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Dear Decaturish – ADL and CAIR weigh in on CSD’s investigation of equity coordinator

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Dear Decaturish – ADL and CAIR weigh in on CSD’s investigation of equity coordinator

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

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The Georgia chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and Council on American-Islamic Relations shared their views on City Schools of Decatur’s recent investigation of equity coordinator Anthony Downer. He sent an email about Israel and Palestine to CSD’s central office staff, which prompted the inquiry. CSD’s investigation found Downer violated district policies and procedures. He was not terminated from his job. The investigation prompted numerous public comments at a recent school board meeting.

This post contains two letters. Anyone who wishes to respond to these letters may do so by submitting a letter to the editor to [email protected]. All letters must be signed.

To see other letters about this topic, click here.

Letter 1

Dear Decaturish,

At a packed City Schools of Decatur school board meeting last week, concerns were raised about censorship of conversations related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and how this prompted the suspension of a staff member in the equity department. That employee shared unvetted, unauthorized, and misleading political resources under the guise of education that frightened and outraged Jewish families who were reeling from the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Weaved in, too, at the meeting was dismay about the Palestinian cause not being represented in a Model Arab League extra-curricular program.

For some, these developments spurred outrage, further dividing members of the Decatur community at a time already fraught with so much pain. But there’s a much larger context to what unfolded at our local school board meeting, some 6,500 miles away from the Israel-Hamas war. My hope is that we can pull back and think about the bigger picture of where we are today and how this chapter may be weighing on your neighbors.

Jewish and Muslim communities worldwide have been rocked by the impact of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, when it massacred more than 1,200 people and took 240 people hostage. Israel’s strong response, targeting Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza who are committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews, has – in turn – claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Palestinians. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the impact has included an increased number of threats against both Jewish and Muslim communities, per the FBI and ADL.

It’s believed that more than 130 people are still being held as hostages by Hamas and others in Gaza. Thousands of residents of Gaza have been killed in the fighting since Hamas started this war in part because the terrorist organization uses their people as human shields and builds their military infrastructure within schools and hospitals in violation of international law. Hamas, who regularly targets civilians in its attacks, celebrates the deaths of Jews and Palestinians alike and will not stop until its murderous and malignant rule is thoroughly defeated, much like ISIS or Al Qaeda.

None of this is hyperbole.

Since this war began, we have experienced a frightening and unprecedented surge in antisemitic incidents here in the United States. Between October 7 and December 7, ADL recorded a total of 2,031 antisemitic incidents, up from 465 incidents during the same period in 2022, representing a 337-percent increase year-over-year. That’s nearly 34 incidents a day, on average. More than half of the total incidents could be clearly linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

This includes 40 incidents of physical assault over the span of two months, which is terrifying when you consider that this number is usually in single digits for an entire year. We should all be gravely concerned when hate goes from speech to violence.

There were about 250 antisemitic incidents that specifically targeted Jewish institutions such as synagogues and campus Hillels. And on college and university campuses, ADL has recorded a total of 400 antisemitic incidents, compared to only 33 incidents during the same period in 2022.

Let me give you more of a sense of what this sort of hate looks like. This past weekend, more than 200 Jewish institutions received false bomb threats across the country, Georgia included. In Athens, a student at UGA was allegedly assaulted by an individual who said, “You Israeli, I’m going to murder you and all your family.” And a group of white supremacists laser-projected antisemitic messages reading, “This land is our land!!! Heil Hitler” on an I-75 overpass in Kennesaw, and “Jews worship Satan and control your media” on downtown’s CNN Center.

It’s not just the Jewish community that’s suffering, though. We know reports are also flooding in about incidents of hate targeting Muslim, Palestinian and Arab American individuals. We were horrified, angered, and heartbroken after the October murder in Illinois of a young Palestinian-American boy, reportedly killed by his landlord who was angry about Hamas’s attack on Israel.  And we shared in the outrage after three college students of Palestinian descent, two of whom were wearing kaffiyehs at the time, were shot and seriously injured while walking near the University of Vermont campus.

Through all of this, we need to remind ourselves that this is the United States. Our pluralism has always been our strength.

There is simply no excuse for hate crimes against Arab, Palestinian, or Muslim people, just like there is no excuse for antisemitism. None of this is normal. No one should think this is okay.

This is a moment that demands reflection on our shared humanity. This is 2023, not 1933. It is incumbent upon all of society to push back against antisemitism and other forms of hate.

This is a painful period. People feel afraid. People feel abandoned. People feel targeted by heated words at school board meetings.

