Controversial text still being used in Newton

May 29, 2014.

New information comes to light with release of Newton’s lesson plans.
By Alexandra Lapkin.
Advocate Staff.

Although public school officials in Newton have claimed that The Arab World Studies Notebook (AWSN), a highly controversial text on Middle Eastern history, was removed from the curriculum during the 2011-12 school year, recently released lesson plans have shown that the textbook was still in use in at least three separate classes in the academic year that ended in 2013.

“If true, it would be horrifying,” said a parent of a student in the school system, who wished to remain anonymous. “It would mean we can’t trust the Newton Public Schools at all.” The school officials made public its 9th- and 10th-grade history lesson plans, after initially refusing to release the documents to parents and other Newton residents, in response to a public records request made by the Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), an advocacy group headed by Charles Jacobs.

The misleading information provided by the Newton school officials sheds an unfavorable light on the New England chapter of the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), an organization that had assured the Jewish community in November of last year that its “careful review” showed that Jacobs’ allegations regarding anti Israel curriculum in the Newton Public Schools are “without merit.”

According to a report released by the ADL in December, “While APT’s ad suggests that Newton uses the volume The Arab World Studies Notebook as a textbook to teach hate and extremism, it emerged that the reading that was singled out for criticism was highlighted by one teacher who used it on a sole occasion in 2011 when it was actually used to teach about bias, and not in the context of advancing a political viewpoint. The Arab World Studies Notebook has since been removed from Newton schools.”

Robert Trestan, ADL’s New England director, did not return a phone call from the Advocate for comment.

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston ( JCRC), replied via e-mail: “The question of what biases our children may be taught in school is of great importance to all of us at JCRC. We … believe that the Newton school system shouldn’t be required to respond to innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations. … If presented with direct evidence, JCRC would, without hesitation, reopen our discussion on this matter with Newton school district leaders.”

Burton added, “We are in ongoing communication with Americans for Peace and Tolerance, as well as with the School Committee. We are currently seeking to understand the basis for the allegations made in a column in last week’s Advocate. When we have reviewed and substantiated the basis for that column, we will offer a response.”

Also responding via e-mail was Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), who said, “Nothing is more important to us as a community than our support for Israel. We are therefore deeply concerned about what our children are taught in school and the potential anti- Israel biases to which they might be exposed.”

Although relying on JCRC to investigate the matter, Shrage also alluded to ADL’s input: “JCRC has closely followed the allegations about the Newton schools from the beginning and has been in ongoing discussions with APT and with the Newton schools. As they have in the past, JCRC is taking the recent allegations raised by APT seriously. They are continuing to reach out to the appropriate parties, including APT, the Newton Public Schools and our partners in the community, including the Anti-Defamation League, to evaluate the new allegations put forth by APT. Those findings will determine our response.”

AWSN was one of the texts that triggered the dissatisfaction with the Newton public high school’s history curriculum, when two years ago, a parent complained about a chapter in the book that alleged Palestinian women were killed by “Israeli occupation forces.”

Driven to action by the parent’s complaint, Jewish advocacy groups lobbied to remove the text from the curriculum and a year later, Superintendent David Fleishman assured the public that AWSN has not been used to teach Newton students since 2011.

AWSN, edited by Audrey Shabbas, has attracted attention from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) as a fraudulent anti Semitic text financed by Saudi donors. According to a 40-page report released by AJC in 2005, the text “is marketed as a teacher’s manual to assist American public school teachers to teach about the Arab and Islamic worlds and to counter ‘the rampant negative stereotypes of Arabs and of Muslims.’ Its purported goal is ‘encouraging the expression of all the diverse voices within our culture.’ In fact, it reflects only one voice, and on many counts, it fails to meet the standards we have come to expect of material used to educate our children in American public schools.”

AJC was first made aware of AWSN by a high school teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, who was asked to review the text. The Anchorage Jewish community initially alerted the school system and after a review, the Board of Education recommended against the use of the textbook anywhere in the district.

According to Steven Stotsky, senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media monitoring organization, AWSN “had a lot of serious problems with facts and overall presentation. It’s pushing a political agenda. It’s biased and has problems. At this point, after all the controversy erupted around it a few years ago, that it’s still being used in the Newton schools is extraordinary.”

As for the reason the Newton school officials cited for using AWSN, Stotsky said, “A textbook that has so many problems, they shouldn’t be using it at all.”

He added, “I have no idea why you would be using it in a public school, where students need introductory information on the Middle East. There are so many better sources. It strikes me that whoever is using it, is obviously doing it on purpose.”