July 22, 2024
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Suit Charges Cherry Hill Schools With Encouraging ‘Hostile Antisemitic Environment’

The “astounding indifference” of school officials toward a Jewish high school student who was repeatedly assaulted, threatened and harassed for documenting the antisemitic actions of other students has triggered a federal lawsuit against the Cherry Hill Public Schools (CHPS) by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

A federal lawsuit filed by the Zionist Organization of America charges that administrators encouraged “a hostile antisemitic environment” at Cherry Hill High School East.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Camden on behalf of Inna Bolotina and Marc Fink, the parents of L.B., a student at Cherry Hill High School East (CHHSE) whose name was not included because he is a minor. It names as defendants the Cherry Hill Board of Education, CHHSE, Acting Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kwame Morton, CHHSE Principal Dennis Perry and Assistant Principal Aaron Edwards.

 

The suit alleges the school and administrators encouraged a “hostile antisemitic environment” in violation of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Civil Rights Act, said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, in a phone conversation with The Jewish Link. In addition to the named state law violations, the complaint makes federal constitutional and statutory claims that the ZOA believes should be decided by a federal court.

 

Barbara Wilson, a spokesperson for Cherry Hill schools, said the district could not comment on pending litigation.

 

The complaint alleges that immediately after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, several students showed up at the high school wearing keffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags, and shouting “Free Palestine.”

 

To L.B. and other Jews at the school these actions “right after the Hamas massacre were openly, purposefully and deliberately signaling their support for Hamas, its terrorism and violence against Jews, and its genocidal goal of destroying the Jewish State of Israel,” states the suit, which also notes L.B. has a strong Jewish identity and support of Israel is an integral part of that identity. He spent three months in the spring of 2023 studying in Israel.

 

L.B. documented the conduct of the pro-Palestinian students by posting videos of them on social media, which was legal and didn’t violate district policies, a point acknowledged by district officials to L.B. and his parents. The suit charged school officials infringed on L.B.’s rights of free speech by its punitive actions.

 

It also contends district officials knew that a group of students threatened to jump L.B. because of his social media posts but took no steps to protect him even though they were aware they were legally obligated to do so.

 

Instead, they ignored the threat and blamed L.B. for instigating it, which ”exacerbated the hostile antisemitic environment, by targeting and retaliating against L.B.; wrongly and undeservedly punishing him, without affording him even a modicum of the due process to which he is entitled under the law and under Defendants’ own rules and policies; and subjecting L.B. to disparate treatment, harshly and undeservingly disciplining L.B. in violation of their own rules and policies, while downplaying and even ignoring the conduct of L.B.’s antisemitic attackers and showing them unwarranted leniency,” according to the suit.

 

Jeffrey Schreiber of the East Brunswick law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein, who is handling the case for the ZOA, said not only did officials fail to protect L.B. but “coddled antisemitic terrorist-supporting thugs.” After L.B. was attacked while eating lunch with his friends, Schreiber said the student was suspended for “the crimes of being Jewish in public and having the temerity to expect that the district would follow its policies and protect its Jewish students.”

 

While other Jewish students were intimidated and made to feel unsafe by the actions of the pro-Palestinian students, only L.B. recorded and shared videos, said Schreiber, perhaps making him the easiest target.

 

The suit asks that, in addition to punitive damages and reimbursement of court and attorney fees, the court mandate the defendants take all reasonable steps to end L.B.’s harassment, eliminate the hostile environment he has been enduring, prevent its recurrence, rescind “the wrongful and baseless suspension” and expunge information about it from his record. It also requests that the defendants inform the CHHSE community that in the future they will publicly condemn, investigate and punish conduct that threatens or harasses the Jewish community on the basis of its religion, ethnicity or ancestry and provide compulsory education to students, staff, and administrators at CHHSE and other district schools about antisemitism in all its forms—including related to Israel——using the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.

 

“With antisemitism surging, including in New Jersey, CHPS’s indifference to the fear, pain and suffering of L.B. and other Jewish students is unconscionable, particularly after Hamas committed the worst mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust,” ZOA National President Morton A. Klein and Tuchman said in a statement. “Instead of making it clear to the community that there would be zero tolerance for actions that seemingly celebrated Hamas’ massacre and made Jewish students feel unsafe, the district not only tolerated the conduct but also indulged it. Worse, they outrageously painted L.B. as a wrongdoer who was asking for it. No one asks to be assaulted, threatened or harassed at their school based on their Jewish identity or for any other reason. It was up to CHPS to put a stop to that conduct and hold L.B.’s assailants accountable.”

 

Schreiber said he felt so strongly about the case he filed the motion while on vacation in Italy, relating what L.B. experienced to his own childhood brushes with antisemites while growing up in Edison. Although he attended Jewish day school, during the summer he and some other observant students would attend special enrichment courses offered by the township. Because their kippahs gave them away as being Jewish, other youngsters would taunt them with slurs like “kike” and throw pennies.

 

Noting his mother lost virtually her entire family in the Holocaust, Schreiber decided he wasn’t going to take it and stood up to the bullies, getting into two fights. He believes it is now time for the community to use whatever legal means necessary to stand up to its attackers.

 

“We live in a country of laws and we should be using them in court,” he said. “We’re not going to take their crap anymore. What alternative do we have?”

 

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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