About 50 Jewish parents in the Central Bucks School District are worried about what they see as antisemitic comments made at recent school board meetings.
Those parents are talking in private about statements made by board members and other parents. All of them have taken place within the past year, the parents said.
Last school year, as buildings reopened, board members and other parents made exaggerated comparisons between COVID restrictions, like masking, and Nazi Party policies in 1930s Germany. Some of the comments were made on Facebook, too.
Also last school year, some students and parents lobbied the board to give students off for Diwali, the Hindu lunar new year holiday that occurs each fall. During public discussion about which holidays the district gives off for, board member Leigh Vlasblom said the following, reported by the Bucks County Courier Times.
“Currently our days off are recognized by state holidays, with the exception of the Jewish holidays, which maybe we need to re-look at how those were decided and we need to firm up our policy.”
Finally, at the board meeting on Nov. 9, a Doylestown man named Art Larson got up during the public comment period and made several inflammatory comments about Jews. He said the Anti-Defamation League has Mafia ties, that Jews in general have a problem with organized crime and that former Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Jews “the master race,” a quote that is not corroborated.
Parents say Larson is known in the community for spreading conspiracy theories about Jews.
“Nobody listens to him,” said Richard Tems, a Jewish Doylestown resident who does not have kids in the district.
Yet Jewish parents were concerned that, after giving Larson time to speak, none of the board members denounced his comments.
Four CB board members — Jodi Schwartz, Lorraine Sciuto-Ballasy, Karen Smith and Tracy Suits — did send out a press release saying they don’t support Larson’s comments, or those made by another speaker at that meeting, Ed Mackouse, a Jewish Buckingham resident who argued that transgender women shouldn’t be allowed to use the women’s bathroom.
“While we unequivocally support the opportunity for the community to exercise their right to free speech, we do not support this inflammatory speech, nor do we believe it reflects the values of the Central Bucks School District or the community,” the board members said, per reporting from Patch.com. “We stand with these groups and any others offended by these troubling comments.”
Despite that release, Jewish parents are worried about what they say in a culture in which it’s OK to make what they interpret as anti-Jewish statements.
Lela Casey of Doylestown has three kids in Central Bucks schools. She has lived in the district for 11 years but never attended school board meetings until the past year.
“How far are we going to let this go?” she said.
Adi Strigl, also of Doylestown, has two kids in CB schools. The family moved to Central Bucks in 2007 and never went to board meetings before. Now though, if she can’t attend in person, she listens to the recording on the district website.
Strigl said she wants board members to better understand their position.
“You’re an influence. It legitimizes it to the rest of the population,” she added, referring to antisemitism. “Where do we draw the line?”
One mother, Daniela Burg of Furlong, recalled a story from last year when her son was told on the playground that he couldn’t be trusted because he was Jewish and wearing a mask.
The student who made the comment also wore a mask.
“It trickles down to the kids,” Burg said.
Some Jewish parents suggested that the board should limit public comments to items on that night’s agenda or specific school district policies. They also pointed to a district policy that allows board members to cut off irrelevant statements.
But most concluded that they just wished the board members would condemn antisemitic comments after speakers like Larson finish.
“People can use it as a pulpit for whatever they feel like saying,” said Steffany Moonaz, a Doylestown resident and mother of two kids in the district.
Tems, who is not in the roughly 50-person group, disagrees with his fellow Jews. He said that even though nobody listens to Larson, he still deserves his time during the public comment period, just like anyone else.
“We believe in free speech,” Tems said. “Even stupid free speech.”
Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, plans on arranging a meeting between the Jewish Federation, Bucks County rabbis and the Central Bucks school board members who will take office in December.
“We hope to do some education on antisemitism,” Schatz said. “It’s all about conversation.”
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