February 24, 2024
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Teaneck High School Students Stage Walkout for Palestine

Over the weekend, a group of students at Teaneck High School announced on social media platforms that they would be staging a walkout in support of Palestine, specifically in opposition to the ongoing “genocide,” at some point during school hours. The following day, the students revealed the walkout was “approved by [school] board” and would take place on Wednesday, November 29, during fourth period at approximately 1:30 p.m. In response to this news, many community members in Teaneck reached out to the Board of Education to prevent the event from occurring, with the hopes of protecting Teaneck’s Jewish students from feeling bullied or intimidated while on campus, as many have reported they have been uncomfortable in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on October 7.

In response to the requests to cancel the walkout at Teaneck High School, the Board of Education sent out a statement early Tuesday which reaffirmed the students’ right to demonstrate in support of Palestine, citing First Amendment rights and ensuring the walkout would remain “peaceful.” The letter, which was signed by superintendent Dr. Andre Spencer, noted that students have the “right to express themselves,” and that the demonstration would still reflect “the district’s intolerance for any bigotry, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

With the board’s initial refusal to cancel the pro-Palestine walkout, Teaneck community leaders stepped forward to demand action. “The superintendent and school board should be taken to task for promoting hate and division,” wrote CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey Jason Shames via LinkedIn on Tuesday. “Their positions and intentions on the Jewish community are clear and offensive. Would students be encouraged to let the KKK or another hate group march? There is a double standard on hate and fostering students to be co-opted should be seen as unacceptable.”

Dozens of Teaneck rabbis and heads of schools subsequently signed open letters to the entire community, urging everyone to join together at a rally at the Municipal Green on Tuesday evening.

“We ask the entire Teaneck community, and especially our friends and neighbors of every walk of life, to join together at the Municipal Green at 8 p.m. this evening, Tuesday, November 28, to call for the immediate removal of this libelous and hateful protest from taking place on school grounds and during school hours tomorrow,” read the letter from 13 prominent Teaneck rabbis. “We demand that the superintendent and Board of Education prevent this grotesque and overt antisemitism in public school.”

Signs at rally. (Credit: Tzvi Allen Fishman)

“We understand and appreciate the desire and need for students to express themselves, especially in response to global events that stir their passions and shape their worldviews,” stated the letter from the local heads of school. “However, we must also acknowledge the limitations that exist within the school environment. Recent rallies, unfortunately, have taken an alarming turn, with instances of antisemitism and violence that we must not ignore … By allowing this rally during school hours, the superintendent has allowed the Teaneck Public Schools to become an environment where Jewish students’ safety is at risk.”

The Tuesday evening rally at the Municipal Green, which was planned in part by the Bergen County Jewish Action Committee (BCJAC), garnered a crowd of about 1,000 community members. A variety of speeches from local leadership as well as students, emceed by Rabbi Daniel Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, addressed the ongoing antisemitism at Teaneck schools and apparent bias demonstrated by the Board of Education.

“We were told not to send out a message offering support to other students after Israeli lives were lost,” said one Jewish Teaneck High School student at the rally. “Really? We can’t express sadness over death? Over murder? Just because they’re Jewish or Israeli? I find that so horrific.”

Hillary Kessler-Godin, a Teaneck High School parent, echoed the hardships that Jewish students are currently facing. “My daughters have been called white supremacists and Nazis, and have been told they are not wanted at gatherings,” she said. “There has been silence from district leadership about the antisemitism surging through students’ social media at Teaneck High. Silence! The antisemitism must be called out by administrators; it must be condemned and it must be followed by education and consciousness-raising of the harm that it is doing to this community.”

One of Teaneck’s newest councilmembers and a Teaneck High School graduate, Hillary Goldberg, also spoke passionately about the planned walkout in support of Palestine. Rabbi Michael Taubes, a RIETS rosh yeshiva and the rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Zichron Mordechai, as well as a lifelong Teaneck resident, concluded the event with a stirring and emotional speech. (See sidebar for the full speech transcripts of Goldberg and Taubes).

After an emotional evening, the Teaneck Board of Education released a second statement late Tuesday night amending its first letter, which reasserted that the planned walkout would remain a “peaceful demonstration,” but that students who miss school for it would be held accountable. The letter noted that as per school
policy, any student who attends the demonstration during scheduled class time will receive a zero on coursework and an unexcused absence.

At 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 29, a group of about 100 students filed onto the football field at Teaneck High School to begin the walkout. Student leaders handed out pro-Palestine posters demanding a “ceasefire now” and began chanting as the group marched across the field. The chants included many anti-Israel sentiments, including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which students continued to shout as they left the school campus at approximately 2:30 p.m.

Outside of the school building, in accordance with the school’s rule that only students and teachers may enter campus, a small group of protesters on both sides appeared to show their support. As the walkout unfolded, tensions rose between the pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups, and police officers broke up confrontations that seemed to become dangerous. The high school was monitored by Teaneck Police for the entire duration of the walkout, and police accompanied the group of students as they walked down Teaneck Road and Cedar Lane, and as they approached the Teaneck municipal building for a closing rally.

At the Municipal Green, where Jewish community members had gathered in opposition to the walkout just the previous evening, the Teaneck High School students and some other pro-Palestine protesters heard from a series of activists and lay leaders. Notably, a teacher at the high school who had marched with her students spoke to the crowd, stating that she is “proud of [the students] for sticking up for humanity.”

One of the speakers, Rick Whilby of Englewood, riled the crowd up with an inflammatory speech calling Jews “not real semites,” and more shockingly, inciting people to “free Palestine by any means necessary.” His hate for Israel and its supporters was met with cheers from the crowd. Over the course of the remaining speeches, the group shrank to a couple dozen people and eventually the area in front of the municipal building had cleared.

As of press time, there have been no public reactions from members of the Teaneck Board of Education or other municipal leaders to the outcome of Wednesday’s walkout.

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