Teaneck Jewish community rallies against high school hate speech
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Teaneck Jewish community rallies against high school hate speech

The rally drew many hundreds of people to protest hate speech in Teaneck High School.
The rally drew many hundreds of people to protest hate speech in Teaneck High School.

The response to Hamas’s attack on Israel, which would have seemed likely to evoke sympathy for Israelis and loathing for their murderers, seems instead to have unloosed antisemitic rage that apparently ran just below the surface in much of our culture.

That rage is unspooling in all sorts of ways. This week, it hit Teaneck High School.

After a spotty history of tension and at times overt anger between the Black and white or the Black and Jewish communities in Teaneck, the town seemed to have settled into what looked like an equilibrium. Blacks and Jews supported each other in many ways. When George Floyd was murdered, Jews marched in protest next to their Black neighbors.

But when Hamas invaded, the town seems to have split, and each side has retreated to its own corner.

When the dispute erupted in the high school last week, it seems to have been handled somewhat clumsily.

Pro-Palestinian students wanted to leave school early on Wednesday to march against what the group called “genocide.” Is calling Israel’s war in Gaza genocide free speech, or is it hate speech?

In an oddly perky text, sprinkled with exclamation points and looking surprisingly Christmas-like in mainly red and green, the email began with the exhortation “Do not stay silent during a genocide.” Then it gave information about the rally. (“It’s approved! Don’t go to fourth period”)

In response, Teaneck’s school superintendent released an anodyne letter.

“As we enter the holiday season, characterized by traditions of joy and peace, it is important to acknowledge that not all are experiencing this reality,” Andre D. Spencer, Ed.D. wrote. “There has been a growing number of concerns, which have led to numerous demonstrations. Some of our scholars will participate in a peaceful demonstration on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 29, 2023, at 1:30 p.m. It is essential to recognize that our scholars have the First Amendment right to express themselves, even if no board action is taken.”

He did not mention what the “growing number of concerns” that bothered “our scholars” might be. He did say that “we are here to support each of you during these difficult times,” however, and he offered the services of “our counseling staff.”

The note was on letterhead from his office; it listed two other officials, Paul Morgan, the school’s chief of safety and residency services, and the high school principal, whose name was misspelled as Perdro H. Valdes III. (It’s Pedro.)

The Jewish community reacted with disappointment and anger.

In response, a new Jewish organization, the Bergen County Jewish Action Committee, organized a rally on Tuesday night, in protest of Dr. Spencer’s sanctioning the student walkout and rally, during school hours, on school grounds.

This is not free speech, the rabbis who signed the open letter announcing the rally, said. This is hate speech. This is, in fact, the blood libel.

“It is inconceivable that if a group of students asked to protest on behalf of the KKK during school hours, or on behalf of an Islamophobic group, that they would be granted space and sanctuary to do so,” the letter reads. “There would, rightly, be an outcry for the physical and mental welfare of students impacted by any such hateful gathering. And yet, as of yesterday, Jewish students have not felt safe at Teaneck High School; a number have started staying home from school, and many do not feel safe attending school tomorrow.

“As always, we rally with love and peace, and with great hopes that light will overcome the hate that has been given a home in our township,” it concludes.

The rally, on the coldest night of the year so far, organized in a very short time, drew so many people that they filled the town’s municipal green. The speakers gave brief talks; the rabbis who spoke addressed the crowd as longtime Teaneck residents rather than as rabbis.

Three Jewish Teaneck High School students and three parents spoke; the students said they no longer feel safe at school. They’ve felt unsafe since October 7, they said. The parents said they no longer feel safe sending their children to school. Hillary Goldberg, a member of the township’s council, who grew up in Teaneck, said that she, too, now feels unsure about sending her child to the high school.

Meanwhile, Dr. Spencer sent out what he called an update to the community. (In this note, Mr. Valdes’ first name is spelled correctly.)

“While the district respects the scholars’ right to engage in a peaceful demonstration, this does not connote an endorsement of walkouts or messages,” the message begins.

“While the district respects the scholars’ right to engage in a peaceful demonstration, this does not connote an endorsement of walkouts or messages,” Dr. Spencer continues. “In Teaneck Public Schools, it has been a practice for scholars who participate in demonstrations to receive a zero for the missed classwork and to be marked with an unexcused absence by their classroom teacher.”

In other words, now “scholars” — it is unclear why Dr. Spencer calls students scholars, but he does so consistently —will face consequences if they walk out of school.

Also, Dr. Spencer wrote, “if scholars elect to leave school property, we will no longer have the capacity to provide supervision. Consequently, scholars’ supervision will be the responsibility of the parent.”

This is rarely information parents want to hear.

The student rally on Wednesday will take place after our deadline. If it’s newsworthy we will report on it next week.

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