A map without Israel plunges an elementary school into a political storm

A map without Israel plunges an elementary school into a political storm

A cherished tradition at Public School 261 in Boerum Hill, the heart of gentrifying Brooklyn, is the annual march to Borough Hall in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Children prepare for weeks, making signs denouncing racism, homophobia, climate unrest and other expressions of social and environmental pox. So disappointment was prevalent this year, when the march was canceled and replaced with a rally in the cafeteria.

The catalyst for change was the uproar that arose after a post appeared on social media, nine months ago, from Qatar Foundation International, with a photo of a PS 261 classroom featuring a colorful resource map of North Africa and the Middle East. It was pinned to the wall under a handwritten sign that said: “The Arab World.”

Last week, an article in The Free Press, a media site that positions itself against those it considers enemies of free speech, drew attention to what was missing in this geography. Algeria, Yemen and Sudan were among the countries that appeared on the poster. Israel did not do that. Instead, the region was called Palestine.

The map has been used in a class on Arab art and culture for 12 years. But in this turbulent historical moment, the truth of the matter came to light largely through the New York Post, which published an article titled “Brooklyn Public School Removes Israel from Map of Qatar-Funded Classrooms, Calls It Palestine.”

A follow-up in The Post later that day focused on the anger of local officials. Dan Goldman, a Democratic congressman whose district includes Boerum Hill, said he was “deeply concerned.” The politicians wanted to know how the city’s Education Ministry had approved an offer that led to Israel’s non-existence.

The Department of Education’s central office neither has the time nor necessarily the commitment to examine everything that happens in every classroom in a system that serves nearly a million children. Some hope that happens. Tova Plaut, the department’s education coordinator, has been particularly vocal about what happened at PS 261 and sees the issue as a symptom of a broader problem of “Jewish hatred and erasure” in the city’s schools, “not a one-time problem,” she told me.

“This particular example shows why there is a need for system-wide training on how to recognize anti-Semitism,” she said. The definition she prefers is the strong one that comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has been adopted or endorsed by 43 countries.

On Tuesday, District Supervisor Rafael Alvarez sent a letter to the community to announce that the map had been removed and that the New York Peace Institute, a conflict resolution consulting firm, had been contacted to help “find a way forward.” He emphasized how long the map had been used without any incident, but apologized for the impact it had. District 15 is “committed to making sure our students feel safe and supported at all times,” he wrote, perhaps somewhat ambitiously. To achieve this goal, the district will review programs to ensure alignment with Core Values.

Parents who were looking for assurances that the Arabic arts class would not be dropped from the curriculum were concerned. “It would be devastating if the program was cut,” Lauren Katzman, the mother of a 261-year-old first-grader, told me. Last week, a broad group of parents, teachers and staff issued a statement calling for the protection of a program that honors “the diversity and Arab heritage of the Boerum Hill neighborhood.” More than 240 people have signed it.

Ms. Katzman was among 16 Jewish parents who drafted a separate letter a few days later in the same vein, condemning “the recent vicious campaign of investigation and harassment against our teacher Ms. Rita Lahoud and her Arab arts program.” The exposure and all the media intrusion has made many people fear for the safety of all 261 children and teachers. There were now police officers and news crews outside. Journalists had monitored Mrs. Lahoud’s home, where she was photographed on the sidewalk.

PS 261, more than most New York public schools, represents David Dinkins’ famous “magnificent mosaic” of construction, where children walk to school from public housing and $5 million brownstones, from Jewish, Christian and Muslim families. Much of Brooklyn’s Arab community has shifted south, toward Bay Ridge, but remains present on Boerum Hill, especially along Atlantic Avenue.

Ms. Lahoud’s goal — almost everyone at school called her Ms. Rita — was to bring some of that world into the classroom. By the end of any given year, she was taking her students to the Metropolitan Museum to look at Arab art, drawing temporary henna tattoos, teaching them how to count and write their names in Arabic, introducing them to pita bread and showing them how to count and write their names in Arabic. Drawing olive trees in watercolor.

Years of budget tightening within the school system have made interdisciplinary classes like these — integrating art, architecture and history across an area, the kind of thing routinely offered at private schools — unusual. PS 261 was able to offer the program thanks to funding provided by the non-profit Qatar Foundation, another aspect of the story that has been heavily criticized in the press. Founded by members of the Qatari royal family, the foundation partners with a range of institutions across the United States including Georgetown and Northwestern universities as well as the public school system in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Part of what attracted us to 261 is that the principal would be creative and find ways to bring joy and culture into our children’s lives,” said Sarah Eisenstein, another parent. “It would be nice to live in a world where schools didn’t have to write grants to get art or choose between things.”

Was it inevitable that the hatred that upends a campus would find its way into a Brooklyn elementary school? In a place as diverse as PS 261, ideological conflict is not entirely surprising. But Ms. Eisenstein was not prepared for the intensity of the dispute.

“In the past, we have always been able to discuss differences and work through them as a community,” she said. “This time it seems like someone from outside our community really wants to create divisions in our larger community. But parents are really coming together to say, ‘This is not happening here.’”

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