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Philly schools censored a podcast about Palestinian resistance art because of complaints of antisemitism. Now, there's pushback

Kristen A. Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — The African American history class assignment: Examine a modern-day group of indigenous or oppressed people’s use of art as an act of resistance and connect it to enslaved Black people’s use of spirituals.

Two Northeast High students chose to create a video of a podcast about Palestinian art. Their teacher gave them an A and chose it for entry into the school’s Black History Month assemblies, after clearing the video with her principal, who reached out to higher-ups in the Philadelphia School District.

After the first assembly, one Jewish teacher raised objections that the video was antisemitic, as did community groups alerted about it, and then district officials ordered the immediate removal of the video, which never mentions Jewish people, but mentions “the ongoing situation in Palestine and Israel” and uses an image of people in Muslim garb standing in front of a Palestinian flag next to people in yarmulkes in front of an Israeli flag.

The act proved to be a lightning rod, stirring voices of educators aghast at censorship, while groups including the newly formed School District of Philadelphia Jewish Family Association say that the video indicates Jewish people are oppressors and is therefore antisemitic.

Teacher Keziah Ridgeway, who assigned the project, is crushed.

“Our kids are entitled to choose what they want,” she said. “They have freedom of speech.”

What happened?

When Ridgeway told her 10th grade students about the project, she deliberately did not assign them a group to think and write about. Some chose Brazilians using Capoeira, others picked Native American resistance art.

And one student chose Palestinian art. A friend of the student’s, who’s not in Ridgeway’s class, was so excited about the assignment that he chose to participate too.

“These kids were very measured in what they created, and very respectful,” said Ridgeway.

The video begins with one of the students’ voices.

“Welcome to the Oppression Art Podcast, where we explore the profound impact of artistic expression on the resistance of oppressed and indigenous people,” it said. “In today’s episode, we delve into the historical use of art as a tool for resistance, drawing parallels between the experiences of enslaved African Americans and the ongoing situation in Palestine and Israel.”

The students go on to describe enslaved Black Americans’ spirituals and visual art, and reference murals on the separation wall between Gaza and Israel, and talking about Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s work bringing “global attention to the injustice in the region.”

Ridgeway was impressed by the final product, which described the situation as “complex,” and referenced “attempts to erase the Palestinian name.” Because the plan was to show the video at the Black History Month assembly, Ridgeway sent the video to Northeast’s principal, just in case he saw issues with it.

The veteran principal, Omar Crowder, said he saw no problems, Ridgeway said, and was also impressed by the students’ work. He sent the video to district officials to flag if they had objections, but heard nothing back.

The video aired on Feb. 21, at Northeast’s first Black History Month assembly. (The school, with 3,200 students, is so large four Black History Month assemblies were scheduled.)

After the assembly, one teacher complained to Crowder, and apparently someone shared a photo of the event, including a screenshot of the video, with others. A parent of a child who attends another district school also emailed Crowder to ask him why there was an assembly about “Palestinian resistance efforts” and request future assemblies be canceled.

Concerns were also raised to district officials, who ordered the video removed. (Ridgeway shared a copy of the video on her personal Instagram account, with the students’ permission, but she said it was an edited copy — the students edited out the image of the Palestinian and Israeli people on their own, Ridgeway said, but made no other substantial changes.)

Telling her student that his project was being killed was excruciating, said Ridgeway, who has won the district’s prestigious Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

“His first response was, ‘What did I do wrong?’” said Ridgeway, who’s a member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee. “He did nothing wrong. This is what we want students to do — to think about, to synthesize, to connect history to modern-day issues. You would think the school district would be celebrating a student that’s able to do that at the highest level.”

Concerns about the video

The district parent who asked Crowder to take down the video said they had “serious civic and legal concerns about your school’s actions taken to educate students on why ‘Palestinian resistance’ is warranted and needed.”

 

“Jewish individuals, including SDP students, are currently fighting unprecedented antisemitism, and this assembly will undoubtedly create more,” the parent wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Inquirer.

The School District of Philadelphia Jewish Family Association, in another email to Crowder, said that even if the word “Jewish” was not used in the video, the inference is that Palestinians are resisting Jewish oppressors.

“This narrative is antisemitic and dangerous,” the email said. “This misinformation stokes the flames of hate against Jewish people in America, and now, within the confines of your school.”

The Jewish Family Association said it knew of specific incidents of antisemitism, including swastikas drawn in schools, but a district spokesperson said there was no record of such incidents.

Caroline Tiger, a district parent and member of the Jewish family group, said that in the school system, “Jewish students and teachers are scared and are not being supported in their schools or by school leadership. Antisemitism is going unchecked and the climate is hostile.”

Crowder, in response to the first parent’s email, said that Northeast has “a zero-tolerance policy in regards to discrimination and we take antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry and discrimination seriously.”

Monique Braxton, a district spokesperson, responded to questions about the students’ podcast with a prepared statement that read, in part, “the violence in the Middle East region is heartbreaking” and said “we urge everyone to channel their anger, sadness and heartbreak into caring actions. We hope there will be a swift end to this crisis so that peace and healing can begin.”

Students speak out at another Black History Month assembly

Northeast’s final Black History Month assembly happened Thursday morning, without the video.

The student hosts of the assembly — the video’s creators — made a speech about the video’s removal and censorship at the point in the program where the video was shown in the first assembly. The students then continued with the program.

Shortly after the assembly, the Jewish family association sent an email to Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. and school board members, saying that Ridgeway “had students stage a protest, calling out ‘white teachers’ (Jewish) for having the ‘truth’ removed from the program.”

Ridgeway said she had no idea the students were planning to speak about the video, and did not direct them to do anything.

Members of the Jewish family organization, which has partnered with the regional Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation, told Watlington and the board that Ridgeway “cannot continue to incite violence and indoctrination against Jewish students and faculty,” a charge that Ridgeway denies.

What’s next?

With word of the Northeast incident spreading on social media, some people upset at the video’s removal have drafted letters to read to the school board. Others plan to testify at the board meeting scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

Andrew Saltz, a teacher at Paul Robeson High School, wrote to the board to implore they reverse course and apologize to the affected students.

Saltz, who is Jewish, said he was “ashamed” that a Jewish colleague engineered the removal of students’ project.

“I hope Mrs. Ridgeway’s class understands there are many Jews who may agree or disagree with their idea, but support their right to express themselves in the classroom.”

Much about the situation alarms Ridgeway, who plans to attend Thursday’s board meeting. It’s necessary, she said, to fight censorship which, she said, “is detrimental to our Palestinian students, who are not feeling heard, not feeling seen. The district is capitulating to outside people and allowing teachers who are really just centering themselves to dictate, and silencing children that are doing amazing work.”

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©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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