Outrage over the vile and dangerous anti-Semitic riot that occurred on Monday, November 20, at Hillcrest High School in Queens, was expressed at a hastily organized rally hosted by the Queens Jewish Alliance (QJA) at the Board of Education’s offices in Ozone Park this past Monday. While an investigation persists, four teens have been arrested so far, and student suspensions continue for those who orchestrated the student-led riot where youth stormed the hallways hunting a Jewish teacher who had attended a pro-Israel rally at the Kew Gardens Hills Public Library. As now widely reported, an estimated 400 teens at Hillcrest High School flooded corridors for two hours protesting the schoolteacher, who shared a photo of herself online at our neighborhood demonstration far from her school premises. The disturbance forced a lockdown, while the teacher was forced to barricade in an office for her safety. Just weeks prior, at the same school, school safety agents were violently attacked. Their underage attackers received a mere record notation.
The scary incident was denounced by New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks, a Hillcrest graduate, at a press conference – a full week later – as being “completely unacceptable.” Banks, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, whose wife is a Hillcrest graduate, and Assemblymember David Weprin, who represents the area of the high school, held conversations with faculty and the student body as they listened to their position. Mayor Eric Adams called the incident a “vile show of anti-Semitism,” claiming it “was motivated by ignorance-fueled hatred, plain and simple,” adding that such expressions “will not be tolerated in any of our schools, let alone anywhere else in our city.”
“When my office was made aware of this situation on Tuesday, we engaged immediately with the NYPD to make sure that safety and order was restored,” said Council Member James Gennaro in a prepared statement to the QJL. “Because the victim was a Jew, the local superintendent believed it was not necessary to report it to the Chancellor’s Office until two days after the fact. Had this episode involved a person of any other racial or ethnic group, it would have been reported immediately to the Chancellor’s Office and immediately to the Mayor’s Office and then straight to the media where it would have made headlines. But a Jewish woman? Not so much.” Gennaro called for a shake-up. “It seems this war is only a convenient excuse for these kids to express their long-held and deep-seated hatred of Jews. It’s despicable.”
What remains unacceptable was how the Chancellor, Mayor (if he was made aware), school leadership, and those with knowledge hid this incident from the public eye for a number of days. The Queens Jewish community only became aware of the hatred on Motza’ei Shabbos, as the news broke on Friday after candle lighting.
“Why did we need to have TikTok videos, Instagram, and social media platforms?” blasted Sorolle Idels, chairperson, QJA, as she opened her press conference, questioning, “That’s how we get our information? Unacceptable. A Jewish teacher has to go into hiding? We don’t want words anymore. We’re tired of the words.” Idels, the oldest granddaughter of four Holocaust-surviving grandparents, also referenced the Jewish people’s peaceful nature and our closeness to our Creator and then pointed to the growing groups of political figures behind her as a testament to their care observing that they have all been steadfast in their stance since the October 7 atrocities.
Idels urged those with power to take immediate action that ensures teachers do not have to go into hiding, and that our college students do not have to fear wearing a kippah or holding Israeli flags. Calling it “insane” in America in 2023, Idels noted that her father, Dr. Leslie Bennett, requested her to remove an Israeli flag from her vehicle, afraid for her safety.
David Weprin, Hillcrest’s Assemblymember, called the teacher’s “I stand with Israel” poster “her free speech,” stating that “it was something that we all supported,” as he noted the attendance of his colleagues at the October 9 Vleigh Place gathering where the educator showed her support. “We were still in shock over the Holocaust of individuals. It was just beyond comprehension, something we can only compare to what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. They were Nazi tactics.” Weprin correctly labeled the incident as anti-Semitism committed by haters of Israel, placed blame for the lack of transparency, and demanded a full investigation with accountability and preventive measures for a reoccurrence. Weprin called the school “great” and academically “very good.”
