On Friday morning, September 18, 2015, the third grade classes at the Beverly J. Martin School in Ithaca, NY, heard a presentation on “human rights” by Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi and local anti-Israel activists, including Ariel Gold of the local chapter of the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace.

On Sunday night, September 20, Legal Insurrection broke the story, Anti-Israel activism hits elementary school in Ithaca, NY. Because of Tamimi’s notoriety for exploiting children in videotaped confrontations with Israeli soldiers, Tamimi’s mere appearance in a third grade class raised suspicions about the event.

After our report, a firestorm of controversy erupted, with the Superintendent of the Ithaca City School District (ICSD), Dr. Luvelle Brown, conducting an investigation, after which he issued a statement that the event was “politically skewed, inflammatory, and not endorsed by the Ithaca City School District.”

The Superintendent’s statement, though, contained few details of his investigation.

But now Legal Insurrection exclusively has obtained documents pursuant to a Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL) request that show the event was even worse than we thought.

While numerous documents, including a video of the event, have been withheld by ICSD, what was produced is enough to declare without doubt that the event was an anti-Israel presentation in which both the activists and the teacher leading the discussion skewed the conversation against Israel to the extent that one or more students were incited to express hatred of Israel.

The reaction to Brown’s statement from anti-Israel activists was furious, with JVP national launching a petition drive claiming the statement was part of an effort to silence Palestinian voices. The activists involved claimed that the event was just about peaceful coexistence and was not anti-Israel. Based on those activists’ representations, a letter writing campaign was launched demanding that Brown retract his criticism of the event. We now know that these complaints about the Superintendent’s handling were not based on fact.

1. Activists Launch Campaign Against Superintendent

As detailed in an Update to our original report, the Beverly J. Martin School Principal issued a statement to the public, in which she denied any anti-Israel sentiment was expressed or that the students reacted with anti-Israel sentiment. The statement reads in pertinent part:

There were many adults present in the class and at no time was there an anti-Israel, anti-Palestine, anti-Jewish, or anti-Muslim stance. The children took away from this experience several messages .”I can be an ambassador for peace.” “ You can make friends across borders and that is a good thing.” “Children want the option to live peacefully and to go to school. Children can help stand for these desires.” “Everyone should work things out to live together.” And “love will make peace, not hate.” The children had meaningful, relevant, and appropriate conversations.

Gold also gave a television interview to similar effect:

The well-funded anti-Israel national Jewish Voice for Peace organization launched a petition drive against the Superintendent. The email announcing the petition drive reads, in part:

After Bassem spoke with students, a right-wing law professor at Cornell started a smear campaign in the conservative blogosphere, and a campaign of intimidation against the elementary school.

Not because Bassem said anything false or inappropriate — he didn’t. Not because Bassem is in anyway unsavory — he isn’t. In fact, he’s been recognized for his human rights activism by both the European Union and Amnesty International. They objected because he dared to speak up for Palestinians.

Defenders of Israel’s illegal and racist occupation have already forced the school district to apologize. We need to send a strong message and make it clear that New Yorkers say no to censorship, and yes to human rights.

Add your name to our open letter right now — NEW YORKERS WILL NOT BE SILENCED.

We’ll be buying ads in local newspapers to share our open letter, and make it clear that human rights advocates will not be silenced. It is critical that you add your name and help us fight back.

Picking up on the claims that the event was just about peace, members of the community have criticized the Superintendent’s condemnation (as well as me for reporting on it).

Maura Stephens, who works at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College (and has been a critic of my Israel positions), wrote an op-ed in The Ithaca Journal, Tamimi is champion of human rights:

I was shocked to read Superintendent Luvelle Brown’s abject apology for the visit by nonviolent Palestinian human-rights activist Bassem Tamimi to Beverly J. Martin School.

Tamimi is the kind of person we want our children to meet.

