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EDUCATION INVESTIGATION

Lawmakers push New York officials for answers on Regents exam Israel questions

Critics have argued that the questions ignore context and mislead students about the nature of Israel's founding and expansion

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Community Service Society of New York

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) speaks on stage during Community Service Society Of New York (CSS) Powering A More Equitable New York 2022 Benefit at City Winery

Members of New York’s congressional delegation are pressing for answers from New York State Education officials about a question relating to Israel that appeared on standardized tests for New York students last month.

The issues surround a question on a recent global history and geography Regents exam, which asked students questions about changes over time in Israel’s territorial borders. The test displayed an image of the 1947 partition plan, and Israel’s 1949 and 2017 borders, asking students “which historical event most directly influenced the development” of the partition plan — prompting students to answer “the Holocaust”; and “which group benefited the most from the changes” — prompting students to answer “Zionists and Jewish immigrants.”

Jewish community critics of the questions, led by former Brooklyn Assemblymember Dov Hikind, have argued that they ignore context and mislead about the nature of Israel’s founding — that Zionism well predates the Holocaust — and that Israeli territorial expansion came in the wake of defensive wars against attacks launched by Israel’s foes.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) wrote to Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young Jr. last week about the exam, referring to it as “miseducation,” “ahistorical” and “offensive.”

Torres’ missive was followed by a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul and Education Commissioner Betty Rosa from members of New York’s Republican delegation, led by Rep. Mike Lawler and signed by Reps. Nick Langworthy, Anthony D’Esposito, Claudia Tenney, Nick LaLota , Marc Molinaro , Elise Stefanik, Brandon Williams and Andrew Garbarino. 

That letter referred to the question as “abhorrent,” “anti-Semitic” and “an attack on New York’s Jewish community,” saying that the exam “blatantly promotes hateful anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric which only fan the flames of anti-Semitism in our schools.” The lawmakers called for an investigation and accountability for those responsible for the question.

Torres, who represents the Bronx, told Jewish Insider earlier this week that he sees the exam as “insidiously anti-Israel.”

“I worry that these poorly contextualized maps, which gives the impression of having been drawn by [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement] propagandists, play into the character assassination of Israel as an aggressor with ever-expanding borders, the settler-colonialist caricature,” Torres told JI. “Second, the exam reduces Israel [to] nothing more than a response to the Holocaust. The notion that the movement for Jewish self-determination has no raison d’etre outside the Holocaust is as offensive as it is ahistorical.”

Given the “widespread misunderstanding and wilful misrepresentation” about Israel, Torres said that educators need to “take care to teach it properly,” and said he wants to see the Board of Regents and Education Department establish a task force with Jewish groups to assess how to teach about Israel. He also said he wanted to “shine a spotlight on the problem” to put the Education Department “on notice.”

While Torres did not say whether he had information about how closely the exam question reflected the full curriculum being taught in New York public schools, the congressman said broadly that he had “certainly heard reports about anti-Israel indoctrination in our institutions of higher learning that are beginning to trickle down to the K-12 level… What you will often find in American schooling is anti-Zionist indoctrination masquerading as instruction.”

The New York State Education Department told The New York Post the two questions on Israel were “designed to test students’ knowledge of geography as it relates to historical events,” and that “All exam questions are reviewed multiple times by NYS-certified teachers and State Education Department subject matter and testing specialists to ensure they are not biased, accurately measure the learning standards, and contain no errors.”

Lawler, a newly elected Republican who represents a Hudson Valley district with a sizable Jewish constituency, said in a statement that he was “appalled to see this blatantly anti-Semitic question” on the exam, arguing that it “seemingly calls into question the very right for Israel to exist” and indicates serious oversight and approval issues at the Department of Education.

“We are calling on Governor Hochul and Commissioner Rosa to open an immediate investigation into this matter, so that we can hold those responsible accountable for this heinous action,” Lawler continued. “It is imperative that we take on anti-Semitism wherever it attempts to take root and a thorough investigation into this matter should help prevent a question of this nature from ever appearing on a state Regents Exam again.”

Jewish Community Relations Council of New York CEO Gideon Taylor told JI the JCRC is “concerned” about the exam question and has been in touch with relevant state officials “to discuss the issue.”

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