Community members speak out against ‘offensive’ Israeli-Palestinian history lesson at Sewanhaka

Community members speak out against ‘offensive’ Israeli-Palestinian history lesson at Sewanhaka
Residents, students and alumni in the audience at a Sewanhaka Central High School District board meeting Wednesday night. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

There was not an empty seat to be found at a Sewanhaka Central High School District board meeting Wednesday night when dozens of Palestinian and Muslim community members spoke out against what they called an offensive history lesson about Israeli-Palestinian relations taught by Deirdre McIntyre at Sewanhaka High School on May 2.

The teacher reportedly used a document in a history lesson that prompted students to role play as an Israeli and a Palestinian by using a script. Community members said the script included factual inaccuracies and Islamophobic stereotypes.

Speakers read quotes from the script that incorrectly conflated Arabs and Palestinians, used the word “terrorist” toward Arabs, claimed Palestinians as a whole are trying to build an army and more.

Interim Superintendent Thomas Dolan agreed that the lesson did not fairly portray the relations between Israel and Palestinians but said it was intended to show where there was common ground.

“It’s imbalanced. There is an imbalance in this document. I do need to quote from it because there was a direction for this. There was a purpose for this,” Dolan said. “‘What do we have in common to speak about?’ The answer. ‘A great deal.’ I said it in the parking lot to some of you. We are far more alike than we are different. That was the message the teacher wanted to get to.”

Dolan said McIntyre has not returned to the school since she taught the lesson in a 10th-grade global history class.

He announced that the teacher would be returning to instruction Thursday morning with a co-teacher and he would provide the board with an update on her lessons Friday.

Speakers thanked Sewanhaka High School principal Nichole Allen for her swift response to the lesson, speaking directly with concerned students and sending a letter to Sewanhaka school parents.

The head of the history department also re-taught the lesson to the 10th grade global history class on Israeli-Palestinian relations, the board said.

More than 10 residents, students and alumni addressed the superintendent and board members at a podium, their comments lasting about an hour.

Some speakers were passionate. Some were solemn and shed tears at lives lost during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The first thing that came to my mind was: What was she thinking? What was she thinking? How could any teacher who we entrust our children to in their right mind think that a lesson like this would be acceptable to students, 10th graders?” Farhana Islam, a district parent and pharmacist, said. “This is a really egregious error that needs to be taken extremely seriously…hopefully [we] can send our kids to school and not have to worry that somebody is gonna call them a terrorist, which has happened.”

Some speakers acknowledged the work that has already been done by district administration to foster a more inclusive environment, like providing prayer rooms for Muslim students in every high school building and expanding their Halal food selection.

One resident, who said she immigrated to the United States from Palestine 14 years ago as part of a “dream,” spoke at the podium with her 15-year-old daughter nearby to help translate.

“My family, I’m losing it. I’m losing them,” the resident said as she started to cry. “I’m not opening TV for my kids. No need to show what happened because always everything now scary.”

Her daughter stepped up to the podium next.

“She’s trying to say that she has children, little children, and she’s hiding what’s going on in Palestine from them because I’m 15 and I can’t even sleep because of what’s going on in Palestine,” the daughter said, “and the fact that it’s spreading to school and then spreading to the children and then the children are misunderstood about the whole real situation, it’s putting us [at] risk.”

Community members demanded that staff members be re-trained, and not just with general sensitivity training, but specific lessons on Palestinian and Muslim inclusivity.

“We are a very diverse community in Elmont itself. Nearly ¼ of the student body is Asian and we feel that currently…the school staff perhaps it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the student body, which is okay if there can be measures of sensitivity training [and] discussions,” said another district parent whose children attend Elmont Memorial High School.

Dolan said the district provides extensive sensitivity training and resources to school staff and this training will continue. The superintendent emphasized how grateful he was to see such a large crowd in the audience and encouraged community members to continue to attend board meetings and speak out, since he said the school board is as direct as democracy gets.

“We want to be that approachable person who creates an environment of safety, and again, I’m going to ask you for some help with that. Tell us how we can do better,” Dolan said.

Dolan ended the meeting the same way many speakers began their comments: by saying “As-salaam alaikum,” an Arabic greeting commonly used by Muslims that means “Peace be upon you.”

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