Fighting in Newton: Russian Jews defend Israel

In an American town, Russian Jews are running for a school committee to defend Israel

Holding a sign with Koifman's name on (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holding a sign with Koifman's name on
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the US, Russian Jews almost never get involved in local politics – they are too busy making a living, learning English, and trying to fit in.
But on November 5, three Jews with Russian accents will run for three seats on the school committee in this small town. The reason they are doing it? Because they are outraged by what children are taught in public school about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It started about eight years ago, when students were shown a map of the Middle East without Israel on it, says Galina Rosenblit, a math teacher from Belarus who is running for a seat on the committee.
Children were also shown a film in which Israeli soldiers behave like Nazis, hitting Palestinian civilians with rifle butts and ordering them to move faster, said Alex Koifman, president of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation who is also running for a seat on the committee.
Students were told that Palestinian women were raped in Israeli prisons, and given a handout with the Hamas charter on which the words “Kill Jews” were photoshopped to read “Kill Israelis,” Koifman said.
Students learned about Palestinian refugees who fled from Israel, but not about Jewish refugees who had to flee from Arab countries, even though there were actually more Jewish refugees, says Russian-speaking accountant Lev Agranovich, who is also running for school committee.
Dozens of Russian Jews have spoken out about these incidents in front of the Newton School Committee and sat at vigils outside of the meetings in recent years, but no measures were taken, despite the school superintendent and the chairwoman of the school committee both being both Jewish, said Koifman.
“Their response was a stone face,” said Koifman, who called on the town to fire the superintendent two years ago. (Superintendent David Fleishman still has the job.) “They never responded.”
So this year, the Russian-Jewish residents of Newton are changing their strategy: they are running for political office.
For Koifman, anti-Israeli bias is synonymous with antisemitism, and this is something that Russian Jews are more worried about than American Jews, he said.
“Jewish Russian-speakers are concerned about antisemitism because we are from a country of antisemitism,” he said. “We know how dangerous it is, and we speak against it here. Comparing Jewish soldiers with Nazis is real antisemitism. When you compare Israel to Nazi Germany, you are a modern-day antisemite, not just anti-Israeli.”
The Russian Jewish candidates are calling for the entire school history curriculum to be put online, so that parentsare aware about what their children are taught.
“Make it available [online] so we can see what they teach – every handout, the textbooks they are using, the movies – we want to see what kinds of movies they are showing to our kids,” Koifman said.
Newton is a town with a large Jewish population. According to various estimates, between 20 and 30 percent of Newton residents are Jewish. Interestingly, Russian is the second most-spoken language here after English, and some of the town’s Russian-speaking Jews came to America via Israel.
Newton is a town with a large Jewish population. According to census data, about a quarter of the town’s residents are Jewish. Interestingly, Russian is the second most-spoken language in Newton after English, and some of the town’s Russian-speaking Jews came to America via Israel.
School committee candidate Agranovich, who has both American and Israeli citizenship, said that the curriculum should be sensitive to the feelings of Newton residents, some of whom experienced Arab terror firsthand.
“We went through two wars in Israel, we were under rocket fire,” said Agranovich. “My cousin was killed when an Arab terrorist blew up a bomb at a bus stop. I understand that the superintendent’s position is that children should develop critical thinking skills. But I don’t want my child to memorize verses from the Koran that glorify Allah in order to understand where Muslims are coming from. I think it is wrong when there is a debate about whether Jerusalem is or is not the capital of Israel. I am also opposed to campaigns to boycott Israel. I think they shouldn’t invite speakers who call for a boycott of Israel.”
He suggested that if there is anti-Israeli bias in Newton schools, then it must be a problem in other schools too.
“It’s part of a larger problem,” he said. “If it happens in Newton, it can happen everywhere.”
All three of the Russian-Jewish candidates moved to the United States from the capital of Belarus, and all three have spent time in the Israeli military – Koifman and Rosenblit as volunteers, and Agranovich in active service.
Rosenblit – who is hoping to defeat the chairwoman of the school committee,  Ruth Goldman, in the upcoming election – returned from two weeks in the Israeli army just last month.
She said it’s a pity that Israeli Jews are not more concerned about the anti-Israeli bias in schools.
“Even the Israelis who live here (in America) are not as sensitive to antisemitism” as Russian Jews, she said. “The Israelis say, ‘We are used to it that no one likes us.’ They are like, ‘Our children will graduate and go back to Israel.’ They don’t understand what we went through.”
One of the things Rosenblit went through back in the Soviet Union was having to deal with an unpleasant situation her daughter faced on the gymnastics team.
“One day they asked her about her ethnicity, and she said ‘Jewish.’ The other kids started giggling. She said that the attitude of the other children toward her changed after that,” Rosenblit said.
“We are not running as a block. We all have different issues we are running on," she explained. " All the issues I am concerned with are the ones I have campaigned on - openly and honestly - to everyone. My issues, as the only teacher who is running for school committee are: Improvement of Newton school academic achievements; developing and implementing proactive drug prevention policy; and the elimination of hate that no child should have to fear being targeted.“
Since not all Newton residents are concerned about defending Israel, the Russian-Jewish candidates are also campaigning on other issues.
Agranovich supports the proposal that school should start an hour later, to give high-school students an extra hour of sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and leads to psychiatric problems for teenagers, he said. As a professional accountant, he also believes that he can improve the schools’ finances.
Koifman supports a stronger stance against drug use. He suggested that it might be a good idea to bring dogs into schools to sniff out drugs from lockers as they do in airports.
Rosenblit has worked as a teacher her entire life, and if she is elected she would be the only teacher on the school committee. She would also like teachers to take a more proactive role with regard to the prevention of drug-use among teenagers – her only nephew passed away from a drug overdose on his 24th birthday. Rosenblit said that perhaps school trips to the cemetery, to visit the graves of young people who died from drugs, might work as a powerful deterrent against drug use.
She is cautious about openly declaring that the No. 1 reason she is running is because of antisemitism in schools. Saying so, she said, would not get her elected.
School committee chairwoman Ruth Goldman did not respond to an email seeking a comment for this story. School committee member Matthew Miller, who is also a board member at Temple Beth Avodah, a Reform synagogue in Newton, did not respond to questions about the anti-Israeli bias in the curriculum. He sent a single-sentence in reply to the allegation that the school committee always votes unanimously.
“It’s not true at all,” he wrote.