Berkeley and NYC School Districts React After House Antisemitism Hearing

Tim O’Brien, the father of a senior at Berkeley High School in California and a supporter of the Palestinian cause, watched the congressional hearing on antisemitism on Wednesday involving the school district’s superintendent, Enikia Ford Morthel. In his eyes, she was “a rock star.”

Three thousand miles away on Capitol Hill, another Berkeley High parent, Ilana Pearlman, who is Jewish, watched the same testimony in person and could not believe her ears, particularly the part where Ms. Ford Morthel said that antisemitism is “not pervasive” in the school district.

Republican lawmakers accused the leaders of school districts in Berkeley, New York City and Montgomery County, Md., of responding inadequately to antisemitism in public schools while the administrators fiercely defended themselves and their policies. Afterward, local reaction to the hearing seemed to hinge on one’s views going in, with few minds changed and some questioning whether the proceeding had been worth the time.

Mr. O’Brien, who watched the hearing over coffee and muffins with about 10 other pro-Palestinian parents in a classroom at the University of California, Berkeley, disapproved of the hearing in general but thought Ms. Ford Morthel had weathered it well.

“It was like the Salem witch trials,” he said, adding that the hearings were a distraction from the devastation in Gaza. But he said it was right for educators to teach their students about the war with Israel and the importance of Palestinian liberation. And he thought Ms. Ford Morthel had conveyed that message effectively.

“We were all hoping that her personality and charm and compassion and intelligence would somehow find a way to come through in that kind of noxious environment, and she did not disappoint,” he said.

Ms. Pearlman, a parent behind a federal civil rights complaint alleging “severe and persistent” antisemitism in the Berkeley school district, said she appreciated that the hearing had been held but was disappointed in the superintendent’s testimony.

She particularly blanched at Ms. Ford Morthel’s opening statement denying that antisemitism was a major problem in the district.

Ms. Pearlman, who watched the proceedings with other Jewish mothers in the hearing room, said she had approached Ms. Ford Morthel after the hearing.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you believe us?’” Ms. Pearlman recounted. “She cupped my hands. I wanted to throw up. And she said, ‘I do believe you, I do.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t.’”

Ms. Pearlman has said her son, a freshman, saw his art teacher present an image of the Star of David being punched with a fist and heard another teacher call Israel a settler colony. She said he now keeps his Jewish heritage quiet.

Ms. Ford Morthel declined to give an interview after her testimony.

Shortly after the hearing, matters grew even more complicated in the Berkeley schools. The Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in filing a federal complaint on behalf of school staff members and parents alleging “severe and pervasive anti-Palestinian racism” in the district.

While largely supporting Ms. Ford Morthel, the group said individual principals had not appropriately addressed incidents including students’ taunting of their Arab and Muslim classmates with chants of “terrorists” and “9-11.” In another incident, the complaint said, a student ripped off a classmate’s hijab.

Molly Sampson, who has a half-Palestinian daughter in the Berkeley schools, said that she thought the accusations of antisemitism had been overblown and that the hearing had been a waste of time.

“This is our town, our district, and then you see how it’s portrayed at the national level and you feel like you’re living in upside-down world,” she said. “I thought our superintendent had incredible grace and poise in dealing with that.”

Pro-Palestinian rallies took place in Berkeley and New York after the hearing, with parents, teachers and other participants discussing the importance of teaching about Palestinians in public schools.

Muhammad Delgado, a senior at Berkeley High School, said he watched the hearing before attending the rally and said he appreciated Ms. Ford Morthel standing up for the district.

“I thought our superintendent did well in protecting and pushing back against this narrative that our educators and our students are antisemitic,” he said. “My experience has been one of cooperation and fraternity.”

Like Ms. Ford Morthel, the chancellor of New York City’s schools pushed back hard against Republican lawmakers’ contention that his school district had not done enough to stop antisemitism. The official, David C. Banks, acknowledged some cases of antisemitism, but he said that he and the district had addressed them with appropriate measures and that the Republicans were merely looking for “gotcha” moments rather than practical solutions.

Leah Wiseman Fink, the mother of two children in a Brooklyn public school, attended the hearing and said she felt it had covered some important antisemitic incidents in New York schools but had skipped over others.

For example, she said, she was blocked by her school board’s official Instagram account and not allowed into video meetings after complaining about antisemitism in schools. She joined other local parents in filing an official complaint about the school board’s treatment of Jewish parents, but that did not come up at the hearing.

“I’m happy parts of the story got told,” she said. “But there are big parts of the story that got left out.”

Karla Silvestre, the school board president in Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, acknowledged reports of “antisemitic imagery, language and vandalism” in county schools and conceded that “we haven’t gotten it right every time.” But like Mr. Banks, Ms. Silvestre said that her district would soon roll out new training programs and curriculums to address antisemitism.

Rachel Barold, a high school sophomore in Montgomery County, attended the hearing on Wednesday and came away underwhelmed.

Before the hearing, she had submitted a letter to the office of Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, saying that Montgomery County schools had not worked quickly enough to respond to a surge in antisemitism.

Ms. Barold said in a text message that she had found the hearing “pretty useless” because Ms. Silvestre spoke so little compared with Ms. Ford Morthel and Mr. Banks.

Adam Zimmerman, who has two children in the Montgomery County schools and teaches Holocaust education to middle schoolers at a local synagogue, had not anticipated that the hearing would be a pivotal moment, and he said afterward it pretty clearly had not been.

“This is not a problem a hearing could ever solve on its own,” he said. “My hope,” he added, is that school leaders there “understand that we still face a very significant problem.”

Coral Murphy Marcos contributed reporting from Berkeley, Calif., and Troy Closson contributed reporting from New York.