It is going to take some time to process the trauma those of us close to this are living through. Denying the atrocities of Hamas is not going to help. Denying the legitimacy of the state of Israel or its right to self-defense will not help. Denying the right of Palestinian self-determination will not help. And demonizing Jewish parents and students – or Muslim parents and students – will not help.

Our actions and words today will shape what’s to come for our children and ourselves. Do you want a future fueled by fear and division, or one where we come together to promote respect? I know I look forward to the day when our school board meetings and community can focus again on the shared values that bind us here at home.

— Eytan Davidson, ADL Southeast Regional Director and a City Schools of Decatur Parent

Letter 2 

Dear Decaturish,

Since October 7, we have seen horrors that we might not think imaginable. Almost no one in our community has been left unaffected in some way.

The numbers may feel familiar at this point, but they bear repeating as they are so shocking. Since the Hamas attacks on October 7, where an estimated 1,140 Israelis were killed, over 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, and over 50,000 injured in Gaza in attacks that international experts are calling a genocide. Nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes, and the terror has disproportionally fallen on civilians, who have made up over 90% of the casualties.

These last months have been hard on us all, especially those in the Jewish and Palestinian communities who have faced watching loved ones in the lines of danger. Sadly, those in the Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian communities have also faced compounding traumas as we have also watched our political leaders argue against ending the violence and dehumanizing our people. In fact, this dehumanization has had tragic effects right here in the United States, and even right here in Decatur.

In a dangerous political atmosphere reminiscent of the post-9/11 era we have seen repressive calls for the investigation of student activists, the broad censorship of views critical of Israel, and a massive wave of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian hate. In the first eight weeks after October 7, CAIR received 2,171 requests for help and reports of bias, a 172% increase over a similar two-month period the previous year nationally. While there have been the high-profile and tragic stories such as six-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume’s murder in Chicago, the shooting attack on Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad in Vermont, simply for wearing keffiyehs, there are thousands of other examples that have not received wide attention but have contributed to an atmosphere where the Muslim community feels under assault.

In Georgia, anti-Muslim cases jumped by 1200% as compared to October and November of 2022. Reports include the physical assault of a Muslim UGA student, doxing and harassment of Muslim students at Emory by pro-Israel alumni, threats of beating and beheading of a 13-year-old by a Social Studies teacher, and widespread bullying of Muslims and Arabs at school and at work.

Notably, the hatred and targeting aren’t limited to Muslims nor Palestinians who speak out — harassment and doxing of a Black Christian pastor, haranguing and accusations of Nazism against Jewish activists by a sitting member of Congress, and doxing of Jewish Emory student activists have also been reported.

The chilling effect, which many have likened to the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s, has absolutely extended to our local community here.

Under pressure from pro-Israel voices in the community, the City Schools of Decatur recently suspended Equity Coordinator Anthony Downer for sharing resources pertaining to the Israeli attack on Gaza and pulled a Decatur High School team who were supposed to represent Palestine in a Model Arab League tournament. These two cases point to the larger trend CAIR has seen across the country where Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians, and anyone who speaks up for Palestine is held to a different standard where the freedoms we come to expect, such as the freedom of speech, do not apply.

These decisions not only impact Mr. Downer and the students of Decatur High School who were denied a unique opportunity to represent Palestine, but they also send a message to the broader community that merely speaking about Palestine is somehow biased and even dangerous. And this message has consequences that are being felt in the community by Muslims and others

As part of the multifaith, multiracial, and multigenerational Atlanta Multifaith Coalition for Palestine, CAIR-Georgia is deeply familiar with the silencing of people of all backgrounds who are demanding a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and a lasting and just peace between Israel and Palestine. Learning and educating about a humanitarian crisis and human rights should not be controversial.

A Decatur parent at the last City of Decatur school board meeting asked the board if, by penalizing Anthony Downer and attempting to chill speech about Palestine, Decatur schools could truly claim to have educators equipped to teach a balanced view of the situation.

One Muslim Decatur parent shared at the same meeting, “I’ve always thought of Decatur as a safe haven, but in the last two months, I’ve been called a terrorist, an antisemite, an animal and other horrific names for simply asking others to remember their humanity . . . I’ve never felt more afraid and silenced than I have living as a Muslim in the city of Decatur in 2023.”

This quote should stop all of us in our tracks. As a city that prides itself on nurturing a sense of community, our decision-makers have sent an opposite message: you will be punished for trying to educate for peace, and silenced when it comes to discussing hard issues. What the City of Decatur now must contend with is what kind of community it wants to create — one that is unafraid to seek and teach truth and foster honest conversations, or one that cowers to the loudest voices.

— Azka Mahmood, Executive Director, CAIR-Georgia

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