Classroom Controversy

The “Arab World Studies Notebook,” an anti-Israel text, has appeared in the public school curriculum of Newton, Mass. (Amazon/JNS)

The “Arab World Studies Notebook,” an anti-Israel text, has appeared in the public school curriculum of Newton, Mass.
(Amazon/JNS)

An anti-Israel text that school officials and some Jewish organizations say was removed from a Boston suburb’s public school curriculum during the 2011-12 academic year was being distributed to students longer than the aforementioned parties let on, new research shows. Furthermore, references to the controversial text remain on a website that is routinely visited by those students to access materials for class.

The Boston-based advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) said in late May that the “Arab World Studies Notebook” (AWSN), a Saudi-financed text on Middle East history that falsely claims Israeli soldiers murdered hundreds of Palestinian nurses in Israeli prisons, was still being used in at least three separate classes during the 2012-13 school year in the public school system of Newton, Mass.

In a letter to Robert Trestan, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) regional director, and Jeremy Burton, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston, Newton School Committee Chair Matt Hills wrote that APT’s allegation is “without merit.”

“The ‘evidence’ submitted [by APT] is a course outline, developed by a new teacher in the summer of 2012, with a section on Islamic dynasties,” wrote Hills. “The new teacher initially included the AWSN readings on Islamic dynasties in the early syllabus. However, a veteran teacher saw the outline and ensured that the new teacher understood that the AWSN could not be used, and the readings were removed and never distributed. At no time was the AWSN used.”

But Hills’s claim that the AWSN was removed during the summer of 2012 is seemingly refuted by a downloadable lesson plan that remains on the independent website of teacher Faye Cassell, of Newton South High School’s history and social science department. The lesson plan contains two assignments called “Arab World Studies reading” — references to the AWSN — due Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, 2012. The Microsoft Word document containing the lesson plan was last edited during the academic year on Sept. 22, 2012 and shows that Cassell’s lesson was scheduled to begin two days later.

Although the website is not officially affiliated with Newton South, Cassell uses the site to distribute materials to her students, meaning those students may still come across the references to AWSN. The teacher’s 2013-14 lessons plans, however, are not currently posted on the website. In a public records request, APT obtained the same lesson plan that can be accessed by visiting this webpage on Cassell’s site. The lesson plan can also be downloaded here.

“The teacher who created the lesson plan kept a website for her classes where she told students, ‘Here you will find all the lesson plans, handouts and assignments for 9th Grade Ancient World History,’” Ilya Feoktistov, APT’s research director, said. “The same exact version of the lesson plan that we showed to the ADL and JCRC is to this day still up on her website, and the AWSN readings are still in the lesson plan. They were never removed before being distributed to students through the website. Furthermore, the lesson plan was finalized just hours before the beginning of classes listed in the lesson plan, not during the previous summer as Hills alleges.”

The ADL and JCRC, however, parroted the Newton School Committee’s stance and criticized APT after receiving Hills’ letter, which responded to those groups’ inquiry into the AWSN issue. In a joint statement on June 6, ADL and JCRC said Hills’ letter indicates how “APT’s assertion, like others before it, turned out to be inaccurate.”

“Mr. Hills reports that, in fact, AWSN was not actually used in connection with the syllabus in question in 2012 or at any time since the committee represented it was no longer being used,” ADL and JCRC stated.

The groups proceeded to lament, “The leveling of accusations ought to take place considerably more scrupulously than has occurred in connection with this matter. Careful, responsible, and civil discourse is far preferable to exaggerated or misleading accusations that are unsupported by the facts.”

Advertisements placed in Boston-area newspapers by APT last fall called out Newton school officials over the alleged presence of anti-Israel materials in the curriculum not limited to the AWSN. The ads claimed the appearance of texts in Newton schools including “A Muslim Primer,” which claims that astronaut Neil Armstrong converted to Islam, but that the anti-Muslim U.S. government warned him “to keep his new religion to himself or he could be fired” from his government job; ”Flashpoints: Guide to World History,” which asserts that Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, is the capital of Israel, and that Jerusalem is the capital of “Palestine;” and other materials.

In that instance, too, the ADL attempted to dismiss APT’s findings, joining leaders from the JCRC and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish federation) in a November 2013 statement which said that “based on a careful review of the materials at issue by ADL and JCRC, there is substantial reason to believe that the allegations made in the [APT] ad are without merit.”

At the same time, the ADL had refused to make its own findings on the teaching materials public. Furthermore, ADL officials contradicted themselves on the existence of an ADL report on Newton schools. Regional director Trestan told The Jewish Advocate newspaper at the time that a report of an ADL investigation did not exist, regional board chair Jeffrey Robbins had said, “It’s an internal report. People do this stuff internally all the time. … It involves all kinds of proprietary research.”

The ADL would eventually release its report on Dec. 30, 2013. The report again targeted APT’s ad campaign, stating, “While APT’s ad suggests that Newton uses the volume the “Arab World Studies Notebook” as a textbook to teach hate and extremism, it emerged that the reading that was singled out for criticism was highlighted by one teacher who used it on a sole occasion in 2011 when it was actually used to teach about bias, and not in the context of advancing a political viewpoint. the “Arab World Studies Notebook” has since been removed from Newton schools.”

In a January 2014 response to the ADL’s report, APT said the report “cannot be the original report presented to Boston Jewish leadership” and “appears to have been prepared in response to public doubts about the existence of any ADL report.”

“Despite previous ADL claims that its Newton schools report cannot be released due to the fact that ‘it involves all kinds of proprietary research,’ there is nothing that can be considered proprietary about the weakly researched content of the report released on December 30th. … Jewish leadership relied on a sham report by ADL, which was based primarily on trust in the Newton School officials’ verbal assurances to ADL leaders,” APT stated.

APT’s Feoktistov said this week that once the school year ends June 26, the group will attempt to gain insight into more recent Newton lesson plans by filing a public records request for the school system’s 2013-14 curricula.

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