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NYC Schools Chancellor Testifies in McCarthyist Congressional Hearings

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks testified in the series of McCarthyist congressional hearings of educational administrators, which are falsely conflating the pro-Palestinian movement with antisemitism and pressuring administrators to take harsh measures against their students and staff.

Emma Lee

May 9, 2024
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Photo Credit: Luigi Morris

As part of a nationwide strategy to falsely equate the pro-Palestinian movement with “antisemitism,” New York City schools Chancellor David Banks testified at a Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on antisemitism on Wednesday. The purpose of these hearings is to pressure administrators to further crack down on pro-Palestine activism among New York City students and educators.

In the hearings, Banks defended the Department of Education’s response to alleged instances of hate directed toward Jewish students and staff, while adapting to the committee’s false conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. In response to the rapid-fire questioning of Florida’s Zionist Republican representative Aaron Bean, Banks stated that the phrase “from the river to the sea” — a central slogan of the Palestine movement expressing the need for equality for all inhabitants of historic Palestine — could be considered antisemitic and is “not allowed in our schools.” Bean, along with other members of congress, demanded harsh discipline for staff and students who engage in pro-Palestine speech, including termination, suspension, and expulsion.

Banks’ hearings come months after the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced Congress, two of whom subsequently resigned. They also come just two weeks after the hearings of Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, whose well-rehearsed and Anti-Defamation League-approved testimony came alongside the construction of the Columbia University Gaza Solidarity Encampment, which reawakened the student movement for Palestine on college campuses across the city, the country, and the world

These hearings aim to stifle the pro-Palestine movement on college campuses nationwide, which pose a direct challenge to the government and a regime firmly aligned with Israel and committed to supporting its genocide against the Palestinian people. Over the past seven months, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, mainstream media, university administrations, and the institutions of the regime have worked to discredit and eliminate the movement by labeling it as “antisemitic.” Just last week, the New York City student encampments were swept in a severe repressive operation by the NYPD, at the request of university administrators. 

This congressional offensive is a last-ditch effort to counter the significant shift in U.S. public sentiment towards Israel, its actions in Gaza, and the complicity between the Zionist state and the United States on the current genocide and a long history of occupation and oppression. According to a recent Gallup poll, the approval of the Israeli military offensive has plummeted from 50 percent to 36 percent since November. Higher authorities — whether at universities or the state — are attempting to suppress what has been a remarkable change in society, which now is being expressed by the pro-Palestine student movement. 

While these administrators flounder in the face of or capitulate to the demands of these McCarthyist hearings, rank-and-file educators from universities to high schools remain clear: anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, as NYC Educators for Palestine —  a group of teachers, education workers, and community allies — wrote in their open letter to Chancellor Banks ahead of his hearing. 

The desire to teach the truth about the ongoing genocide and the history of occupation and apartheid in Palestine in no way contradicts the safety of Jewish students, many of whom are joining or even leading the fight for a free Palestine. NYC Educators made this clear at their action in front of the Department of Education headquarters, which was planned for the same day as Banks’s testimony and aimed to draw attention to the scholasticide in Gaza and the connection between the right to protest and the struggle for Palestine. Thousands of students and educators have been killed in Gaza, at least 60 percent of educational facilities have been decimated, and over 600,000 children no longer have access to education.

Last week, Banks held a press conference where he condemned the university encampments as “hateful” and perpetuated the oft-used “outside agitator” rhetoric. He then went on to defend the police repression as “professional” and “necessary”, which is no surprise given that Banks serves under top-cop Mayor Eric Adams, and hails from an NYPD family himself. 

Insidiously, Banks blatantly lied and underplayed the nature of the repression, falsely claiming that “no one was hurt”. In reality, police in riot gear “pepper sprayed, threw to the ground, and even drew weapons on students, resulting in injuries” as reported by the NYCLU. Additionally, the police created militarized exclusion zones which “shielded NYPD activity from the press, legal observers, and NYCLU protest monitors, who police harassed and intimidated.” His statement express his willingness to defend the repression of these students — many of whom are former New York City public school students themselves — and sends a chilling premonition to present and future students in who dare speak out in support of Palestine.

