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‘Peaceful Walkout’ Speaker, Flinging Antisemitic Tropes, Upends Teaneck Board of Education Meeting

On Wednesday, December 13, the Teaneck Board of Education held its first public meeting since its decision to allow students at Teaneck High School to hold a walkout in support of Palestine on November 29. Community members seized this opportunity to both voice their support for this decision and to express concerns about its implications for the Jewish students in the district—even two weeks after the walkout. Students spoke both for and against the walkout, with multiple students claiming that they had been bullied for their identity as Jews or Palestinians and/or penalized and harassed for their attendance at the walkout. The defining feature of the walkout was the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which was repeated by the students thousands of times as they walked from the high school campus to the Teaneck Municipal Green.

At the end of the first segment of public comment, which lasted approximately one hour, the Board of Education meeting ultimately imploded because of an inflammatory speech made by known antisemitic agitator Rick Whilby of Englewood. Whilby made hateful remarks that were similar in nature to the ones he made at the aforementioned Teaneck High School walkout, to which he had been invited to speak. His statements, including that Palestine should be free “by any means necessary,” support the use of extreme violence against Jews. During his remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, Whilby utilized a number of Louis Farrakhan-style antisemitic tropes as well as profane language, causing Jewish community members in attendance to stand up and leave the meeting, en masse, in protest.

In response to Whilby, Board President Sebastian Rodriguez ended public comment for everyone. He noted that “[Whilby’s speech] shows we cannot hold a stable dialogue,” and that Teaneck residents would not be able to voice their concerns for the rest of the evening. Effectively, Whilby ensured that no more attendees would be heard.

Before Whilby’s remarks, however, residents in attendance were mostly respectful to one another, keeping to the three-minute time limit for public comments and civilly addressing both the Board and the community. The turnout at the meeting appeared to be a relatively even distribution from across Teaneck’s diverse township.

Jewish community members had been urged to attend the December 13 meeting and voice their “total repudiation of the policies adopted by this Board of Education, to demand meaningful change to enable Jewish members of the public school community to feel safe and secure in their place of education” by a letter from all of Teaneck’s pulpit rabbis. Those same rabbis also made an effort to attend, including Rabbi Joel Pitkowski of Congregation Beth Sholom, who spoke eloquently about the need for open discussion and nuanced thinking when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

“Our schools should make us proud, and we need to work together to ensure that they do,” said Yigal Gross during his public comment. Gross, along with his colleagues from the newly formed Bergen County Jewish Action Committee (BCJAC), sent a letter to the Board of Education ahead of Wednesday’s meeting to make a number of suggestions related to keeping the evening civil and respectful, as well as ensuring the safety of the Jewish community members in attendance.

Throughout the duration of these public comments, it became clear that the evening was a reflection on the broader tensions that have risen in Teaneck since October 7. Speakers became emotional describing the fear they have felt, and Jewish parents of Teaneck students recounted keeping their kids from school on the day of the walkout due to the Board’s refusal to condemn hateful rhetoric on campus. Notably, remarks from both sides focused on the meaning of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a well-known pro-Palestinian slogan that, by public definition, calls for the removal of the Jewish homeland that currently sits between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Many of the students who were a part of the walkout on November 29 spoke at the Board of Education meeting and thanked Teaneck superintendent Dr. Andre Spencer for protecting their First Amendment rights to hold a “peaceful protest” on school grounds. But the blatant antisemitism expressed by Whilby begs the question: How peaceful was this protest? Is it possible that the BOE was unaware that Whilby was a speaker invited by the students to speak at their walkout?

As many of the Jewish attendees streamed out of the meeting during Whilby’s speech and subsequent ejection, video footage of the back of the meeting showed he was applauded and more derogatory comments were made by others.

Following a brief adjournment, the meeting continued with its regularly scheduled agenda with no public comment. It is not known whether Teaneck residents, parents or students will get another opportunity to make their voices heard on this topic.

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