Columbia High School file photo.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Board of Education (BOE) has joined a growing number of institutions across the country which punish people for criticizing Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

At a recent BOE meeting in which dozens of members of our community made public comments, the BOE voted 5-3 to cut ties with a liaison for MAPSO Freedom School — an organization of district teachers and alumni formed to address our schools’ well-documented discrimination of Black students.

As community members explained at the meeting, MAPSO Freedom School members have joined their students in Black Lives Matter protests, worked to advance the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ+ and disabled students, and organized programs which several Black students and alumni said were the highlight of their time at Columbia High School. They never received any backlash for this work to support marginalized communities, but there has been a different response to the group’s support of Palestinians.

Following the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, members of MAPSO Freedom School did something brave. They sought to provide historical context. They made posts on social media explaining that Israel has engaged in apartheid and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians since the country was founded in 1948.

This historical context helps to explain Israel’s offensive in Gaza following October 7, in which the Zionist state has conducted massive, calculated bombing of civilians and other attacks. The bombing and ground invasion, along with a blockade cutting off food, water, and fuel, has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, including dozens of journalists and healthcare workers, and thousands of children.

Zionists in Maplewood and South Orange acted swiftly to pressure the BOE to cut ties with the liaison for MAPSO Freedom School. They also spread hateful, dishonest comments about MAPSO Freedom School teachers online. These members of our community claimed that it is antisemitic to accuse Israel of apartheid and ethnic cleansing. They also claimed that MAPSO Freedom School members were calling for genocide by using the popular slogan “From the River to the Sea.”

By purporting to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community, Zionists are invalidating the Jewish identity of anti-Zionist Jews like myself.

Analysis by Caroline Morganti at Jewish Currents found that American Jews are deeply divided over Israel, and Pew Research data indicates there are far more evangelical Zionists than Jewish Zionists. Clearly Zionism is not synonymous with Judaism and Jewish identity.

Israel’s apartheid and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has been documented by reputable human rights organizations and international institutions including Amnesty International and the United Nations, as well as hundreds of scholars of international law and genocide.

As for the slogan “From the River to the Sea,” Yousef Munayyer explains well in Jewish Currents how it acknowledges that Israeli oppression of Palestinians is carried out from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, the full stretch of land where Palestinians lived freely prior to the creation of Israel. It is a phrase which I and many other anti-Zionist Jews have proudly chanted in solidarity with Palestinians.

Despite the efforts by Zionists in my town, a larger number of community members voiced support for MAPSO Freedom School. Still, at the end of the meeting the BOE voted 5-3 to end their relationship with the liason. The BOE members who voted to cut ties argued that it was because the BOE is a “neutral” body which does not engage in “political advocacy.” This is a fallacy. As BOE member Courtney Winkfield argued in opposition, “education in the United States right now is one of the most political things that you can be involved in.”

It was a political decision for the BOE to assume that criticism of Israel is any less objective than support for, or “neutrality” to the violence Israel is inflicting on Gaza. It was political for them to ignore research by international law and human rights organizations and scholars, and it was political of them to vote against the anti-Zionist position of the diverse majority of community members.

This decision effectively sets back much-needed racial justice efforts in the South Orange-Maplewood district. It sets a dangerous precedent that advocacy for oppressed communities is something teachers should not engage in, even when they and their students are part of these communities. And it helps Zionists continue to speak on behalf of all Jews, invalidating the experiences of many anti-Zionist Jews in the process, in a moment when many of us are risking our security to say “Not in our name” and demanding an end to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

Many Maplewood and South Orange residents depict our community as one that is diverse and progressive. The BOE’s decision to punish free speech, as expressed by MAPSO Freedom School, sets back vital efforts to make those values a reality in our schools, and lays a foundation for any SOMA resident or group who supports Palestinians or other oppressed communities to be targeted next, or for any school district in New Jersey to follow in this repressive campaign.

Sam Carliner is a freelance journalist with a focus on U.S. foreign policy, geopolitics, and international struggle. His writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, Responsible Statecraft, Salon, Truthout, Waging Nonviolence, and other publications. He previously managed social media at the feminist antiwar organization CODEPINK. Currently he writes and edits for Left Voice, with a focus on international coverage. Follow him on Twitter: @saminthecan.

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