Numerous reports show that public school curricula hostile to Jews and Israel are rapidly spreading into American classrooms. Jewish parents would normally assume that Jewish community leaders would be alarmed at the prospect of our children harassed and even hated for being Jewish and supporters of Israel. One would think Jewish leaders would be on top of this. We did. We were wrong.
My informal group of Jewish parents in Fairfax County, concerned about growing anti-Semitism in Northern Virginia public schools, assumed we could count on our local Jewish leadership to help us. Instead, we found a leadership that had generally failed to educate the Jewish community about this threat and seemed to have no appreciable strategy to fight it.
While our leaders are more responsive when hatred comes from neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they still have no strategy for addressing it, and they seem utterly flummoxed and paralyzed by the more nuanced anti-Semitism arising from groups other than these.
In our case, as we became aware of multiple incidents of anti-Semitism occurring over the years in our local schools in Northern Virginia, we reached out to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which presents itself as the authority to speak for the Jewish community. We soon found that the JCRC was conflicted in their interests and rather than prioritizing fighting anti-Semitism, we found them to be more interested in currying favor with elected officials and promoting a “progressive equity” agenda. The JCRC showed little interest in working with members of the Jewish community, especially grassroots organizations such as ours (we would later form United Against Antisemitism-Northern Virginia), unless we were in agreement with their agenda, and they insistently pushed back against Jewish individuals and groups who wished to take action against the growing anti-Semitism. The standard JCRC response toward concerned Jews was essentially: “We know the players. Back off and leave this to us.”
The JCRC showed itself either unwilling or unable to closely evaluate friends or foes, right in our local community. For example, in May 2021, as Israel was defending itself from Hamas’s indiscriminate shelling of Tel Aviv, we learned that Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) board member Abrar Omeish called Israel an apartheid, colonizing state, and accused Israel of killing innocents on her social media account, an account linked to her official school board webpage. Individual members of the Jewish community responded by calling for the school board to censure her, but to no avail.
A few days after she made her post, the JCRC issued a statement calling her tweet a: “one-sided, inaccurate, and hateful statement that smeared Israel, defamed Israelis, and disenfranchised the thousands of Jewish families in her district.” The JCRC offered her the opportunity to “amend her remarks,” and tried to convince her to take down her social media post. She refused, forcing the JCRC to rescind the honor they were scheduled to present to her as a “champion of faith equity” for her work in trying to include additional days of religious observance to the FCPS school calendar. Meanwhile, her post accumulated multiple anti-Semitic responses from people encouraging her, some of them calling for the destruction of Israel, some threatening Jews individually.
Now comes the truly shocking part: a cursory Google search revealed that as a college student at Yale University Omeish was president of the Muslim Students Association, an organization whose origins are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Her father, a former president of the Muslim American Society, another organization whose origins are also associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to resign from a Virginia commission on immigration when videos surfaced of him advocating for jihad in Israel. Her father also recommended that their mosque hire Anwar al-Awlaki as imam, which they did. As recently as 2018, the elder Omeish was cited by name in congressional testimony for his ties to terrorist organizations. Following in her father’s footsteps, Omeish led efforts to block the courageous feminist and Islamist critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on her campus. A few weeks after her social media post, as she delivered the commencement address at a high school graduation ceremony in her official capacity as a school board member, she introduced her terrorist-linked father as a special guest in the audience. She then told the graduating class to “remember their jihad.” The JCRC staff, one assumes, is composed of competent professionals, yet all the alarm bells that we – just parents – easily found spending thirty minutes on Google, either did not sound in any JCRC office, or worse, were ignored.
We were forced to ask ourselves: was the JCRC fooled or did they willingly turn a blind eye in their desire to court an “interfaith political partner” on the school board? Did their strategy of linking with “victim groups” – and proving they were anti-Islamophobes – conflict with what should be their first priority: keeping the Jewish community safe? Instead of educating the Jewish community about the threat of Islamist anti-Semitism, the JCRC, patronizingly, tried to dissuade us from taking further action against her.
