Schools Chancellor David Banks testifies in Congress about antisemitism in NYC schools

NYC school chancellor David Banks testifies at City Council hearing
New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks testifies at the Education Committee Preliminary Budget hearing on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
Courtesy of New York City Council.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill grilled NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks on Wednesday, wanting to know what he had done to combat antisemitism in the city’s public school system—the largest in the nation. 

Members of Congress asked Banks about several high-profile antisemitic incidents that had taken place in New York City public schools since the start of the Israel – Hamas war on Oct. 7, 2023. 

Leaders from two other large school districts in the country, Berkeley, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md., were also on the panel to address the rise in antisemitism, which has surged nationwide since the start of the war. Public schools and universities, in particular, have been rocked by hate and bias, as well as campus unrest. 

The hearing follows testimony from the presidents of several major higher-education schools, including Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. The presidents of both schools resigned shortly after testifying, with their statements coming under heavy fire.

Antisemitism at Hillcrest High School in Queens

Lawmakers peppered Banks with questions about an incident at Hillcrest High School in Queens, when hundreds of students aggressively stormed the hallways of the school as they called for a teacher to be fired because of her support for Israel. The teenagers ran, jumped, pushed and shoved their way through the hallways, yelling for the teacher to be fired as some waved Palestinian flags. 

As the mayhem continued, the teacher, fearing for her safety, hid in a locked office, the New York Post reported. Eventually, the NYPD was brought in to get the situation under control. 

Banks explained that several students who led the mini-riot were suspended, but some Congress members became dismayed when he reported that the school’s principal Scott Milczewski, although removed from his position, is still working for the DOE in a high capacity. 

“That’s concerning to me that you have him in a senior position,” U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanick (R-New York) told Banks. “What’s very concerning about these hearings is that we’re getting lip service and a lack of enforcement and accountability.”

It is unclear what actions Milczewski took during and after the riot, but staff and politicians supported his removal from the school.

Lawmakers brought up several other high-profile antisemitic incidents involving NYC teachers, including one case in January when Rita Lahoud, a teacher at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, displayed a map of Middle East geography, leaving out Israel. 

Shortly after the incident occurred, Banks said the teacher was disciplined and the map was taken down. 

The chancellor fired back further, making it clear that only a small number of teachers have been involved in antisemitic acts. 

“I would be careful casting aspersions on an entire system. We have some teachers who have had some of these challenges, but we’ve had members of Congress who’ve made antisemitic statements. I certainly would not cast aspersions on this entire institution.”

“Hate rears its head every single day”

Though Banks was likely feeling the heat throughout the hearing, he brought up the DOE’s commitment to combating hate in the school system. 

“Hate rears its head every single day,” he said. “There’s no end to this scourge of hate. That’s why I say antisemitism doesn’t just affect Jews. It affects all of us, particularly people of goodwill. And so I stand up not only against antisemitism, I stand up against Islamophobia and all other forms of hate.”

Banks also mentioned elements of the plan he rolled out in January to tackle hate, which includes professional development for safety lessons, retraining on how to apply the discipline code and anti-discrimination workshops. 

NYC also announced in April a new curriculum designed to teach public school students about bias and hate-crime prevention