High Schools in the Palestine Movement

While the student movement for Palestine has been primarily centered on college campuses, high school students have also played a role. Last week, about 100 high school students in Austin, Texas, walked out of their classes in protest. High school students in Seattle filled out excused-absence forms ahead of a walkout, and Chicago students at a college preparatory school planned a sit-in. In West Orange, New Jersey, high schoolers organized a walkout for Palestine and faced severe backlash, harassment, and death threats. When college students rise up, high school students are never far behind.

In New York City, high school students organized walkouts and converged in a rally at Bryant Park alongside teachers and labor unions. Hillcrest High School students in Queens organized a protest against their pro-Israel teacher, which has been the central example in congress’s claims of antisemitism.

The backlash has been severe: teachers have been targeted and doxxed for their pro-Palestine stances by conservative outlets like the New York Post, and parents like Tajh Sutton in the Community Educational Council 14 have been called antisemitic and threatened removal by the Chancellor for their role in sharing flyers for student walkouts and supporting student actions. There are many other instances of teachers being subject to disciplinary processes in their schools for simply wearing keffiyehs or speaking about the genocide with their students.

Chancellor Banks, alongside Mayor Adams, has continued the pattern of silencing any conversation about the genocide and thus suppressing the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim students across the city, as well as the countless other students affected by the onslaught.

Three days after October 7, Banks sent an email to NYC Department of Education employees condemning “this weekend’s terror attacks against Israeli civilians,” without any mention of the deaths of Palestinians. By the time he wrote that email, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel’s counterattack had nearly matched that of Israelis killed in the Hamas attack. Banks had no words of sympathy for the students across NYC whose families are directly affected by the genocide in Gaza.

It wasn’t until November 8, the day before a major student walkout, that Banks sent another email titled “Our Responsibilities as NYCPS Employees,”, warning that “that expressions of their personal political views are kept separate from their NYCPS job” and “should not express their personal views about political matters during the school day, while on school grounds, or while working at school events, and it is critical that they set aside their personal views during class discussions about current events.” 

Banks made an ambiguous statement on DOE staff’s ability to express political views even on their own time, stating that expressing one’s personal political view “crosses a line when it disrupts the school or work environment, interferes with NYCPS operations, or interferes with the individual’s ability effectively to perform their job.” He warned that “when speech and action – even on one’s personal time – undermines the mission or core functions of NYCPS, we will review and take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis.”

It is impossible to overstate the importance of defending students’ right to free speech and protest in order to strength their ability to fight back against the innumerable and overlapping injustices impacting them — from the budget cuts, segregation, overpoliced schools, and lack of mental health resources at the local level, to ending the genocide in Gaza at the global level. 

The student movement is giving renewed life to the fight for an end to the genocide and for a free Palestine; thousands of students in schools and universities across the country are taking a stand to say they will not be complicit in the United States’ support for Israel. Importantly, they are learning that when they act together from their schools, they can become a powerful force that gives voice to the struggle of Palestinians against imperialist oppression.

Teachers share an incomparable knowledge of their students, their lives, and their needs. As facilitators of their learning, it’s essential that teachers are able to teach and discuss the reality of the genocide without fearing the loss of their jobs, and to support their students who protest Israel’s continued onslaught in Palestine. Teachers and students — from their workplaces and schools, respectively — can support each other in fighting against the suppression of pro-Palestinian activism and against the genocide, just as many university faculty are joining student encampments and protests on campuses across the country.
But in the context of an intense crackdown on pro-Palestine activism and the right to protest more broadly, expanding this network of support is essential. Our coworkers, communities, and our unions must take up the defense of teachers and students who stand up for the rights of Palestinians and those who speak out against the genocide — including fighting to reinstate fired teachers. Statements of support and protests are an essential first step, but students and teachers need spaces to discuss the path forward for the movement together, alongside all those who fight for an end to the repression and for a free Palestine, as we have begun to see at the encampments on university campuses. From there we can discuss how to use our collective power as workers and students to fight against the United States’s complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestine.

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Emma Lee

Emma is a special education teacher in New York City.

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