This week, a high school librarian in my kids’ school district was forced to take down a quote from his door by revered Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” the quote included, excerpting Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Why was the quote taken down? It wasn’t considered fair and balanced.
While this may seem shocking to many people, this type of bigotry has become far too normalized in my community.
When we moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania 12 years ago, we were hoping to enjoy good schools, proximity to family and easy access to both NYC and Philly. What we didn’t anticipate was landing directly in the center of the “Culture Wars.”
As a purple county in a purple state, Bucks County has been the focal point of both political parties for every major (and minor) election. Presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial candidates have regularly traveled to our area to deliver speeches, lead rallies and even attend high school football games.
While I do love a good spotlight, all of this attention can quickly become disruptive — particularly when it involves our children.
Last year, three far-right candidates were elected to our school board, two of whom are members of Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that has campaigned against COVID restrictions in schools, the inclusion of LGBTQ rights and mentions of race in curriculums, and has led several book banning efforts. From the moment they were elected, these members have set their sites on targeting our LGBTQ kids.
First it was book bans clearly focused on LGBTQ-themed books; then there were directives to not use student’s pronouns or names; then there were administrative decisions to unfairly punish staff who speak out against these discriminatory directives. The situation has become so extreme that the ACLU stepped in and filed a formal complaint against our district, claiming that Central Bucks is creating a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students. Due to the complaint, our district is currently being investigated by the Federal Department of Education.
Yet, amidst all of this negative attention, the school board has seemed to only ramp up their attacks. Despite massive public outcry, the district recently passed Policy 321, which aims to promote a culture of “neutrality” by banning teachers from engaging in “advocacy activities” (defined as the use of speech, conduct or symbols to support or oppose a particular point of view or belief about partisan, political or social policy issues or matters), including things like displaying Pride flags in the classroom. It was later discovered that this policy was written in coordination with a far-right Christian hate group.
It’s this policy that was cited in taking down the teacher’s Wiesel quote.
It’s not surprising that this dangerous policy was influenced by a hate group. Through all of the advocacy work I’ve done over the last few years, I’ve learned that hate is always connected. Events like Charlottesville’s Unite the Right Rally, which targeted a long list of minorities (including Jews), made this network of hate even more clear. These connections are one of the many reasons that it’s so important that we, as Jews, are strong allies to other marginalized communities.
Policy 321 is another clear example of how hatred and bigotry can spread. While the school board’s primary focus may have been on making the LGBTQ community invisible, their “neutrality” policy actually impacts every vulnerable population, including us Jews. Besides the district removing the Wiesel quote, my daughter’s middle school has also suspended its membership to the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place For Hate” campaign, a program of inclusive curriculum, activities and signs designed to make Jewish kids and other minorities feel safe in school.
The thing is, it’s actually fitting that they stopped this program, because our kids don’t feel safe in school. At every single school board meeting I’ve attended over the last few years (and there have been many!), LGBTQ and Jewish kids have spoken about the bullying they’ve received in our district and the lack of support they’ve received from the administration. To make matters worse, at one school board meeting, an openly antisemitic man was allowed to make hateful comments about Jews. When I tried to get the board to stop him, they threatened to remove me.
Why did they let him speak? Why did they remove the Elie Wiesel quote? Why have they banned Pride flags? Because they refuse to take a stand. Because they believe they’re being “neutral.” If they actually read the Wiesel quote — and really took in what he was saying — they would see how “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” They would see how our kids are feeling vulnerable and afraid. They would see how us parents feel helpless to protect them. They would see how their culture of neutrality isn’t neutral at all.
After major public outcry, the teacher was told he could put the quote back up on his door, but with this policy in place, we can be sure more incidents like this will keep happening.
It’s easy to sink into feelings of hopelessness. It feels like no matter what we say or how many community members show up to meetings, or which national agencies are investigating our district, this far-right board is hellbent on fanning the flames of the culture war at our kids’ expense.
While I try my best to fight for our kids no matter what, that feeling of helplessness is a dangerous deterrent from action. But, just when I was at my lowest, an amazing thing happened: A hero came along. Or rather, about 100 heroes.
This past Tuesday, our teachers, who have previously been reluctant to make a vocal stand against the administration (due to valid fears of retribution), stood up en masse against Policy 321.
Replying to @ctkat6 HISTORICAL! Today CBSD teachers and the Central Bucks (PA) community protested Policy 321 that banned Pride flags in schools. #cbsd #schoolboard #savecbsd #saveourschools #dontsaygaylaw #culturewarsisjustbigotry #lgbt🌈 #Policy321 #k12 #letteachersteach
Standing there on the sidewalk, next to teachers and community members, I felt a wave of optimism rise up in me. Yes, it’s difficult to be a parent in this district, to know that our LGBTQ kids are the target of hate, even by their own administration. But I am not on the front line. The teachers are. And if they can find the strength to risk their livelihood and job security for our kids, then we all should be brave enough to take a stand. Future school board elections are a great place to start.