Hebrew Charter Schools Teach American Students to be ‘Representatives of Israel’
by Drew Franklin on January 3, 2016
With the school privatization movement taking over public school districts across the United States, wealthy donors have seized on education reform to finance the creation of publicly-funded classrooms that teach young children to look to Israel “as a model for both democracy and diversity.”
That’s how one group described a proposed Social Studies curriculum in its 2012 application for a charter from the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which cleared the way for their Hebrew language school to open its doors to elementary school-aged residents of Washington, D.C. the next year.
Gil Tamary profiled Sela Public Charter School for a story that aired in Israel on Channel 10 last April. In his report, Tamary expresses shock upon seeing a room full of kindergarteners—most of them black—singing and conversing with him in Hebrew.
After noting that the Israeli Declaration of Independence and a map of Israel adorn the bulletin board by the school’s front entrance, Tamary reports that “the majority of the students are from the nearby neighborhoods, from local families, most of whom are not very fortunate.”
Publicly available statistics for charter schools, mandated by D.C. law, show that 74% of students enrolled in Sela PCS last year were African-American.
In the District of Columbia, charter schools are given $3,000 in government funding per child, per school year, while maintaining the freedom to manage their own budget and curricula, according to the Public Charter School Board website. Tuition is free, and because state and federal law prohibits public schools from affiliating with any religion, Sela is open to all students who live in D.C., Jewish or not.
Channel 10’s broadcast shows Shira Ravin, then-Director of Hebrew Curriculum and Instruction, explaining Sela’s appeal to non-Jewish residents by claiming that “in Israel, they teach better,” and that “Israel showcases a culture of good education.”
But, Tamary later points out to her, the kids have no connection to the country apart from Sela. “You’re raising them to be representatives of Israel,” he says.
“Amazing. A wonderful idea. Exactly. Exactly!” answers Ravin. “You never know if these same kids, who are growing up in D.C., will be the next president of the United States or a member of Congress.”
Sela’s unlikely appeal to parents in D.C.’s predominately black neighborhoods might be better explained by the supplementary funding charter schools receive from private donors, which helps them stay competitive in a system where school closures are common. Tax filings indicate that in 2014 Sela received a $250,000 grant from the Hebrew Charter School Center, a New York-based nonprofit foundation that funds seven of the twelve Hebrew charter schools currently operating in the U.S.
As previously reported in the Electronic Intifada, HCSC is financed by the hedge fund billionaire and Taglit-Birthright financier Michael Steinhardt, who in 2012 told Max Blumenthal, “There were no Palestinian people.”
The first Hebrew charter school to open in the U.S., the Hebrew Language Academy in New York, was founded in 1999 by Steinhardt’s daughter, HCSC board chair Sara Berman. In an editorial for the Spring 2011 issue of Contact, a journal published by the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Berman says she envisions Hebrew charter school graduates growing into “a vanguard of understanding for Israel.”
According to the HCSCH website, another board member, Jason A. Muss, concurrently sits on the national board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
While there has been some controversy about whether or not the language’s association with Judaism proves that Hebrew charter schools violate the separation of church and state, less discussed is the possibility that their Israel-centric curricula indoctrinate American children to sympathize with Zionism.
In May 2012, before Sela opened for business, the Forward quoted co-founder Jessica Lieberman dismissing that concern, insisting that the school was not a “Zionist enterprise.” Rather, she said, Israel would be taught “just as you learn about any other country in school.”
But how many public schools in the United States have working relationships with diplomats from those countries? Sela’s annual report to the Public Charter School Board for school year 2013/2014 states that representatives from the Israeli embassy have visited the school “on multiple occasions.” It also says that the school recruits its Hebrew teachers—all of whom are “native Israelis”—through a partnership with the World Zionist Organization.
The kindergarten classroom featured in Channel 10’s broadcast is named “Be’er Sheva,” which is the Hebrew name for an Israeli city in the southern Naqab. That city is built on land that was ethnically cleansed of its 110,000 indigenous Palestinian inhabitants in 1948; it was also at the center of the region targeted by the “Prawer Plan,” which would have displaced 30,000 Bedouin from the surrounding desert1, until the plan was withdrawn by the Israeli government following mass protests in 2013.
While the Prawer Plan explicitly called for violent displacement and predicated it on economic development, D.C.’s native black population is threatened with ipso facto displacement for the same end. In Ward 4, in which Sela is located, rising housing costs driven by development have disproportionately priced out poorer black residents, whose incomes have fallen despite D.C.’s rapid economic growth2. U.S. Census data shows that between 2000 and 2010, Ward 4’s black population declined by 15%, while its white population rose by 33% in the same period.
School privatization is a vehicle for the land development that drives displacement, and it’s controlled by white elites—so says Howard University’s Dean of Education Policy, Leslie T. Fenwick, in a Washington Post op-ed from 2013. “This kind of school reform is not about children,” she concludes, “it’s about the business elite gaining access to the nearly $600 billion that supports the nation’s public schools. It’s about money.”
For Michael Steinhardt, money is no object. If exploiting black communities and indoctrinating their children can aid in the theft of Palestinian land, he’ll pay for it—and double down with taxpayers’ dollars.