Jewish parents stepped forward on Tuesday to call on the Los Angeles Board of Education to take concrete steps to prevent antisemitism on local campuses, echoing a call for sensitivity and understanding that Muslim parents made several weeks earlier.
Since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war last month, there have been accounts of student bullying at schools, insensitivity and a lack of understanding about the conflict — and instances of instruction seen as one-sided or age-inappropriate.
Jewish and Muslim leaders have reported a dramatic increase in hate speech, discrimination, threats and some acts of violence across the state and country since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,200 people and taking roughly 240 hostages. Israel’s intense retaliatory bombing and invasion of Gaza have killed more than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
“Every student and every family, regardless of their heritage and background, deserve respect and to feel safe and valued at school,” said district parent Ronen Pestes, who spoke during public comments at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Pestes was joined by about 15 other Jewish parents.
“With the rise of subtle and and outright antisemitism in the world, in our community,” Pestes said, “our families no longer feel safe.”
The parents spoke on behalf of the Jewish Parents Assn., calling for staff training on antisemitism as well as classroom instruction on recognizing antisemitism and the Holocaust — the organized mass murder of about 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany during World War II.
The parents said they represented more than 86,000 students with Jewish or Israeli ties. They also called on the district to adopt the definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” according to that organization. “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Pestes added that teachers need the tools and training to navigate such difficult issues: “If kids don’t have those conversations in class, where are they going to do it? Kids need to learn how to talk to each other about topics they might not agree on, without ending friendship, and learn how to deescalate conflicts.”
One parent said her middle schoolers had been recognized as Jews and demeaned by participants in a peace rally at the school. Another parent said a meeting of a Jewish student group at school had been disrupted when other students burst in and shouted, “F— Israel.”
Three weeks ago, a group of Muslim parents came before the school board expressing deep concerns about bullying and insensitivity against Muslim students, prompting schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho to issue a statement affirming campuses as nurturing, inclusive spaces. He said the district was “committed to providing a safe learning environment, free from bullying, discrimination, and harassment.”
Muslim parents complained during the public meeting that early district statements were unfairly one-sided in support of Israel. The parents estimated that about 500 district students have ties to the Gaza Strip.
On Tuesday, after the Jewish parents spoke, Carvalho noted that Holocaust education is part of the curriculum and that many students take part in field trips to the Museum of Tolerance, which memorializes the Holocaust.
As a school system, he said, the district “must reject any form of intolerance, humiliation toward anyone, for whatever reason.”
“We have provided additional resources,” he added, “specific guidance on how curriculum must be taught and our own efforts to ensure that the monitoring of the curriculum and its implementation is not only done in an age-appropriate way but does not go beyond the guardrails established ensuring that it is bias-free.”
Teachers also have academic freedom — within limits: “It is a fine balance sometimes but one that we are exigent about.”
Resources for teachers include: Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education; Healing the Hate: A National Hate Prevention Curriculum for Middle Schools, and Teaching Materials on Antisemitism and Racism.
The state’s recently adopted ethnic studies framework also has optional materials related to Jewish American and Arab American experiences and cultures.
Former L.A. school board member David Tokofsky, a one-time state teacher of the year, said Carvalho spoke “thoughtfully” about the “ethos and mission” of the school system — but that there’s more to be said about “professional training for teachers by grade” and what, for example, should be taught in 10th-grade world history versus 11th-grade U.S. history, as well as looking at how the study of literature could inform the understanding of history.
An incident at a charter school drew widespread attention last week. Two first-grade teachers allegedly accused Israel of starting the war and engaging in genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. The charter school, Citizens of the World, rents space for its classes at Adat Ari El Synagogue in Valley Village.
Although authorized by L.A. Unified, charter schools hire and monitor their own staff, and they also approve and oversee their curriculum. Still, the parents who spoke on Tuesday clearly saw L.A. Unified as bearing meaningful responsibility going forward for all public schools within its jurisdiction.
Two parents who spoke Tuesday had children in the first-grade class of the teachers who came under scrutiny.
Alona tal Ferraez said her dauther was “subjected to the unbelievably irresponsible decision of her primary teacher to teach antisemitic, ideological pro-Hamas propaganda in the classroom.” Her daughter was also exposed to “talk of war, the exact stuff that I was working so hard to keep away from her.”
The charter school said it had suspended the two teachers and that they would not be returning to that campus — the charter has other locations. The principal also was placed on a two-week leave after inquiring how much longer the temple would be flying Israeli flags. The principal has apologized for being insensitive.