Manhattan Beach School District Accused of Labeling Antisemitic Incident “Political Speech”

A student at Manhattan Beach Middle School (MBMS) allegedly taunted four Jewish students about the Hamas terror attack on Israel and the Manhattan Beach Unified School District (MBUSD) allegedly concluded that the student was merely engaging in “political speech.”
October 24, 2023
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A student at Manhattan Beach Middle School (MBMS) allegedly taunted four Jewish students about the Hamas terror attack on Israel and the Manhattan Beach Unified School District (MBUSD) allegedly concluded that the student was merely engaging in “political speech.” The district is also accused of asking the families of the four Jewish students to sign a gag order; the district claims that the investigation was handled properly and denied requiring anyone to sign a gag order.

The Journal obtained an email from the Jewish Community Center — Chabad of Beach Cities sent to the community on October 22. It stated, in part: “Four Jewish students at a local school in Manhattan Beach, MBMS (Manhattan Beach Middle School) were recently viciously ‘attacked’ by another student because they are Jewish. The student approached them after Hamas’s attack on Israel and said that ‘revenge is beautiful’ and ‘all Israelis and Jews should be killed’. Other threatening and horrific comments were made by this same student to other Jewish students both in and out of class. Unfortunately, we discovered vicious anti-Israeli/antisemitic social media posts by the student’s father, so we know this hate speech is coming from the student’s home.”

Kelly Ifergan, who has been in contact with one of the families of the Jewish students who were subjected to the verbal assault, and whose daughter used to attend a school in the MBUSD district, told the Journal that the offending student allegedly said that “Hamas’ attack on Israel was” and then “gave a thumbs up, smile-smile” and then said, “revenge is beautiful” three times. The offending student then nudged one of the Jewish students and accused the student of being “part of the same Israeli conspiracy,” Ifergan, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, alleged.

“These are middle school children,” Ifergan said. “How do they even get that kind of vocabulary?”

The Chabad of Beach Cities’ email added that the district investigated the matter and determined that the “comments were political and not hate speech. They closed the investigation with limited action.” The email states that the district required “the Jewish students and their parents to sign a ‘gag order’ that they will not talk to anyone in the school, out of school or on social media about the incident. This is truly outrageous. They are victimizing the victims and not focusing completely on the perpetrator. The student is still in school and continues to try to intimidate the Jewish students.”

Rabbi Yossi Mintz from the Chabad of Beach Cities told the Journal, “I’m not here to call out the school district — I know them personally, I’m very good friends with them and they’ve done a very good job — but they handled this situation poorly and they’re trying very hard now to fix it up.” Mintz, who said he just spoken with the district before talking to the Journal, accused the district of “trying to change the narrative of the story and I’m not letting them do it … They’re trying to say it was a communication between the kids — they had an interaction — which is false. There were four episodes where a kid was viciously attacked with verbal threats of killing all Israelis and killing all Jews.” The district had concluded that the student’s remarks were “political speech, not hate speech” because the student used the words “Israeli, not Jew,” according to Mintz.

Mintz also argued that the letter the school sent to the Jewish students was effectively a gag order because it told the students “that if they want to come back to continue in school, they have to sign this letter, they will not talk about it in school, out of school as well as if they do it, there will be further consequences.”

The school district “made a mistake by sending this letter,” Mintz said. “It was really a letter they usually do for bullying, but they just put this out, they just wanted to close this up.”

The Journal obtained a copy of the document; it states the students will “have no verbal, physical or social media contact, directly or indirectly” with the offending student and “will not discuss this incident with any other students … I further understand that any contact or continuation of this incident by telling other students will lead to further consequences; this includes direct or indirect contact on campus or cyberactivity.”

Ifergan told the Journal that the term the school used for the letter is a “no contact” order and called it “offensive” because it portrayed the Jewish students as the perpetrators “when that’s clearly not the case.” The offending student’s family has signed the letter, but the families of the Jewish students are refusing to sign it, Ifergan said.

The offending student “is still smirking at these kids,” Mintz alleged. “It tells the world, it tells all the kids over here that it’s okay, you can get away with it, we’ll figure out and make up a plan because we’re afraid to stand up and do anything. Basically that’s what it is: they’re afraid to stand up and call this kid out and throw [the student] out of the district.”