When the school board initially ignored our calls for censuring Omeish, we became aware from multiple Jewish parents that the school district had a pattern of ignoring incidents of anti-Semitism in their schools. We naturally called on the JCRC to help us, join us – or even lead the effort in confronting the schools and protecting Jewish children from anti-Semitism. While the JCRC met with us several times, we quickly learned that they were more interested in forging political partnerships with elected officials than forcefully addressing numerous incidents of anti-Semitism in the local school district. Not only did they not appear to have an overall strategy to address antisemitism in the schools, they were unaware that the few programs they had initiated to address the problem, which they boasted about to the community, were not actually getting into the classrooms, showing little understanding of how to navigate the school system’s large bureaucracy. Instead, they wanted us to come to them regarding issues, but then at every point they discouraged us from operating on our own, effectively telling us to be quiet.
A few weeks after the Omeish incident, a Fairfax elementary school listed on its website a host of anti-racism resources for the community, including one called “Woke Kindergarten.” Woke Kindergarten describes its mission as an “abolitionist early childhood ecosystem” promoting “black and queer and trans liberation.” It advances the oppressor/oppressed binary of Critical Race Theory. So, where are America’s Jews in this framework? Well, Woke Kindergarten’s website which poses “woke wonderings” in “liberatory thought” asks, “If the United States defunded the Israeli military, how could this money be used to rebuild Palestine?” On its Instagram account, Woke Kindergarten labels Israel a “settler colony” that has “no right to exist.” Groups like Parents Defending Education publicized these and other posts as an example of FCPS promoting a site that utilized Critical Race Theory, and under pressure, the school district claimed it was a mistake and removed it.
Yet months later, after the media asserted that the Virginia gubernatorial election was, to a significant degree, about critical race theory, the JCRC held a two-part webinar entitled: “Beyond the Headlines: Understanding How History and Race are Taught in Our Schools,” that whitewashed CRT-based curricula. The JCRC promoted the first webinar, “What is Culturally Responsive Instruction in K-12 Schools? How Does It Impact Our Children?” as intending to clarify the “complex issue and how the current debate regarding school curricula impacts American Jews.” While Critical Race Theory was an election issue, the JCRC renamed and reframed it, giving their webinar the deceptively parve title: “Culturally Responsive Instruction in K-12 Schools.” The title purposefully obfuscated the issue. CRT – yes, a theoretical framework whose complex philosophical contentions are studied in universities – is the driving force that is changing curricula across the country. CRT ideology removes Jews from their historic position of being allies with America’s minority groups, and redefines them as “adjacent whites,” putting them in the oppressor class.
The JCRC sought to use the example of Woke Kindergarten in Fairfax schools to demonstrate how they protected Fairfax’s Jews from any potential problems CRT might present. During the webinar the JCRC explained that the school had quickly removed Woke Kindergarten because it did not match the equity officers’ vision of culturally responsive instruction. But in fact, Woke Kindergarten was never fully removed from the school district’s curriculum. Summer school lesson plans for elementary students revealed that links to Woke Kindergarten’s videos were used almost daily as part of literacy instruction. Our group found that this was perfectly in line with the vision of the school’s equity officer, who told us in conversations: “We use critical race theory as the frame for teaching history.”
Worse yet, neither of the JCRC’s guest presenters were from the Commonwealth of Virginia, where this was the recent election issue. One guest was a director of equity at a Maryland school district and the other guest was a university associate director of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Education in New York who told the audience, “Jews should embrace CRT.”
Jewish leaders should tell this inconvenient truth about Critical Race Theory: no matter how much their radicalized allies promote it, CRT is dangerous for Jews. It casts Jews as “white adjacents” with disproportionate and ill-gotten power and it views the Israeli/Palestinian crisis through the lens of race where “white” Israel becomes an apartheid state and therefore like all systems of oppression, must be destroyed. Instead of the JCRC explaining this to the Jewish community, and fighting it, our JCRC is telling the community we should support an ideology that inevitably leads to anti-Semitism.
The JCRC’s assurances that they had anti-Semitism under control in the schools also ran counter to the many examples parents shared of anti-Semitism that had been largely ignored by school administrators. Not only had the JCRC failed in providing much needed clarity and leadership regarding nuanced and politically charged anti-Semitism, but they were not even adequately addressing the more easily recognizable forms of anti-Semitism. Parents shared numerous examples of swastikas that remained unerased for years, of students performing the sieg heil, of them singing happy birthday to Hitler, and of them telling deeply offensive Holocaust jokes to Jewish students, many of whom were also repeatedly subject to ethnic slurs. Administrators also refused to provide reasonable accommodations for Jewish students when school activities coincided with Jewish holidays.
