Parents File Federal Suit Alleging Antisemitism in School District of Philadelphia

A vice principal at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts sent this flyer to students via Google Classroom. (Courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia Jewish Family Association)

The Jewish Family Association, a group of more than 200 parents in the School District of Philadelphia, filed a federal complaint against the district that alleges multiple incidents of antisemitism and anti-Israel activity. There have been more than 20 such incidents since Oct. 7, according to the complaint.

The federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the district. The investigation opened on April 9.

The incidents include a teacher at Baldi Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia crossing out Israel on a map and writing Palestine, a swastika being drawn on a door at the Masterman School in Spring Garden and students accessing a computer game that asked, “Who do we hate?” The answers? Pork and Israel.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has worked with the parent group to communicate with the district since the middle of October, according to Jason Holtzman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council within the Jewish Federation.

“They have been pretty unresponsive,” Holtzman said.

“The School District of Philadelphia strives to create welcoming and inclusive environments that allow our students to feel safe and learn well. Acts of discrimination, hate speech and harassment are unacceptable,” the district said in a statement. “In accordance with District Policy, such acts should be reported via Hibster, and investigated. We are unable to provide further comment or details on pending investigations.”

Holtzman and the Jewish Federation believe the anti-Israel sentiment in the district is more widespread than the complaint alleges.

“There are teachers who are only presenting information from one side,” he said. “They’re teaching nasty views about Israel. And we’re seeing real antisemitism all over the district.”

Holtzman further explained that Israel is portrayed as a white oppressor, while Palestinians are presented as people of color who are being oppressed.

“That narrative has been pushed a lot,” he said. “But we know it’s a false narrative.”

He cited the statistic that only about 30% of Israeli Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews.

Holtzman also believes that the issue is “being pushed as a Muslim-Jewish issue.”

“A lot of the teachers pushing this; they’re Muslim,” he added.

According to Holtzman, it’s unrealistic for either side to assert a claim to the whole land. Neither will be removed from the territory. Therefore, “educators should do education and not bring an activist perspective into the classroom.”

To build that culture, the district must be receptive, according to Holtzman. Holtzman and the Jewish Federation want the district to start by allowing a task force to investigate antisemitism. Watlington and his team have not responded to that request.

“They’ve given us boilerplate messages. Of course, they’ve said they’re against all forms of hate, including antisemitism. But when we’ve tried to address different incidents, they haven’t been willing to have a conversation,” Holtzman said. “The school district should show that they’re taking this issue seriously.”

The complaint stated that “the District has stood idly by while its teachers and administrators have attacked Israel, Jewish people, and “Zionists,” both in the classroom and from their public social media,” according to a 6ABC report.

That same report explained that the principal of Baldi Middle School sent a statement to parents the day after the map incident saying, “This incident has deeply offended many of our students, staff and parents. I want to be crystal clear that this incident is unacceptable and we are currently looking into it.”

Finally, the report mentioned that the district also sent a recent letter to families stating that, “The violence in the Middle East region is heartbreaking…Our foremost concern is the mental and physical well-being of everyone. We will continue to maintain a District-wide community where staff and students can process, exercise empathy, learn about the historical context and access resources.”

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