Officials defend students who targeted pro-Israel teacher in New York


Students and city officials are pushing back against accusations of antisemitism at Hillcrest High School in Queens after a Jewish teacher was targeted in a protest.

Footage of the unruly protest, which took place on November 20, drew widespread criticism of the school and charges of antisemitism, including from the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams.

But speaking at a press conference on Monday, David Banks, the school’s chancellor, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, and other student leaders rejected the charges. 

“So many of the students who were running or jumping had no idea what was even going on. They were doing what 14 and 15-year-olds do,” Banks said. “The notion that this place is radical, that these kids are radicalized and antisemitic, is the height of irresponsibility.”

Banks said he had sought to understand what triggered the mayhem at the school in conversations with students, and found that social media played a central role in the school’s radical portrayal.

New York City School Chancellor David Banks attends the National Action Network Convention in New York, U.S., April 14, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)

Schools chancellor: the kids identified with Palestinians

“Young people today, they’re not watching, with all due respect… NBC or ABC,” Banks said. “They consume their information through social media, specifically TikTok and others, and what they are seeing on a daily basis are children and young people in Palestine, Palestinian families being blown up.”

Resultantly, “they feel a kindred spirit with the folks in the Palestinian community,” Banks punctuated.


“When they all of a sudden saw this image of the teacher who says, ‘I stand with Israel,’ the students articulated to me that they took that as a message that [they are] affirming whatever is happening to the Palestinian family and community,” Banks noted. 

Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg said at a City Hall press conference however that public perception of the incident was mistaken. 

“It is unfair, the way aspersions have been cast and broad brush criticism has been made of students,” he said.

Not the only incident of radical rhetoric by students

THE CITY’S RESPONSE to the incident points to the challenges inherent in responding to a wave of pro-Palestinian student advocacy in relation to the Israel-Hamas war, which began October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing over 1,200 people and taking about 250 people hostage. 

Earlier this month, for instance, hundreds of students staged a walkout in protest against Israel, convening in Bryant Park for a rally, while chanting “Intifada,” and calling for a ceasefire. They also accused Israel of genocide and praised Palestinian “resistance” in the process. 

The Hillcrest incident signals that the tensions are playing out inside individual schools, as well.

The events leading to the incident began several weeks ago, when a Jewish health teacher at Hillcrest changed her Facebook profile photo to herself at a pro-Israel rally, carrying a sign in support of the Jewish state. Students at the school noticed the photo online and shared it with classmates, according to Banks.

So, last Monday, students planned to protest against this teacher. The protest quickly escalated, as hundreds of students joined in and ran amok. Videos showed the students running through the hallways, waving Palestinian flags, and damaging school property. The celebratory videos of the incident included a photo of the teacher at the rally.

Class president: it was meant to be a peaceful protest

“It was meant to be a peaceful protest from the very beginning, but some of these students lack maturity,” Muhammad Ghazali, the school’s senior class president, noted. “These students have the right to go out there and protest. It’s just the way they protested that was wrong.”

Khadija Ahmed, a Hillcrest student, said: “the message that we really wanted to get out there was that we wanted Palestine to be free. But the message got lost, and lots of people were hurt, mentally.”

“Violence, hate and disorder have no place in our schools,” Banks stressed. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of bigotry are simply unacceptable.”

Banks said he would convene all of NYC’s school principals by the end of the week for a discussion about the Middle East conflict. He also said he spent Monday afternoon discussing the situation with Hillcrest students and staff. An external partner will work with schools in response to the incident, tailoring the resources offered to individual schools, Banks assured.

Banks also said some students would be suspended. However, officials declined to elaborate about the number of students, or other details of the punishment, citing privacy laws, and rejected calls to suspend hundreds of students. 

Schools chancellor: teacher was singled out due to her Jewish identity

Banks, himself a graduate of Hillcrest, said the teacher was singled out due to her support for Israel and “Jewish identity.” 

However, contrary to media reports, he claims that she was sequestered safely on a different floor from the students who were protesting against her.

The teacher was already concerned about social media posts regarding her, and was in touch with police, who said they had responded to a 911 call at the school at around 09:30 a.m. on November 20. The call reported a teacher who had “received a threat from an unknown person on social media.”

NYPD: no one was barricaded, no riots, there have been no arrests

“There was no one barricaded, or protests… or riots at the location. There have been no arrests, and the investigation remains ongoing,” police said.

The teacher, who has not commented publicly beyond a statement to the New York Post over the weekend, will return to the school this week.

The incident has elicited criticism from a range of Jewish leaders, and has inspired the formation of a new group, the New York City Public School Alliance, that is pressing the city’s education department to do more to combat antisemitism in schools. 

“Chancellor Banks has failed our students, families, and educators. He has failed at building safe and inclusive classrooms and schools for Jewish students, families and employees,” said founder Tova Plaut, an instructional coordinator for Manhattan’s District 2. 

The group decried what it called Banks’ “weak response” to the Hillcrest incident, and demanded that he acknowledge the “extent of Jewish hate and anti-Jewish culture” in public schools, adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward antisemitism, restructure how schools address diversity to include Jews, and include Jewish heritage identity in curriculum and diversity inclusion goals.

Local Jewish leaders in Queens said they wanted to see stronger action taken in response to the Hillcrest incident.

Queens Jewish leaders say response is unacceptable

“Heads need to roll. The administrations need to be held accountable. It is no longer acceptable to hear: ‘Yes, we don’t want any antisemitism,’” said Sorolle Idels, who leads the Queens Jewish Alliance, a local Orthodox community group. “Your words are not enough.”

Her group was aware of videos of the incident, and was awaiting a response from city officials, Idels said. After news broke of the riot during Shabbat, the group scrambled to put together a press conference for Monday morning.

Idels alleged that the school had sought to keep the incident quiet, since there was no public response to it until after the New York Post reported it nearly a week after the incident. Banks rejected the allegation, insisting the city operated with full transparency. He also said other recent violent incidents in the school had been misrepresented in the media, and were unconnected to the anti-Israel protest.

Notably, the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union, issued a statement indicating the union was aware of the riot on the day it happened.

“The UFT has been working with the individual teacher, school safety, the DOE, and the NYPD since last Monday,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

“The union will continue to send staff to the building and to work with the administration, DOE safety personnel, school safety, and the NYPD to restore and maintain a safe environment for faculty, students, and staff.”

Contacted for comment, the American Federation of Teachers, which is the union’s parent organization, also sent Mulgrew’s statement. Its head, Randi Weingarten, supports Israel publicly. Calling the riot a “vile act of antisemitism” on X over the weekend, she added: “many stepped up to deal with this” before it emerged into public view.

Importantly, the Jewish Caucus, the city council’s Common-Sense Caucus, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, the Anti-Defamation League, and other local leaders have all condemned the incident.

Rabbi Yossi Schwartz, the director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Student Union in New York, a youth group that works in public high schools, said the organization had seen some antisemitism since October 7, but that the Hillcrest riot still came as a shock. He said the school’s lack of Jewish students might have played into the outburst, since the students were probably less exposed to Israeli and Jewish perspectives.

After the press briefing, he stressed that he expected a harsher response from administrators, and attributed much of the rise in anti-Israel sentiment to social trends and social media.

“It’s cool to stand up and it’s cool to support what’s seen to be the underdog,” he concluded. “But when it becomes cool to be violent, or cool to be part of a mob against a teacher or against anyone, that’s where it’s just sad that that’s happening with teens.” 


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