Assurances by the JCRC that they were working behind the scenes to improve the situation were not reassuring. (Activists throughout the country have shared with us similar experiences about their JCRC essentially telling them to back off and let them handle the situation.) The incidents we collected had been occurring for years with no apparent improvement and no apparent larger strategy in place to address this ongoing issue. Worse yet, when we asked the JCRC about trends in anti-Semitism in Fairfax schools, they admitted that after all these years, they had not collected that data. Realizing the truth about the ineffectiveness of the JCRC, our group reached out to the ZOA and other Jewish organizations who agreed to officially advocate for our Jewish families by demanding FCPS take action to address anti-Semitism in their schools. To our astonishment, our group soon discovered that the JCRC was coordinating back-channel discussions to convince one of the Jewish organizations to rescind their support. The JCRC showed greater concern in controlling the dialogue and relationships than leading any effort to solve our problems. However, given the repeated pattern of anti-Semitic harassment ignored by school officials, the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint against the school district. Since the complaint has been filed, we have brought two more incidents of students performing the sieg heil and impersonating Hitler to the school district and the JCRC’s attention.
Most recently, we heard from individual members of the Jewish community that the NEA, the largest teachers union in the United States, was holding a vote on three anti-Israel “New Business Items” at their upcoming annual convention. The first two items called for the NEA to allot resources to “educate members and the general public about the history, culture, and struggles of Palestinians, including the detention, abuse, and displacement of children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and to advocate for the rights of Palestinians using one-sided and factually inaccurate sources from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. A third New Business Item stated that the NEA will support members who engage in this work “when they are under attack.” While the first item failed, the second went to committee, and the third, which provides union support to members who promote a factually inaccurate narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, passed by twenty percentage points.
It came to our attention that our members were alerted to this upcoming NEA vote by the JCRC. Rather than inform the larger Jewish community and mobilize them, the JCRC decided to only share this information with whom it considered to be concerned individuals by private email. Our organization, which had been fighting anti-Semitism in K-12 schools for over a year, did not receive an email. When we asked the JCRC if they would be making a public statement about the NEA’s items, a move that will impact Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, they responded that this was being handled “nationally.” Finding that answer dissatisfying, we organized Jews across the country to write letters and got media coverage of the NEA convention.
The JCRC’s framing of the NEA resolutions as a national issue and therefore outside their purview, seemed highly problematic given their active involvement in other national issues. At the same time the NEA issue was happening, the JCRC issued a detailed plan responding to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They coordinated with other organizations and participated in marches and appeared at events with lawmakers. They have had at least three webinars on abortion and reproductive rights in the month since the ruling with more planned. The JCRC also issued a statement in Kennedy v. Bremerton. The JCRC comfortably criticized the decisions in both cases, and the Christian right presumably behind them, for being purportedly harmful to Jews, but was unwilling to also publicly criticize the leftist NEA for entertaining and supporting measures that would back teachers who engage in spreading falsehoods about Israel in our public schools.
Early in the process of our interactions with the JCRC, hoping to partner with them and encourage them to take a more aggressive approach to fighting anti-Semitism and often becoming discouraged and disappointed in their approach, we became aware from various news articles in Jewish media that this situation was not unique. From Raleigh to Boston to Los Angeles, Jewish community members report a similar frustration with their local Jewish organizations who seemingly lack a strategy for addressing growing anti-Semitism. Rather than supporting and partnering with Jewish grassroots organizations nationwide, the legacy Jewish organizations have sought to maintain their “expert” status, often dissuading and sometimes even undermining these activist groups. We reached out to the Jewish Leadership Project, which has provided support to our group and others like us throughout the country who are deeply concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism and the lack of urgency and a cohesive strategy by organizations like the JCRC. Multiple ideological threats have left the Jewish community more vulnerable than it has been in years. Jewish leadership needs to stop promoting their social justice agenda and rethink a strategy based on the illusion that the radicalized left is our ally. They need to start prioritizing the safety of the Jewish community.