Eric Dinowitz, a former teacher of 14 years and current chair of the NYC Council’s Jewish Caucus, has been sounding the alarm for years on anti-Semitism that is “everywhere in the city.” He stated, “There’s an undercurrent of something that exists deep inside people. And we need to address it now, and the urgency wasn’t heard; then it was addressed and spoken about. But it wasn’t heard. Then, October 7 happened, and people felt as if it gave them license to express that deep anti-Semitism that was living inside them. Now, we are seeing riots inside schools where teachers have to hide in classrooms. We saw it on college campuses where students had to hide in libraries where there were death threats. But, it is not a license to hate. What’s going on overseas is not a license for anyone to hate.” Dinowitz called on the Department of Education to act with the urgency of the moment that has Jews scared, isolated, and lacking the support of the sole agency who can build the necessary bridges of inclusion. “The Department of Education talks a lot about social, emotional, and health education. They talk about bridging gaps and bridging divides and diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Building community and listening and addressing the needs of all parties to protect students and teachers Dinowitz called the city’s job and its education department as they prepare the next generation tasked with leading and feeding the city. “They are failing at that mission.”
Lynn Schulman, the only Jewish City Council Member from Queens, called for a “teaching moment where we have to combat hate,” pointing to a district partnership with the Simon Wiesenthal Center that she suggested be brought to all schools, noting many unreported flares of anti-Semitism at city-run schools.
Michael Cohen, eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the center has received numerous calls from educators who are scared to be Jewish in their workplace. Cohen pledged to work with the DOE, United Federation of Teachers (UTF), and elected officials “to ensure there is change and that Jewish teachers can be Jewish on all school campuses with pride.”
“I’m scared,” divulged Assemblymember Sam Berger, whose mother Paula is a teacher at Shevach High School, and whose wife Shaina is a speech therapist who regularly visits public schools for evaluations. “This transcends politics,” said Berger, noting the bipartisanship of elected officials. “I’m sick and tired of the condemnations and the platitudes, because I don’t need to feel better about what happened at the high school. We do not riot, we do not harass, we do not destroy property because of our beliefs or because of someone else’s beliefs.” Berger demanded immediate DOE intervention due to the rising number of bias incidents at facilities under their purview.
“Our kids don’t know that these kinds of protests are an echo back to a scary, terrible time for the Jewish people,” communicated Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, citing centuries of anti-Semitism from pogroms to Kristallnacht and the latest round in Israel sparked by “premeditated war crimes by a terrorist organization leaving our one Democratic ally in the Middle East to fend for themselves to protect their citizens, something that we would allow if this happened to 1,300 Americans. But that is the kickoff for everybody’s antisemitism to run rampant.
“The violence in our schools happened because there were no prosecutorial consequences,” claimed Council Member Joann Ariola who represents the area of the presser. Beating up Jewish people on the street, or students or staff at schools are non-bail-eligible offenses. Ariola, who campaigned on a law-and-order platform, called on state representatives that have long fought for better criminal justice reform to “wake up” those who have not because the violence may slowly trickle to other demographics in the city. Ariola questioned why the city’s violence-interrupters were not dispatched as mayhem ensued.
“Everybody thinks this is new. The DOE has been failing kids for decades. This has now come to the point where they are literally the inmates running the asylum,” articulated Council Member Vickie Paladino, who predicted such incidents would pop up “under the guise of freedom of speech.” Paladino spoke of the unrestrained wokeness in the city that shut the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges with sit-ins that preached hatred and death to Jews. Paladino demanded an audit and funding cut for Hillcrest and a dismantling of the UFT that puts the DOE in charge to reform New York City’s school system.
State Senator Joe Addabbo explained that anti-Semitism has victimized the city for many years, not just of today’s conflict 5,000 miles away. “The trick is not to react to it, but to prevent it even further.” Addabbo suggested a raise for penalty of anti-Semitic acts, and a restructuring of the curriculum in schools will help us reach new heights and live in harmony.
“You may want to criticize the policies of the government of Israel,” said Richard Altabe, Lower School Principal at HALB, “but you cannot demonize the people of Israel and the Jewish people.” He said that “the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism became policy in the New York City Department of Education and in the New York State Education Department who’s been silent on the matter of anti-Semitism since October 7.”
“Imagine if such a riot had occurred against a minority teacher,” remarked Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. “The nation would be up in arms. Students would be disciplined. Administrators who would not address this issue of student and faculty safety immediately and effectively would be forced to resign.”
America, as a society, must treat anti-Semitism with the same stigma as it treats other hatreds. Anti-Semitism should be met with the same societal condemnation with which we treat other prejudices and vile acts of bigotry. As long as there are different standards of review or a perceived difference in reaction when it comes to combating anti-Semitism, the potential for a recurrence of the Hillcrest High School riot remains high.
By Shabsie Saphirstein,
with reporting from Debra Rubin