June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Yearbook Scuffle Highlights Longstanding Antisemitism in East Brunswick Schools

A photo in the East Brunswick High School yearbook of the Muslim Student Association that appeared under the heading of the Jewish Student Union.

Jewish students in East Brunswick have long been victimized by systemic antisemitism in the district, which has only intensified since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, according to Jewish students and parents in the township.

Jewish students said they had been called such slurs as “kikes” and “Zionist b———,” had pennies thrown at them, had been confronted in hallways with the question, “Are you a Jew?” and had “Heil Hitler” shouted at them.

These comments came from interviews conducted by The Jewish Link before the June 6 board of education meeting, and from testimony from the long meeting held in the wake of a controversy in which a photo of the Muslim Student Association was substituted for a photo for the Jewish Student Union in the 2024 East Brunswick High School (EBHS) yearbook, and the names of Jewish students removed.

In response, Superintendent Dr. Victor Vasleski announced that the board had hired a special counsel, Yaacov Brisman of Passaic, to conduct an investigation to determine if there was intentional “erasure” of the Jewish students, as many in the Jewish community believe, or if it was accidental. The investigation would begin immediately with the expectation it will be wrapped up by the end of the school year. He vowed if found to be intentional there would be consequences.

Valeski opened the June 6 meeting by acknowledging at a minimum it was “a gross lack of oversight,” which he called “unacceptable.

“I want to assure everyone we have taken the commentary, the passion, the anger, we have taken it seriously,” he said. “This should have never happened and we have to have safeguards in place to make sure it never happens again.” Students were requested to turn in their yearbooks the next day when the offending page would be replaced with one having the correct photo, with the rest of the yearbook remaining intact to preserve classmate signatures already gathered. The mix-up was discovered on the afternoon of June 4.

Several leaders of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey attended the meeting and in a statement released the next day said, “Many of the hundreds of attendees present at the meeting shared among themselves afterward and during the public comment period of the meeting, that they wondered why the superintendent was not sharing details of the internal investigation and why an external investigation was needed.”

The Federation reiterated its call for the investigation to obtain copies of the “final draft” presented to the student committee for approval by faculty advisors, the production file transmitted to the printer, the printer’s proof transmitted back to the school for review and the approval from its contact giving the “go-ahead” to print the yearbooks.

Both Jewish and Muslim students, and members of both communities, spoke about the gaffe in a public session that went on for hours, with one student commenting that the halls of EBHS “are flooded with antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

The offending photo has gone viral and appeared in national news media across the country, forcing the Muslim Association to make its Instagram account private because they were receiving threatening messages, including being called terrorists and KKK members. Its members at the meeting insisted they had nothing to do with the mishap. Its president, Hasan Sayin, said the Muslim community is “completely in support” of a condemnation of antisemitism.

Some in the Muslim community said they were upset that Mayor Brad Cohen, in his initial statement, called the incident “a blatant act of antisemitism” before knowing the facts. Cohen issued a second statement June 8 in which he stated, “In no way was I ever implying that I had determined blame or intentionality,” adding he deplored the attacks against Muslims, Jews, yearbook students and advisors and school administration.

Some attending noted the antisemitism problem in East Brunswick schools had existed for some time, but had significantly worsened in recent months even without the yearbook incident and there has been little action to counter it by the administration.

David Blivaiss, who has had children and grandchildren at the high school said, “There’s been an aura of antisemitism that’s been around for 40 years. This is just the latest incident.”

Resident Michael Plawner, who brought a group of “brave” Jewish students with him, said that the previous day, students reported that an EBHS teacher claimed Jews were “overacting.” He accused the district of allowing Jews to be gaslighted and dismissed and went through a list of antisemitic incidents in East Brunswick schools dating back to 2010.

Plawner said the community rejected “the absurd and insulting” notion that “Jews were erased from the yearbook in error.

“This is yet another example of the systemic dismissal of antisemitism by the school administration,” he said. “Imagine if a trans group or an African-American club were erased in the same way. There would be no question about the severity and intent of the act. For any other group, such measures would be undoubtedly and immediately recognized as an intolerable act of hate.”

A junior speaking outside, who said her mother was fearful for her safety if she gave her name, said she has had pennies thrown at her and has had passing students tell her, “I love Hamas.”

Junior Abigail Aranovich, who has family in Israel, said she had been called a kike, has a friend who had been called a “Zionist c—,” while a girl she knew was locked in a closet at school for being a Jew “but she did not report it because we all know the administration wouldn’t do anything about it.”

She said while walking the hallways a classmate approached her shortly after the attacks and said, “Hey Jew, how’s your family in Israel? Getting what they deserve?”

Another classmate had approached her while working out at her gym after the Hamas attack and said he supported Hamas and its actions were justified, including rape.

“He stopped after I slapped him,” said Abigail, although a few months later he began harassing her again. She has not been back to her gym since.

“I’m a Jewish-American teen girl, not a kike,” she told the board.

Her mother, Irina, a native of Ukraine, said the antisemitism her daughter had experienced since Oct. 7 surprised her.

“Being from Ukraine I was used to antisemitism and persecution as a Jew in the Soviet Union,” she said. “I never expected her to experience such antisemitism and persecution now in the United States.”

Graduating senior Sydney Webber said when walking through the hallways someone yelled “Are you coming from the camps,” and other Holocaust references.

When speaking about one of her summer camp counselors who had been one of the murdered hostages, another student said, “Too bad. Just another Jew.”

Stephanie Gittleman described a “toxic environment” at the school, but said it was nothing new in the district. She had her first antisemitic encounter as an 11-year-old sixth grader from a classmate who yelled “Heil Hitler” and repeatedly directed the Nazi salute at her in class and hallways in front of teachers and cameras. She reported him twice and each time was told they would talk to him but the harassment continued unabated and she became labeled “a snitch.”

“From that I learned not to report antisemitism because the school doesn’t help and it leads to repercussions for the Jewish students,” said Stephanie. “The same trope has been repeated for all my Jewish peers who have spoken up.”

The Jewish Federation called on East Brunswick schools “to do better at seizing opportunities—in fact, the urgent need—to teach critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical skills, civics and history,” and added: “The failure to parse details to accurately reflect events as they unfolded, the muddying of issues, conflating of facts, lack of regard for timelines, blanket statements, misrepresentations, false equivalencies, and crafting narratives to conform with preconceived hypotheses or biases was on full display at the June 6 board of education meeting, on social media surrounding the yearbook incident, and in fact long before and far beyond the yearbook incident.”

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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