Separation of church and state apparently doesn’t apply when political correctness is being pushed.
A recently published monograph by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) offers a sobering example of how biased teaching materials about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history and practice of Islam were used for years in the curriculum of two public high schools in Newton, Massachusetts.
As we highlighted in a post which reviewed the book, CAMERA’s important new study meticulously analyzes hundreds of highly skewed materials used by the Newton Public Schools system in its two high schools to teach 9th and 10th graders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Islamic history and culture.
It also documents how a small group of determined Newton parents and residents fought a multi-year battle against the school district to remove the “biased materials promoting a politically-charged agenda”, Case Study: Biased curriculum on Israel and Islam in a Massachusetts school system.
In our prior post, we showed how the 108 page CAMERA paperback offers a “scholarly and frightening account” of the ways in which an astonishingly large amount of “inaccurate and partisan materials” made their way into the Newton Public School curricula.
CAMERA’s short book, as we noted, is an alarming read about how Massachusetts public school students were “propagandized about Islam”.
For years, Newton high schoolers learned from factually-flawed and unvetted, superficial, and non-scholarly publications, and from horribly slanted materials written by virulently anti-Israel activists and radical Islamist apologists.
In the curriculum, they weren’t given any opportunity to critically address the concept of jihad or the problems with Islamic society historically or in many places today, including the inferior status and mistreatment of women and often precarious situation of non-Muslim minorities under Muslim-majority rule:
It’s all very disturbing, in terms of an unwillingness to delve into the topics of Islamic radicalism, or the ways in which extremists use Islamic doctrine to promote totalitarian and misogynistic ideologies that have managed to attract a substantial following.”
But now one person who was involved in the fight to get the City of Newton to release the teaching materials—eventually resorting to several open records requests—is claiming that CAMERA researchers “may have been too generous” in their assessment of it.
Newton, Massachusetts Kids Go on an Imaginary Hajj
Writing last week for the American Thinker, William F. Marshall references his own review of the “raw materials from Newton” to draw further attention to what seems to be a totally inappropriate classroom exercise: having 9th graders in Newton World History classes “go on an imaginary hajj.”
Marshall describes this assignment in his American Thinker op-ed:
In one class assignment [page 216] entitled “Cities: Connecting the Islamic World,” students become pretend Muslims. The teacher writes: “As our concluding project on the Islamic world, you will work in groups to simulate a historical hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in class. Each of you will be part of a group of Muslim pilgrims from one of the following eight Islamic cities or regions, around a rough time period.” The teacher then lists out eight “Islamic” cities (which includes Jerusalem, by the way). Each group of students is told they will set up a “tent” (presumably imaginary?) which will display newspaper articles the students have written about “their” cities and cultural artifacts they have created to represent their Islamic “hometowns.”
Here’s the actual in-class teaching assignment:
It’s important to realize that in flagging this in-class exercise along with a few others (e.g., he mentions a lesson plan on the ‘Spread of Islam’ in which the teacher’s notes indicate that Muslim conquerors acted “decently” to their subjects—see p. 105 at this link), Marshall isn’t really criticizing CAMERA or the monograph’s lead author (Steven Stotsky).
In fact, in his op-ed, Marshall heaps praise on Indoctrinating Our Youth for serving as a “signal flare to parents everywhere.” He calls the book a “fine case study of the process by which our nation’s young adults are propagandized about Islam, and develop a bias against America and Israel” and recommends that it be read
by every parent of high school-aged (and younger) students, high school administrators, and teachers.”
The admiration is mutual.
Waging a Two-Year “Administrative Jihad” Against the City of Newton
In the CAMERA book, Stotsky cites the important role that Judicial Watch (a Washington, D.C.-based conservative, non-partisan foundation promoting government transparency and accountability and where Marshall currently serves as Senior Investigator) played in assisting the parent ad-hoc group in Newton to get access to the materials used to teach their kids.
As noted in the CAMERA monograph, Judicial Watch was approached to assist by Citizens for National Security (CFNS), a nonprofit, non-partisan Florida-based research organization that has successfully exposed biased educational materials in Florida schools and elsewhere across the country, and has had them removed.
Stotsky describes how, frustrated by utterly unresponsive and hostile school officials, the desperate Newton parents contacted CFNS in late 2014. CFNS in turn approached Judicial Watch.
Only in the spring of 2015 did the Newton School district begin to comply with the FOIA request, providing the materials from the 9th grade World History unit on Islam and the 10th grade unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Judicial Watch (I spoke with CFNS Director William Saxton this summer who confirmed to me that ‘if not for CFNS and Judicial Watch, Newton school officials would have got away with it’).
As Marshall notes in his op-ed, the school district ended up providing nearly 600 pages worth of materials on the practice and history of Islam (last week Judicial Watch archived all these documents to its online library; they can be viewed at this link).
So the American Thinker op-ed is in no way a reproach of the CAMERA study. But Marshall is right to draw further attention to the classroom exercise involving an imaginary pilgrimage to Mecca. Stotsky does mention it in the monograph, and even writes that
While such exercises may not represent overt indoctrination, they cause discomfort to many as entailing activities that seemingly cross the line into promoting religion in public schools.”
Still, it’s easy to miss that passage (I know I did) given all the many other egregiously inaccurate, highly distorted, and unbalanced teaching items on the subject of Islam that are covered in Indoctrinating Our Youth (that section of the monograph takes up 9 pages and includes in-depth analysis of many of the classroom materials covering Islamic history and culture, as we discussed in our prior post).
Marshall’s op-ed is helpful because it alerts people to this one specific assignment involving the simulated hajj, and the troubling double standards it suggests. He puts this well:
Imagine for a moment if the classroom assignment were to pretend to be part of a group of Christian pilgrims visiting Rome to attend Mass given by the pope in St. Peter’s Square, or a group of orthodox Jews visiting the Wailing Wall to pray, and each student had to write articles and bring artifacts from their “Christian” or “Jewish” city. I suspect Newton’s liberals would be outraged and ACLU lawyers would have a field day on talk shows about “separation of church and state.”
There’s nothing wrong with expanding the knowledge that American youth have about the people of the Muslim and Arab worlds, or with teaching history in a way that gives greater recognition to non-Western areas of the globe.
But taking kids on a virtual hajj in a public school classroom is a bridge too far.
When it comes to the teaching of Islamic history and culture, it’s hard to think of any public school in-class activity that would be more likely to run roughshod over the separation of church and state—except maybe asking students to memorize and recite lines from the Quran. In the Newton Massachusetts 9th grade World History classes, that was apparently also an included exercise.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElmanDONATE
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