phrase or said anything about doing so, according to one official and a review of recent meetings. A voice mail seeking more information was left Saturday with a media contact for Somerville For Palestine, a group that posted on Instagram with a critique of remarks by committee member Leiran Biton, but there was no immediate reply.

This story will be updated if there is a response from the group or the Somerville High for Palestine group.

Youth have been outspoken about Middle East violence in public comment to the Somerville School Committee. (Photo: Julia Levine)

There has been a youth-led movement for months against Israeli strikes at Gaza in retaliation for an Oct. 7 incursion by the Palestinian group Hamas. While 1,200 Israelis were killed in that attack and others taken hostage, estimates put Palestinian deaths since at around 36,000, with another 81,000 people wounded. Somerville High students walked out April 26 to a Tufts protest and again May 6 in solidarity with an MIT pro-Gaza encampment.

While many Jewish people are part of that movement, others say the protesters make them worry about their safety amid a resurgence in antisemitism. The Palestinian slogan about being at home on land “from the river to the sea” has been in constant debate about whether it is hate speech, because Israel is between Gaza and the Jordan River.

Officials’ words

Somerville School Committee member Leiran Biton. (Photo: Julia Levine)

At an April 29 meeting, superintendent Rubén Carmona said the district does “unequivocally condemn all antisemitic and anti-Palestinian hate,” but cannot itself “endorse any of the messaging of the protesters.”

Later in the meeting, committee member Leiran Biton, of Ward 7, discussed why he and others believed the slogan was a “call for ethnic cleansing or genocide” that shouldn’t be used on school property and must be condemned as hate speech, rather than just not endorsed. Students using the phrase may not know the context, he said. “If students are given a space to protest, as they rightly should be, school leaders should provide support to help the students make choices that do not harm themselves or others,” Biton said. “No one should be made to feel less than or to feel unsafe in their school. The School Committee has affirmed that position time and time again.”

The member was also concerned about students wearing face coverings “including full face masks to obscure their identities” – he later pointed to a image of a student walking out of school with a Halloween-style full mask held on with a strap, through which only the wearer’s eyes could be seen – and called it “the same tactics employed by racist nationalist white supremacist organizations who cover their faces to hide their identities while they espouse their own hateful views and attempts to intimidate our communities.”

A public commenter said Biton had spoken against the wearing of Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves, but Biton never used the term.

High school students participate in a protest at MIT on May 6. (Photo: Yaakov Aldrich)

In an interview over Memorial Day weekend, Biton said the scarves are not his concern, but “when people put on masks, they need to understand history and context.”

“Our students are strong and proud and passionate and smart. They don’t need to hide behind masks when they’re marching in protest,” Biton said. “They should be proud of what they’re saying in public, and they should be proud of who they are and what they believe in. I was comparing the tactics of some of the students to intimidation tactics that are used by groups that we don’t want to comparisons to.”

A school-absence policy that provides a “blanket excuse for protests” without definition or constraints should be revisited, Biton said, because there’s potential for disruption to student learning without an actual social justice component – meaning that Biton had heard that “classroom sizes across the high school were much smaller” after students left campus to protest, but not all those numbers seem to have made it to an encampment.

Public comment

That concern wasn’t reflected in the comment by Contreras, the high school teacher. “I can’t think of a better way for students to have opportunities to contribute to a thriving community than to walk out of school in protest of a genocide that’s being aided and abetted by their own governments,” he said.

Other public comments showed the degree of disagreement in the school community.

“I believe concerns about chants like ’from the river to the sea’ are disingenuous,” said Illona Yosefov, a Somerville parent who is also an Israeli Jew. “People who claim to be harmed by these words say that they could be interpreted as a call to ethnically cleanse the landmass from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea of Jews. What they’re willfully ignoring is the fact that the Zionist project has been engaging in the deliberate ethnic cleansing of Palestinians for the last 76 years,” she said.

Other Somerville residents agreed the slogan was objectionable, such as Brian Sokol, who said it “implies the decimation, displacement and disenfranchisement of 7 million Jews.” Two of his friends were killed by Hamas during the second intifada period of the early 2000s, and when he put up a sign in front of his house in support of Israeli hostages from the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, it was vandalized with anti-Semitic language. “Allowing such speech in our schools clearly interferes with Jewish students’ ability to learn,” he added.

Charlotte Ross, a teacher at the Argenziano School, agreed, adding that she’s concerned about fellow teachers producing biased and anti-Semitic educational material.

“My kids don’t go to the Somerville public schools. My husband and I didn’t think it could be a place where they could bring their fully Israeli American identity without suffering from intimidation and bullying,” said Natty Hoffman, who lives in Ward 7 and has two elementary-age children. She referred to an incident in which an Israeli child had his belongings thrown out of his locker and replaced with a Palestinian flag, and she said the school did nothing about this. Those details couldn’t be immediately confirmed.

Somerville High student Leyla Abarca-Gresh expressed her disappointment that the committee had yet to make a statement supporting Palestine. “All I’ve heard from you guys is Mr. Biton’s public statement comparing us high schoolers to white nationalists because we covered our faces with kaffiyehs,” she said.

Sara Halawa, organizer of the group Somerville for Palestine, said “these children are bearing witness to this genocide alone, because the leaders of our school have decided to remain silent.” She spoke about the Palestinian students reckoning with the violence done to their families back home, which she said includes her husband’s family.

Evan Drukker-Schardl, who lives in Ward 7, said, “I’ve experienced antisemitism, I’ve been assaulted on the street for being visibly Jewish, my synagogue growing up was firebombed by neo-Nazis, [but] we must not allow elected officials to cynically compare young people standing up for justice with violent hate groups.”

Biton said that he has offered dialogue and conversation when people have contacted him about his remarks, but “only a few” have taken him up. He has stressed to them that “I never advocated for censoring students. I never advocated for banning speech, or punishing students. That’s categorically false,” he said.

Carmona said that the Somerville Public Schools position is that “we unequivocally condemn all xenophobic rhetoric and attacks, including antisemitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israel, anti-Arab and Islamophobic hate.”