The First Amendment of the US Constitution is designed to guarantee free speech and, among other things, academic freedom. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But to judge by the frequency with which expressions of sympathy for the people of Palestine are suppressed in US schools, colleges and universities, you might conclude that most Americans have never heard of it. The original of this report by Michael Arria in Mondoweiss can be found here.

Crackdown on Palestine in education goes far beyond universities

The backlash against Palestine in education isn’t just happening in universities. There have also been dozens of educators disciplined at primary and secondary schools across the U.S. for teaching about the Israeli attack on Gaza.

In November, two teachers at the Citizens of the World Charter School in Los Angeles were suspended and subjected to an investigation after they made social media posts about giving lessons to first graders on the genocide in Palestine.

“LOL but I did a lesson on the genocide in Palestine today [with] my first graders,’” wrote one. “My fav was a kid who was like ‘What if they just gave the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live,’” she added.

Upon suspending the teachers, the school’s executive director Melissa Kaplan condemned the posts and their reference to genocide.

The charter school holds its classes at Adat Ari El Synagogue, which put up Israeli flags around the building after the October 7th Hamas attack. The synagogue’s senior rabbi said he first became aware of the posts after the school’s principal emailed the synagogue asking if they could take the flags down. After the posts became public knowledge, the principal took a two-week leave from her job to undergo sensitivity training.

Since October 7, Palestine activism has been targeted and suppressed across U.S. college campuses with an alarming intensity. The university chapters for groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have been suspended or even banned. Pro-Israel donors have pulled their money from universities in response to students organizing pro-Palestine protests. Pro-Israel organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have called for Palestine student groups to be investigated for terrorism. University presidents have been forced to resign because of right-wing campaigns that are at least partially motivated by Israel.

However, this growing McCarthyism isn’t confined to colleges. It’s happening in primary and secondary schools across the nation. The group Palestine Legal says they received 78 requests for legal support from teachers and students in K-12 between October 7 and December 31.

The group cited these developments in a recent letter to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which called on the OCR to take special measures to ensure the rights of people calling for the protection of Palestinians.

“In K-12 schools, Palestinian and Arab students are concerned for their safety due to the
rise of bullying and harassment rooted in anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic racism,” it read. “One school in Illinois banned students from wearing a kuffiyah scarf—a Palestinian cultural symbol. The wave of racism and xenophobia has also proliferated in violent ways beyond educational institutions, resulting in the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea al Fayoume, outside of Chicago.”

In Palm Beach County, Florida a first-grade teacher was placed on administrative leave and investigated by the school district for simply asking the superintendent to “publicly recognize the Palestinian community” while communicating about the violence in the Middle East. At a public meeting Florida House member Mike Caruso (R) called for the teacher to be fired over the letter and accused her of “disgusting antisemitic genocidal rhetoric.”

15-year-old Palestinian-American Jad Abuhamda was expelled from Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida over social media posts, not from him, but his mother. The student’s mom, Dr. Maha Almasri, had posted about the “collective brutality” that Israel was waging against Palestinians. The posts got her terminated from her position as a math tutor at the school.

“The purpose of my post wasn’t to offend anyone,” Almasri told a local news station. She  said wanted to “just to shed light on the humanitarian crisis happening in Gaza.”

Almasri said her “heart dropped” when she found out about her son’s explusion. “Punishing me, apparently was not enough,” she said. “Why they felt the need to go that extra step? I don’t know.”

In Montgomery County, Maryland four instructors were placed on administrative leave for pro-Palestine social media posts. Hajur El-Haggan, a teacher in the county’s Argyle Middle School, was placed on leave because her email signature contained the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Deborah Menkart is the co-director of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP). The organization, which was founded in 2008 by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, promotes the teaching of “people’s history” in U.S. classrooms. The group takes its approach from the late Howard Zinn’s seminal book, A People’s History of the United States.

“We’re seeing McCarthy-era levels of repression, not just at universities, but at the K-12 level” Menkart told Mondoweiss. “Historically we’ve seen that people in power understand the potential impact of young people thinking critically and looking through the lens of history.”

Multiple teachers have shared testimony about their situations with ZEP. It’s no surprise that some have requested to remain anonymous.

“It has been a challenge addressing what is happening in Palestine and Israel. Unfortunately, the majority of my coworkers are unconditional supporters of Israel and co-sign the United States’ extraordinary military support of this ruthless regime,” wrote one high school teacher. “These are typically ‘progressive’ folks who have greatly disappointed me. Even in the face of my calm requests for dialogue and my sharing resources that challenge the majority narrative, it’s clear that this issue has become so propagandized that there is little room for discourse.”

“Parents can only effectively engage in conversations with their children about the importance of respect, empathy, and the harmful consequences of prejudice if they understand that the Palestinian people in Gaza are being violently and indiscriminately massacred,” wrote another.

Some of those facing repercussions for their advocacy are undertaking legal measures. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) for placing Hajur El-Haggan on leave.

“Preserving the sanctity of education requires safeguarding the right to free speech in public schools, which is an essential cornerstone for fostering critical thinking, diverse perspectives, and the growth of informed, responsible citizens,” said CAIR’s Maryland Director Zainab Chaudry in a statement “We are committed to protecting these rights for all Americans including those who face unfair retaliation and consequences over their advocacy for basic Palestinian human rights.”

The organization has also called for a Department of Education probe into the firing of Dr. Maha Almasri and the expulsion of her son.

Deborah Menkart calls on people angered by such suppression to become more involved in their communities.

“If you’re upset about this, start focusing on local elections,” she told Mondoweiss. “School boards and local governments are often ignored, but these places have a big impact. Testify at school boards. Talk to local unions. Ask your local library how you can help keep books on the shelf. Encourage the media to cover this more.”