Pennsbury School Board Deals With Antisemitism

Area residents attended the vigil against antisemitism in Yardley on Nov. 1. (Courtesy of Sue-Ann DiVito)

A group of Pennsbury School District parents has taken issue with two district policies this year, according to school board members, and, in both cases, antisemitism reared its head in Bucks County.

In August, parents packed a board meeting to speak out against a K-12 student mask mandate, which the board passed.

And throughout the year, they have filled other meetings to express issues with district equity policies, including an audit that identified disparities between white and Black students. Few Black students were enrolling in Advanced Placement classes, while more Black students were facing disciplinary actions, board member Debra Wachspress said.

Pennsbury’s new Director of Equity, Diversity and Education Cherrissa Gibson hired a consultant to conduct an audit.

Neither issue had a substantive connection to Judaism or the Jewish people. Yet in attacking Pennsbury board members for overseeing the policies, some parents resorted to antisemitism, according to board members.

Four of Pennsbury’s nine board members — Josh Waldorf, Howard Goldberg, Linda Palsky and Wachspress — are Jewish. But emails and threats to Pennsbury’s entire board, and to President Christine Toy-Dragoni, who is not Jewish, have been antisemitic in nature.

Last spring, according to Wachspress, most of the vitriol came from inside the district’s geographical area. But in June, Simon Campbell, a Lower Makefield resident, appeared on Fox News to denounce an alleged free speech violation by the board.

The district edited videos of public comments made by parents at spring meetings, according to reporting by Levittown Now. That incident led to a federal lawsuit in the fall alleging that Pennsbury had violated parents’ First Amendment rights.

“I’m like, ‘This is the United States of America. This is not OK,’” Campbell said to host Laura Ingraham on “The Ingraham Angle.”

After the local man’s four minutes of fame, emails and threats started coming from outside the district, too, according to board members.

One message said, “You should have been finished off in the gas chambers,” per Wachspress. Another, directed at Toy-Dragoni, said, “You Ashkenazi Jews owe the world reparations for saving you in World War II.”

Palsky, who converted to Judaism after marrying her husband in 1977, got a message on her phone from someone threatening to smack her and beat her up. Later, she got a call from a man posing as a police officer. He said he had a complaint about Palsky sending a death threat to Jennifer Spillane, an opponent in the 2021 school board election.

Palsky said she sent no such threat. Then, she asked the man if Lower Makefield Police Chief Kenneth Coluzzi knew he was calling. The man hung up.

Wachspress and Palsky said some of the messages have been anonymous. In addition to antisemitic, they also have been misogynistic, homophobic and anti-immigrant.

But antisemitism has surfaced more often than the other forms of hatred, Wachspress said.

“It felt like the vast majority of these messages were antisemitic,” she said.

Both women described the vitriol as scary, discomforting and perhaps ominous.

They said it only takes one person to perpetrate an event like Pittsburgh, referring to the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting that killed 11.

Palsky mentioned that the board already has active shooter drills, armed guards and a fenced-in parking lot. None of those features were present when she served on the board in the 2000s.

Wachspress concluded that Jews should have their eyes open.

“I stop and wonder — is this 1930 all over again?” she said. “It’s really sobering.”

But Jews shouldn’t live in fear, Wachspress said. She pointed to the Nov. 1 vigil in Yardley as an example of an appropriate response.

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy addresses the crowd at the vigil in Yardley on Nov. 1. (Courtesy of Sue-Ann DiVito)

Local organizers, including some Jewish residents and rabbis, planned the show of solidarity against antisemitism, racism and misogyny, among other forms of hate. More than 200 people showed up, Jews and non-Jews, according to organizer Marlene Prey, a Doylestown resident whose husband is Jewish.

“Given that it was planned in a number of days, it was profound and beautiful to see the response,” she said.

The day after the vigil, Pennsbury district residents reelected the two Jewish board members running, Waldorf and Palsky. They also elected the four other Democrats running for seats.

None of the Republican candidates won their races. Pennsbury’s new board, like its last one, will consist of nine Democrats.

“We have more support,” Palsky said.

Wachspress wants those supporters to come to board meetings, too.

“It’s necessary,” she concluded. “There’s power in numbers.”

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  1. As a resident in the Pennsbury School District and as a Jew, I take exception to your article, “Pennsbury School Board Deals with Anti-Semitism”,which I consider biased and insulting to our Pennsbury school district.. It mischaracterizes legitimate opposition to the current school board, and implies that this opposition is driven by a groundswell of anti-semitism in our area.

    As your author, Mr. Saffren might or might not know, parents across the country representing a wide range of political beliefs, diverse racial makeup, and religious orientation are showing concern over fundamental issues: curriculum presented to their children, mask mandates, school openings. In turn, school boards are at best ignoring parent concerns, but more often silencing, demonizing, vilifying them, accusing them of threats, violence and terrorism.

    But you’d never know this from your story, and your snarky dig at Simon Campbell and his “four minutes of fame” for his sometimes harsh, but very eloquent speech affirming his First Amendment right to speak. He is clearly not alone in his objections, and, in fact is tapping into a nationwide phenomenon. Our current school board may not have participated in the most egregious mistreatment of parents, but did indeed shut down parent input when it began to question certain personnel and program decisions, did pass resolutions without entertaining legitimate objections, did accuse opponents of extremism — and now, with a broad brush, anti-Semitism.

    The vigil, held on the eve of the election, had everything to do with politics. Organized by the Peace Center, It clearly supported the campaigns of the current school board members, characterized them as victims of a cadre of anti-semites triggered by the opposing candidates. Your article described the vigil participants as standing bravely against this tsunami of hatred. Please! I heard no reports of anti-Semites disrupting the vigil, honking horns, yelling epithets — the kind of behavior you would expect if there was actually a critical mass of anti-Semites afoot in the Pennsbury district. It is not anti-Semitism to object to being silenced, to have legitimate concerns about the material your child is being taught, to question the health effects of masking, or to argue about online versus in-person schooling.

    Which brings me to the substance of your article — implying that the rhetoric of activists such as Simon Campbell somehow triggered the disgusting anti-Semitic messages to the Jewish members of the school board. As a Jew, I’m certainly sensitive to the fear these anonymous messages must have caused Mr. Waldorf, Mrs Toy-Dragoni and Mrs. Palsky. And I certainly share the feelings of vulnerability.

    But the dishonesty In your article is quite striking. You accuse “parents” of reacting to school board misconduct by sending anonymous anti-semitic emails to Jewish school board members. Do you really think that persons concerned about their children’s education, wishing for a new direction and new faces on the school board, and supporting the candidates running against the current school board members would discredit themselves and damage their cause by writing vicious anti-semitic messages and personal threats? It is easier to believe that whoever wrote those messages had as their goal to discredit any opposition to the campaigns of the current Democrat school board members through accusations of anti-semitism. And, in turn, arouse sympathy, support and votes for those injured by the emails. The candidates running against the current school board, and the parents supporting them have loudly condemned these attacks.

    In future articles of this type, please do not allow legitimate opposition to actual school board misconduct to be conflated with anti-semitism. And please present a more balanced view of actual issues being debated here, throughout our area, and across the country.


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