His work revolves around inclusion, love, nonviolence and reconciliation. Brown’s objection to Tamimi’s sharing of simple truths about life under ongoing oppression in an occupied land is an insult to many who actively champion human rights….

Third-graders understand the healing powers of love. They can grieve and sympathize with those who’ve suffered loss. If we won’t speak truth to these children, on whose shoulders so much will soon rest, we’re doing their generation a grave disservice.

People in positions of local authority, such as Superintendent Brown, must stand firm against political pressure. I believe the vast majority of Ithacans will support Brown if he defies bullies who threaten and intimidate educators.

To Superintendent Brown: Please retract the apologia. Applaud and support BJM Principal Eschbach and those who invited Palestinian speakers to share their lives and dreams. We will fully support you if you do so.

Additionally, 31 parents at the Beverly J. Martin school (it’s unclear if any had children in the class), led by Ithaca College Park School of Communications employee Nicole Koschmann, submitted a letter to the editor of the Ithaca Journal, Teachers know best about school speakers, which reads in part:

We, 31 Beverly J. Martin Elementary School parents, are writing in regards to recent news regarding the Palestinian human-rights activist visit at BJM on Sept. 18….

We parents believe teachers are the professionals in their field regarding the developmental stages of their students, what is appropriate, and what relates to the standards that need to be taught. They are trained in this. Law professors at Cornell University do not have this expertise. Political activists do not have this expertise. This knowledge lies with teachers and their principal….

The reactionary swell created outside of BJM as a result of this event is especially shameful when one considers the amount of resources the teachers and administrators have had to divert from their job of educating our children.

Our children were not preyed or imposed upon by the visitors that day. Instead, they were exposed to a perspective and a situation.

The conversation will continue at school and at home. We are not afraid of differing opinions. In fact, teaching students to disagree respectfully, and with patience and compassion, is one of the key elements of teaching human rights. Unfortunately, this is not a lesson many adults have learned.

But was this really an event about peace and gaining diverse perspectives? Do these people criticizing the Superintendent and demanding a retraction of the condemnation have their facts straight?

Superintendent Brown, who is emerging as the good guy and voice of reason in this controversy, knew, in his words, exactly what happened.

Read on.

2. The FOIL Request and Response

We served a fairly broad request under the Freedom of Information Law, which is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act, seeking records regarding, among other things, the Tamimi appearance.

ICSD, after taking an additional 30 days to which it was entitled by statute, produced some records last week. Those records include a partial transcript, discussed below, and many internal and external communications which may be the subject of future posts at Legal Insurrection.

But some documents were so heavily redacted as to be meaningless.

ICSD Tamimi Foil - Redaction 1

ICSD Tamimi Foil - Redaction 2

In some cases documents contained some information, but the redactions cover most of the text:

ICSD Tamimi Foil - Redaction 3

Other documents have been withheld completely under broad assertions of exemption without any identification of what they are. While 143 pages about the Tamimi visit were produced, 72 pages were withheld in their entirety. So there is more to the story.

We intend to challenge the redactions and withholding of documents and videos, first by administrative appeal, and then by litigation if need be. It took us over a year of litigation to obtain the key police records in the David Gregory ammunition magazine controversy; we will exhibit that same persistence here if required.

We are currently searching for pro bono counsel to assist us in appeal and litigation. If there is anyone licensed in NY State who is interested, contact us.

3. Superintendent Brown stands strong against pressure

The Superintendent’s statement of condemnation reads, in part (emphasis added):

… The assumed purpose of the talk was to focus on human rights and peace. Upon further investigation, we have learned that the speakers went beyond the original intent of the talk. Additionally, school administration was not informed beforehand of the invitation to include one of the speakers….

In a closing statement of how students could help, a speaker spoke of solidarity and being freedom fighters for Palestine….

The Ithaca City School District’s position is that such statements are not developmentally appropriate for third graders, nor aligned with the New York State standards. The statements were politically skewed, inflammatory, and not endorsed by the Ithaca City School District.

