A cherished tradition at Public School 261 in Boerum Hill, the heart of gentrified Brooklyn, is the annual march to Borough Hall in honor of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Children prepare for weeks, making signs denouncing racism, homophobia, climate upheaval and other expressions of social and ecological pox. So the disappointment was pervasive this year, when the march was canceled and replaced by an assembly in the cafeteria.
The catalyst for the change was the uproar that emerged after a social media post, nine months old, from Qatar Foundation International, resurfaced with a picture of a P.S. 261 classroom featuring a colorful resource map of North Africa and the Middle East. It was pinned to the wall under a handwritten sign that read: “Arab World.”
Last week, an article in The Free Press, a media site that has positioned itself against what it considers the enemies of free speech, called attention to what was missing from this geography. Algeria, Yemen, Sudan were among the nations that appeared on the poster. Israel did not. Instead, the region was called Palestine.
The map had been used in a class on Arab art and culture for 12 years. But in this tinderbox of a historical moment, the fact of it blasted into wide view largely via The New York Post, which published an article with the headline “Brooklyn Public School Omits Israel From Qatar-Funded Classroom Map, Labels It Palestine.”
A follow-up in The Post later that day focused on the outrage of local officials. Dan Goldman, the Democratic congressman whose district includes Boerum Hill, weighed in to say that he was “deeply concerned.” The politicians wanted to know how the city’s Department of Education signed off on a display that had brushed Israel into nonexistence.
The central office of the D.O.E. has neither the time nor necessarily the commitment to vet everything that happens in every classroom in a system that serves nearly one million children. Some wish that it did. Tova Plaut, an instructional coordinator for the department, has been especially vocal about what has happened at P.S. 261 and sees the issue as the symptom of a broader problem of “Jewish hate and erasure” in city schools, “not a one-off,” she told me.
“This particular example speaks to why there needs to be systemwide training on how to recognize antisemitism,” she said. The definition she prefers is the robust one that comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has been adopted or endorsed by 43 countries.
On Tuesday, the district superintendent, Rafael T. Alvarez, sent a letter to the community to announce that the map had been removed and that the New York Peace Institute, a conflict-resolution consultancy, had been contacted to help “find a way forward.’’ He stressed how long the map had been in use presumably without incident, but he apologized for the effect that it was having. District 15 was “committed to making sure our students feel safe and supported at all times,” he wrote, perhaps somewhat ambitiously. Toward that goal the district would review programming to make sure that it aligned with “core values.”
Parents looking for assurance that the Arab arts class would not be removed from the curriculum were left feeling anxious. “It would be devastating if the program were cut,” Lauren Katzman, the mother of a first grader at 261, told me. Last week, a broad group of parents, teachers and staff members issued a statement calling for protection of a program that honors the “diversity and Arab heritage of the Boerum Hill neighborhood.” More than 240 people had signed it.
Ms. Katzman was among 16 Jewish parents who drafted a separate letter a few days later in a similar vein, condemning “the recent vicious doxxing and harassment campaign against our teacher Ms. Rita Lahoud and her Arabic arts program.” The exposure and all the media intrusion had made many people fear for the safety of all children and teachers at 261. There were now police officers and news crews outside. Reporters had staked out Ms. Lahoud’s home, where she was photographed on the sidewalk.
More than most public schools in New York, P.S. 261 represents the “gorgeous mosaic” of David Dinkins’s famous construction, where children walk to school from public housing and $5 million brownstones, from Jewish, Christian and Muslim families. Much of Brooklyn’s Arab community has shifted south, toward Bay Ridge, but it remains a presence in Boerum Hill, especially along Atlantic Avenue.
It had been the goal of Ms. Lahoud — nearly everyone at the school calls her Ms. Rita — to bring some of that world into the classroom. By the end of any given year, she has taken her students to the Metropolitan Museum to look at Arabic art, administered temporary henna tattoos, taught them how to count and write their names in Arabic, introduced them to pita bread and shown them how to render olive trees in watercolor.
Years of budget tightening within the school system have made interdisciplinary classes like this — merging art, architecture and history across a region, the sort of thing routinely offered at private schools — unusual. P.S. 261 has been able to offer the program because of funding from the nonprofit Qatar Foundation, another aspect of the story that has come under fire in the press. Founded by members of the Qatari royal family, the foundation partners with a range of institutions around the United States including Georgetown and Northwestern Universities as well as the public school system in New Haven, Conn.
“Part of what drew us to 261 is that the principal was going to be creative and find ways to bring joy and culture into our kids’ lives,” Sarah Eisenstein, another parent, said. “It would be wonderful to live in a world where schools didn’t have to write a grant to get art or choose between things.”
Was it inevitable that the rancor upending college campuses would find its way into a Brooklyn primary school? In a place as diverse as P.S. 261, ideological conflict is not altogether surprising. But Ms. Eisenstein wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the disagreement.
“In the past we always were able to discuss and work through differences as a community,” she said. “This time it seems like someone from outside our community really wants to stir up the divisions of our larger society. But parents are really coming together to say, ‘That’s not happening here.’”