My students rioted after I said, 'I stand with Israel.' Here's how we came together after.

As teachers, we try to impart to young people that life often defies binary delineations. As Jews, we can be heartsick and horrified over the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the death, suffering and capture of hundreds of Israelis and now, as the war drags on, thousands of innocent Palestinians.

We can demand the release of Israeli hostages and fight for humanitarian aid for Gazans now starving. We can fight against hate and for free expression. We can embrace security, freedom and self-determination for both peoples.

What is not up for debate is this: our basic humanity. That goes for students, and for the adults who guide them.

Two days after the Hamas massacre, one of us (Karen Marder, a teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York) attended a vigil with others who were devastated by the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust.

Karen: News of the torture, rape and slaughter of young people at a music festival especially disturbed me. I saw their zest for life in my own young adult children and the thousands of students I’d taught over more than two decades. I posted a photo on Facebook of myself holding a sign reading, “I stand with Israel.” That act, in the hours after the Hamas assaults, would lead to a devastating response from students I care about deeply.

Several of Karen’s students circulated screenshots of the photo and called for a riot targeting her. On Nov. 20, hundreds of students stormed the hallway and tried to get into her classroom, cursing and threatening, and calling for her to be fired. Karen was elsewhere in the building but watched all of this on monitors, and she later saw videos that students shared online. In a cruel irony, the lesson she had planned to teach on the day of the riot was about hate crimes.

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I met with my students to talk about our shared humanity

Karen: I had a choice to transfer to a different school. I stayed to use the experience to connect, to listen, learn, debunk misinformation and combat intolerance. The day I returned to school, a Palestinian friend (a fellow teacher) and I met with students. I answered their questions and shared my feelings. I repeated the hurtful, threatening and untrue things that students had said during the riot and on social media − helping them connect with my humanity, and their own. Many of my students hugged me and apologized for what had occurred.

For me, it was difficult to go back to work. What happened to me was frightening and horrible and something that no teacher, staff member or student should have to experience, particularly in a school building.

Dealing with that trauma and the press surrounding it is a long process, one that will take time to heal. However, I went back because I knew one thing: I HAD to talk with my students. I had to make them understand the context of my post and why it was posted when it was.

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I had to listen. I had to understand what messages they were absorbing and where they were coming from. I had to answer their questions, address their fears and confusions and simply be there.

Further, I had to show them that I wasn’t going to run away, even though some of them behaved inappropriately. They had to see, through my actions, that I would not give up on them, that I’d keep coming in, again and again.

That said, those conversations were not easy. Trust, once breached, must be earned back. Teachers must model so much for students: forgiveness, active listening, acknowledging wrongs and sitting with uncomfortable feelings. We don’t have to paint things as black or white, right or wrong. We humans can see nuance, shades of gray, areas of commonality among difference. This is what gives me hope as a teacher navigating the challenging world of school and students, but also, for the situation between Israel and Palestine. There is another path forward for all humans: one of peace, negotiation and decency. As teachers, we can start our students on that road.

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza protest in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on April 7, 2024.
Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza protest in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on April 7, 2024.

As acts of hate against Muslims and Jews have surged in recent months, and as the culture wars have targeted people for their race, sexual orientation and gender identity, people have become scared. We hear this from teachers all the time.

Karen’s experience and her response show a way forward. Schools must be safe and welcoming spaces − safe from physical violence and safe for people regardless of who they are.

Education can help us build empathy

That means acts of antisemitic and anti-Arab hate must be addressed, not ignored. But we need more than that. Education is about knowledge, of course, but knowledge is more than memorizing facts. It involves critical thinking, empathy and deepening understanding of and respect for diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Karen: I didn’t hide. And neither should others. If something is brewing, we must act, not pretend it will go away.

That’s what Karen’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, did days before the riot and that is what New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks has pledged to do.

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In our public schools and our public squares, we must responsibly exercise our right to free speech; combat hate, intolerance and misinformation; and foster respectful discussions and debates even, and perhaps especially, about challenging topics.

Karen’s actions are a ray of light in our hope for a peaceful solution to this most intractable of conflicts, anchored in our shared values of empathy and basic humanity.

Karen Marder is a teacher in Queens, New York. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NY teacher said, 'I stand with Israel.' Her students rioted