The offending student “is still smirking at these kids. It tells the world, it tells all the kids over here that it’s okay, you can get away with it.” –  Rabbi Yossi Mintz

The district is pushing back against the criticism they’ve been facing on the matter. “We are aware of recent allegations that have circulated regarding inappropriate interactions between students at MBMS surrounding their views on current events in the Middle East,” the district said in an October 23 statement to the Journal. “Unfortunately, much of what is being shared on social media and within the local community is not based in fact. The situation was immediately reported to school officials, and a thorough investigation took place. Student privacy laws preclude divulging specific details of investigatory findings, so we cannot comment on the specifics of the matter. However, please know that appropriate consequences have been administered based on the authority vested in schools under the California Education Code.”

The district also disputed that the “No Contact Contract” was tantamount to a gag order. “These agreements are commonly used in school districts across the country and even in universities,” the statement read. “They ask students to avoid each other and not speak to one another in order to avoid reigniting situations we are trying to resolve. This allows us to ensure that further interactions occur with adult guidance and not when students are in settings where that might not be available. The goal of these agreements is to help protect all students from any future conflicts with one another. Although the school requested that all students who were directly involved in this incident to enter into its standard ‘No Contact Contract,’ no students involved in this situation were required to sign it, nor was a gag order ever administered. Upon review, the District is updating the language of its current ‘No Contact Contract’ in order to eliminate confusion regarding its purpose and intent.”

The district’s statement concluded: “We do not tolerate any form of antisemitism or discrimination, both of which go against everything we stand for. We take pride in our schools as welcoming, safe, and inclusive places. MBUSD has adopted the United Nations definition of Antisemitism, and we have worked in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to establish all of our schools as No Place for Hate Schools. Any antisemitic speech or action adversely affects our efforts to build a strong and inclusive community and is simply not allowed.”

ADL Los Angeles Regional Director Jeffrey Abrams said in a statement to the Journal, “ADL has received multiple reports of the antisemitic targeting of Jewish students at Manhattan Beach Middle School, and have been in contact with school officials and parents. The allegations are deeply hurtful and jeopardize the safety of the learning environment. We call on MBUSD to conduct a more thorough investigation of these very serious allegations and encourage parents and students to report all incidents to school officials.”

StandWithUs CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said in a statement to the Journal, “It is shocking to hear about such violent and hateful rhetoric happening in a middle school. The school and school district must take urgent action to ensure a safe learning environment for Jewish students. At the same time, they should use this as a teachable moment by educating all students about the Jewish people and antisemitism.”

This is not the first time that MBUSD has been embroiled in controversies of antisemitism. Ifergan recounted how in December 2021, “there was a rash of swastikas” at MBUSD schools. Another swastika was found in front of a classroom where a Jewish club was held on an MBUSD campus in February 2022. The following March, Ifergan’s daughter and a couple of her friends at a MBUSD school were discussing Passover plans, when another student told them, “I’m German” and that “it’s my job to put you in the showers” and “finish the job,” Ifergan said. The offending student was reprimanded, but ultimately returned to the school and assaulted an Asian student, Ifergan alleged, and the offending student and their family eventually moved elsewhere. The district did not immediately respond to the Journal’s request for comment on these past alleged incidents.

Ifergan, who acted as a spokesperson of sorts for the students’ families in the 2022 incident and successfully got Manhattan Beach to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, has since moved to Florida after receiving hate mail and recently launched a nonprofit to fight antisemitism.

“In every instant, they’d rather it just go away,” Mintz said of the district, adding that he knows each of the district’s board members personally and that the superintendent recently returned from a trip to Israel through the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I work with them,” he said. “We do programs together. They have the most amazing Jewish club at all their schools and they promote it and support it … but in this situation they just did not do it correctly.”

UPDATE: MBUSD Superintendent John Bowes sent out an email to community members on Tuesday that was obtained by the Journal. The email read in part: “While there are inaccuracies in the information circulating, it is clear that there is still work to be done on our campuses to effectively eliminate anti-Semitism. We started that work several years ago, and I am committed to doing more. In addition to meeting with the families impacted by the incident, I am reviewing the practices surrounding the use of our ‘No Contact Contract.’ While the ‘No Contact Contract’ is a standard form, we understand that our times are not standard, and this requires us not to rely on our standard practices. After reevaluation, we have come to realize the letter was not the best tool for this circumstance, and we apologize for using it in this situation – we have learned from this experience and will look to improve our practices in the future.”

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