A Jewish teacher’s social media profile photo showed her holding a sign.
“I stand with Israel,” the sign said.
That’s all it took for hundreds of New York City high school students to target the teacher in a raucous, angry protest earlier this month. They flooded the halls of Hillcrest High School in Queens, chanting loudly, demanding the teacher’s ouster and damaging school property. The frightening events spun out of control, forcing the teacher to hide in school offices on another floor of the building.
What’s clear from the ugly events at Hillcrest and from the ensuing inadequate response from school administrators, including the city schools chancellor, is that no one is listening enough, no one is learning enough, and no one is teaching enough.
A recent Newsday story highlighted the same problem on Long Island, finding a disappointingly wide disparity in how or whether teachers are addressing the Israel-Hamas war, and the antisemitism and Islamophobia here. Teachers are scared, administrators are hesitant. So they stay quiet, trying to keep the tensions abroad and hate at home out of their classrooms and auditoriums. Too often, they’ve found it easier to shut the door on difficult conversation, communication and learning, especially when it’s complicated by inflamed passions, and when the teachers themselves may not fully understand what’s happening.
The result can be deeply disturbing. Ensconced in their own social-media bubbles of short sound bites and horrific images of Gaza in the wake of the Israeli military’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, too many students across the region may only be seeing a tiny sliver of a complex issue. Their worldview is one built on a constant stream of pictures of destruction and death in Gaza, where there’s no mention of the terror inflicted upon Israel.
The mob mentality builds on social media, where there’s no nuance or complexity and no immediate consequences. But when that mob mentality moves from phones to school hallways — and this was just a matter of time — the bubble bursts, leaving real destruction and fear in its wake.
Hillcrest students said their message got “lost,” that some classmates “lacked maturity” or they saw the rioting as a “fun event.” Schools Chancellor David Banks didn’t push back. Instead, he had their backs, calling the incident “overblown” and saying it “makes sense to me” that students would equate their teacher’s support for Israel with support for the deaths and destruction in Gaza.
But it shouldn’t make sense. If it does, we are failing our children. If it does, parents and educators and school administrators aren’t doing their jobs to educate children about the war, about hateful speech and actions and about how to discuss and communicate differing points of views respectfully and compassionately. They aren’t teaching that sometimes, divergent points of view — such as support for the state of Israel, horror at what Hamas did, and concern for the Palestinians who are suffering — can be held simultaneously, and sometimes must be held simultaneously. The result is a disconcerting lack of communication and a hostility toward others, which in turn encourages hate and violence.
Loud voices across social media and in the streets are creating threatening, incendiary scenes.
In response, both at home and at school, parents, teachers, administrators and other adults who care for our kids have to take the lead on explaining how to dissent, how to disagree, how to have empathy, and how to listen. Their words and actions have to speak louder.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.