Despite the efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace and local activists, Superintendent Brown has not retracted his condemnation of the event.

As these letters were coming in and the campaign against him was mounting, Brown revealed in an email why he was not backing down—he knew from his investigation what actually took place at the event and did not have to rely on the flowery explanations given by the activists who organized the event:

(yellow highlighting added)

ICSD Tamimi Foil - Brown I Know Exactly What Happened highlighted

Not all of the contacts with the ICSD have been critical of the Superintendent. There were may emails of support produced, such as this email urging him to withstand the pressure campaign:

ICSD Tamimi Foil - Email to Tamimi Pressure from Ariel Gold

4. “Janna Jihad” video incites anti-Israel student reactions

Prior to the FOIL production, we knew that videos were shown to the third grade students, but we didn’t know which videos. One of them, which we have not been able to identify, involves Tamimi’s daughter, Ahed, the most famous Tamimi media star. Here is the key part of the description by activist Mary Grady Flores from the ICSD document production:

ICSD Foil - Flores letter re Ahed Video

The second video, which was identified in the ICSD document production, was of Jenna Jihad Tamimi, believed to be Bassem Tamimi’s niece. Janna goes by the stage name “Janna Jihad.”

As explained in a prior post, Janna has been used by the Tamimi media operation to confront Israeli soldiers for the cameras since she was age 5. Her most recent internet hit, which has millions of views on Facebook, showed her confronting Israeli police in Jerusalem, shouting “we will kill you.” Along with Bassem Tamimi’s daughter Ahed, the most famous of the child activists, Janna is a rising international anti-Israel child star who will be featured in a motion picture along with Ahed to be released this winter. Janna also is being portrayed in international media as the “youngest journalist.”

Here is the video shown to the Ithaca third graders. I have marked it to start where the English starts, but you can scroll back in it if you want to hear the Arabic commentary by the announcer:

ICSD refuses to produce the video taken by the activists of the students watching and reacting to this video on the ground that the video contains personally identifiable information regarding students protected by federal educational privacy laws. We intend on challenging, in court if necessary, the withholding of the video in its entirety.

But ICSD did release a document which purports to be a partial transcript of the ending portion of the video Flores took (Gold apparently videotaped the first part of the event). The partial transcription cannot be independently confirmed because ICSD refuses to produce the audio or video, but it is consistent with what the activists have written on social media. The transcript shows adults appearing to steer the conversation against Israel.

Here are some key portions (full transcript here).  The “filmer” apparently refers to Flores, who was taking the video, though the transcript is not clear on that. “Brooke” is Brooke Burnett, a teacher in the school and friend of Gold, through whom the event was arranged. Tamimi is reflected by the intitials “BT,” and “Ariel” is Ariel Gold, of Jewish Voice for Peace.

(Yellow highlighting added)

Transcript Bassem Tamimi at Third Grade 1 highlighted

Transcript Bassem Tamimi at Third Grade 2 highlighted

Transcript Bassem Tamimi at Third Grade 3 highlighted

Transcript Bassem Tamimi at Third Grade 4 highlighted

Transcript Bassem Tamimi at Third Grade 5 highlighted

It is beyond any serious doubt that the event was an anti-Israel event, that it was meant to incite the third grade students against Israel, and that it achieved its goal.

Now you can understand why Superintendent Brown reacted the way he did after investigation.  He knew exactly what happened.

5. Problems beyond this event

It would be a mistake to view this event in isolation.

While it was wildly inappropriate, as the Superintendent acknowledged, the documents produced indicate potential problems in the Beverly J. Martin School and possibly elsewhere in the ICSD when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That’s a separate issue for another time.

This event is a microcosm of a larger problem in education. We know about anti-Israel bias at the university faculty level. But we now know that there are efforts to indoctrinate even third graders.

We will continue to push for full access to all documents to which we are entitled under FOIL.