Pro-Israel Queens teacher faces raucous protest, labeled a ‘teachable moment,’ says Banks

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks pledged on Monday that the recent student protest at Hillcrest High School, which escalated into chaos, will be a “teachable moment.”

The turmoil unfolded on November 20th, when a large number of students gathered at the Queens school to protest a social media photo of a teacher holding an “I Stand With Israel” sign. The protest quickly became raucous, with students dancing in the hallways and causing damage to school property. The teacher, who is Jewish, sought refuge in an administrator’s office on a different floor.

While school officials disciplined some students involved in organizing the protest, they did not provide specific details due to privacy restrictions.

The incident received widespread condemnation during the Thanksgiving break, including a statement from Mayor Eric Adams, who called it a “vile show of anti-Semitism.”

During a visit to the school, Chancellor Banks expressed his disapproval of the students’ actions while also cautioning against broad criticism of the students. He acknowledged that the teacher was targeted based on her support for Israel and her Jewish identity, which he declared as completely unacceptable. Chancellor Banks also refuted claims that the students involved were radicalized and antisemitic, calling such ideas irresponsible.

The protest was primarily organized through social media and involved around 400 students out of Hillcrest’s total student body of approximately 2,300. Another protest was planned for November 22nd, but school administrators successfully prevented its occurrence.

According to school officials, they were alerted to the November 20th protest in time to notify the police, who responded swiftly. The targeted teacher was already in an administrator’s office, accompanied by the police, when the protest began, ensuring her safety throughout the incident.

Chancellor Banks emphasized that the teacher was never in direct danger.

The teacher declined to comment directly, but in a previous statement to the New York Post, she expressed her distress over the online calls for violence against her.

Multiple students and elected officials reported that the teacher was threatened, and her address was posted online.

The chancellor assured that the teacher is expected to resume her work and that the school will take steps to ensure her safety. The school plans to collaborate with Operation Respect, an organization focused on improving school culture, to facilitate discussions on the matter.

Reflecting on the incident, Hillcrest students recognized that the protest had spiraled out of control, but they insisted that the students who escalated the situation were not the ones who originally organized the protest.

While some students participated simply for their own entertainment, rather than taking it seriously, according to Muhammad Ghazali, the senior class president, the protest initially intended to be peaceful.

One student, who preferred to remain anonymous, rejected the accusation that the protest was antisemitic, asserting that its intent was to support Palestine and not to attack the teacher for being Jewish.

During his visit to Hillcrest, Chancellor Banks aimed not only to condemn the students’ actions but also to listen to the students and gain a better understanding of what fueled their anger.

Approximately 30% of Hillcrest’s students are Muslim, and some have personal experiences related to conflict zones like Yemen, which makes the situation in Gaza alarming and traumatic for them.

Chancellor Banks acknowledged that the students consume information through social media, where they regularly witness the ongoing violence affecting children and young people in Palestine. Viewing the teacher’s sign as an endorsement of what is happening to the Palestinian community was, therefore, understandable to the students.

Schools across New York City have faced challenges in addressing Hamas’ attack on Israel and the subsequent conflict, with many students being exposed to graphic images and struggling to navigate conflicting sources of information. Many students desire a safe space to discuss these complex issues at school.

However, educators are cautious about engaging in such discussions, particularly after Chancellor Banks advised teachers to refrain from sharing their political beliefs during class and warned against involvement in political activism outside of school.

Several Hillcrest students expressed that they had limited opportunities to discuss the events in Gaza and Israel before the recent protests erupted.

They emphasized the need for educators to address these issues rather than ignore them, warning that neglecting them only fuels the intensity of the students’ emotions. They likened the situation to a boiling pot that ultimately exploded.

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